Government People

Getting Personal: West Hartford Town Manager Matt Hart

Matt Hart (second from right) posing with his family in April at the official announcement of his appointment as West Hartford town manager. From left: Sophie (13), Kara, Matt, and Claire (10). Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)
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Matt Hart officially took over as West Hartford town manager on July 31, and we wanted to help residents get to know him outside of his Town Hall office.

By Ronni Newton

The Town Council officially named Matt Hart as West Hartford’s new town manager in April – the successor to Ron Van Winkle who announced last fall that he would retire on June 30, 2017 – and along with the news of the appointment came a description of Hart’s past experience and excellent qualifications for the job, and a resume with details about his education and experience.

Before coming to West Hartford, Hart was town manager in Mansfield, CT, a position he had held since 2006. He began his employment with Mansfield in 2000 as assistant to the town manager and was promoted to assistant town manager in 2002 before being chosen for the lead role after a national search to replace Martin Berliner, who retired after 27 years in the position. 

As Mansfield town manager, Hart played a key role in the development of Storrs Center, a “mixed-use, New Urbanism project” located adjacent to UConn’s main campus.

In addition to his extensive experience in Mansfield, Hart also worked as assistant to the Windsor, CT, town manager from 1997-2000. He also has private sector experience and is a veteran of the U.S. Army (1987-90) and U.S. Army National Guard (1990-94).

Hart has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the State University of New York at Pottsdam and both a JD and master’s in public affairs (MPA) from UConn.

But beyond his official credentials, who is the man who has the awesome responsibility of being West Hartford’s CEO?

We-Ha.com recently sat down with Hart to find out.

Growing Up

Hart grew up in western Connecticut. His parents divorced when he was young and he lived in Woodbury during his high school years.

“My main sport was wrestling. I was a captain my senior year,” Hart said. “I also participated in my school’s outdoor program, which offered activities such as rock-climbing and hiking. I’ve dropped the rock-climbing, but kept up with the hiking,” he said.

He started college at Tulane, but couldn’t afford to go back for his second year so he went to work.

“I worked a variety of trade jobs for a couple of years,” Hart said. He painted houses, worked for a tree service, did home energy audits. He said he learned a lot about life, but didn’t earn enough money to fund his education.

Hart joined the U.S. Army and then was able to take advantage of the Army College Fund. He was on active duty from 1987-90 with the 10th Mountain Division in Fort Drum, near Watertown, NY, and was then a member of the New York National Guard from 1990-94.

Stationed near SUNY Pottsdam, which he said was best known for “turning out music teachers,” Hart enrolled and was able to finish his undergraduate degree in political science and history in 1992. “It was quite a difference from New Orleans to being 30 miles from the Canadian border,” he said.

“I was a non-traditional student,” he said, a 25-year-old sophomore with a very different perspective.

He returned to Connecticut and briefly worked in the family business, a tool and die company in Oxford, before deciding to further his education.

Choosing a Career

It wasn’t until after Hart was in graduate school that he decided on a career in town management. “I couldn’t decide if I wanted to practice law, go into higher education, academics, government work.”

He had decided to apply to law schools with dual degree programs, and in 1995, his second year at UConn, he had an internship with then Windsor town manager Albert Ilg – who actually now lives in West Hartford! “Interning got me hooked,” Hart said.

He says of his chosen career: “At the end of the day, it’s all about making a community a better place to work in, play in, and learn in.”

Spare Time

“My wife Kara and I, we’ve got two great kids and we try to spend as much time as possible with them and their activities,” Hart said.

Sophie, 13, and Claire, 10, both like softball, and Hart has volunteered as an assistant coach.

Claire is really into nature and they enjoy hiking with the family dog.

“Molly is our first golden-doodle,” Hart said. “I have always been partial to labs and goldens, but don’t miss the shedding.”

Hart also enjoys bicycling, hiking throughout New England, traveling, and reading.

In response to the “beach or mountains” question, Hart said he likes both, “as well as cities with some history.”

Noting that he was slightly embarrassed to admit it, Hart added, “Whenever we travel I’ve got to see the city hall.”

If at all possible, he likes to look around inside, too. He said that Montreal’s city hall has been the most impressive one he’s seen so far.

“I’m a bit of a geek about my profession. I like studying the history of it, comparative history, and analyzing how local governments vary throughout the U.S. and in comparison to the rest of the world.”

Long weekends might include visits to family in Vermont or a trip to New York City. “For longer vacations, we like Canada’s Maritime provinces, Prince Edward Island in particular. We’re looking forward taking our girls out west and to Europe.”

TV

Hart said he is most likely to watch sports. “I did get a kick out of ‘Parks & Rec,’ because the local government stories hit so close to home,” he said.

