“Just Matt” is how Mayor Nicholson sees his Seymour job

Even though Seymour Mayor Matt Nicholson sat right there among them, frequent talk at the Board of Public Works and Safety meeting referred to “The mayor said” or “the mayor” did this or that.

The same occurred at the impact board meeting. And it happens all of the time at other meetings.

The third-person commentaries almost come off like “his majesty said” and make Nicholson chuckle. Same as when someone calls out “Mr. Mayor” from afar. It takes a moment to realize “Are you talking to me?”

Oh yes, they are. Since Jan. 1, 2020, Nicholson has been mayor of Seymour, but still sometimes, he must remind himself he is the elected leader of the city’s 21,000 people.

“I’m just Matt,” Nicholson said. And at 44, he has been “just Matt” far longer than he has been mayor.

“Mayor Matt” takes some getting used to, as does being talked about in the third person.

“Weird, isn’t it?” he said.

Whatever anyone calls him, Nicholson has a one-of-a-kind job in Seymour, an assignment chock full of meetings with other officials, a sometimes ceremonial position that breeds invitations to multitudes of events of every type and one which as a representative of the people makes the people think he should rush to the telephone to hear them out, though it is not humanly possible to cram 28 hours of work into 24-hour days.

Nicholson, a lifetime resident of Seymour who graduated from Seymour High School, Ivy Tech Community College in Columbus and clown school, too, is casual enough to wear polo shirts to work (with a City of Seymour logo on the front) while keeping changes of shirts, sport coats and ties in his office for more serious business.

But no one who presents a proposal, especially one that comes with a price tag, should doubt Nicholson’s focus on city legislation and budgets. If someone teased him about being a cheapskate, he would consider it a compliment.

“I am a tightwad fiscally,” Nicholson said.

7 a.m.

A late April work day in the life of the mayor began at 7 a.m. On this day, Nicholson had three meetings at city hall scheduled around a fourth at lunch capped by a 6 p.m. outdoor session that was the first in a series of Curbside Chats to be held monthly during the spring and summer.

Nicholson has his dark hair cropped short with flecks of gray creeping in and a tightly trimmed beard and a mustache. He has a good-sized tattoo on his right bicep reading “B-2.” It commemorates his old bicycle shop and was a gift from his daughters. It cannot be seen unless sleeves are rolled up.

At meetings, due to his title, participants defer to him. He tries to keep the atmosphere light but wants others to provide him information in direct, understandable deliveries so time isn’t wasted.

City hall has enough space for Nicholson to head to three different conference rooms for meetings without ducking into his office for more than a moment at a time.

Elected officials are pulled in many directions at once, and Nicholson said there’s always “whatever pops up,” too. He acknowledges an administrator’s day usually includes 25% of time spent on surprises.

After being elected, Nicholson took a certified public management course about time management through Ball State University. No college course could have prepared Nicholson to govern during the COVID-19 pandemic. That is why just 2¼ years into a four-year term, Nicholson can say “it feels like 10 years” since he became mayor. He already knows, though, he will run for re-election.

The meetings Nicholson had lined up dealt with rudimentary business, from progress reports on projects underway to complaints from citizens disgruntled about something — big or small. The impact board at 10 a.m. was not must-see TV unless a spectator has an addiction to C-SPAN, and no residents watched this nitty-gritty of government unfold.

What was evident during discussion was that Mayor Matt seemed to know each nook and cranny of the community. If an intersection was mentioned, he could pinpoint what was there. If a location was mentioned he couldn’t picture, he had visited to be prepared for debate. All of those four-plus decades living in Seymour acted as a storehouse of background.

“It just comes from being around here,” Nicholson said later.

At this meeting