“Occasionally I will get into a series, such as ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ or ‘Downton Abbey.’ I thought ‘The Night Manager’ with Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie was very good. And I’m all over anything Ken Burns puts together.”

Sports Teams

Red Sox and the Huskies. He’s chiefly a basketball, baseball, and softball fan, but is happy to see Randy Edsall back at the helm of UConn’s football team.

“It was really gratifying when Coach Edsall returned and said he saw Storrs Center as a game-changer,” Hart said. A lack of off-campus amenities was the number one reason many people decided against UConn, and Hart is proud of the role Storrs Center has had in changing that.

Movies

“I like a variety of genres, especially stories that chronicle the human condition,” Hart said, listing “Brooklyn,” “Life is Beautiful,” and “Cinema Paradiso” as a few examples. Hart said he also loves the classics, especially anything with Bogart.

Hart said most of his recent movie watching has been with his kids, with some recent favorites including “Rogue One,” “Zootopia,” “Eddie the Eagle,” and “McFarland, USA.”

“‘Wonder Woman’ was awesome,” he said.

Books

Historical fiction is Hart’s favorite genre, and he’s recently been reading several of Edward Rutherford’s books. “I’m about to start ‘Paris,’ and I’ve got ‘London’ on my list.”

He also enjoyed Jeff Shaara’s series on the Vicksburg campaign, and “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr.

Music

Hart said he likes a combination of genres and artists, with Diana Krall, Alison Krause, and the Wailin’ Jennys among his favorites.

“My wife has also gotten me into chamber music as she loves to sing,” Hart said, but he confessed that his ear isn’t that sophisticated.

“Every once in a while I need to get my 80s alternative fix and jam to U2, Sinead O’Connor, the Cult and others. And, I like some classic country, such as Alan Jackson, Willie, and George Strait. I guess I’m showing my age!” Hart, 52, added.

New Home

Hart and his family moved into their new home on Ridgebrook Drive on July 12. West Hartford’s charter requires the town manager to be a resident, and when Hart started house hunting he received a lot of conflicting advice about the merits of living in the Hall vs. Conard school district.

“I didn’t realize there was such a rivalry,” he said. “A friendly rivalry.” He will have a little bit of time before fully experiencing that rivalry as Sophie will be at Sedgwick this fall and Claire will be at Duffy.

Hart said they had “downsized” when moving to their last home, and were living in a suburban neighborhood near the UConn campus – on a half-acre lot, which would be a lot of land here. Instead they chose an area with a distinctly West Hartford feel.

“Coming here I wanted to be relatively close to downtown, in a walkable neighborhood. That’s a tremendous feature,” he said of the sidewalks in his new neighborhood less than a mile from the Center.

Hart and his wife had briefly lived in West Hartford while he was a law and graduate student 22 years ago, working on his dual JD/Masters in Public Administration degree, and at that time he explored the town by bike, something he plans to do again. “I was really impressed with the neighborhood planning, how the town maintained its infrastructure.”

Hart said that back then, coming to appreciate how West Hartford had evolved, on a grid system connected to neighborhood access to streetcar lines, really cemented his choice to enter the field of town management.

“West Hartford was certainly an aspiration for me,” Hart said. “West Hartford has a long tradition of sound municipal management with a strong reputation.” For years he had considered former town managers Barry Feldman and Ron Van Winkle as mentors.

What Else

Hart said he’s a big fan of leadership institutes. He’s attended one at the University of Virginia and another in Gettysburg where participants had the opportunity to walk the battlefield and draw lessons to the the world today.

“There are more parallels than you think,” he said. “The importance of planning, the extent to which you can take care of people, the resources available to help people best do their jobs.”

When Mansfield geared up for Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 (which as opposed to West Hartford was more devastating than the October snowstorm later that year), and got the emergency operations center running, Hart said it was a transformative moment for the town and for him as town manager.

“When something like that happens, despite the suffering and property loss at the same time it’s rewarding to see how the community pulls together,” Hart said. The municipal departments worked together, the librarians ran the shelter, UConn provided food.

The “silver lining” was to see how the community pulled together.

Regarding his new job, “I’m really excited to be here,” Hart said.

“Things in Mansfield were going great, and I loved the community but it’s important to push myself, to take on something news.”

West Hartford has so much character, diversity, and an understanding that while the quality of life is high and the school system has a lot to offer, there are critical issues surrounding the budget, affordability, and sustainability that will need to be addressed.

Coming from Connecticut, Hart said he knows what he’s getting himself into regarding the budget.

“I’m excited to take this on, to work with staff, elected officials, and the community at large to ensure the town remains a great option for our children and grand children,” Hart said.

“My objective is to continue the town’s tradition of excellent municipal management and to work with my colleagues to implement the vision and the goals set by the town council and the community.”

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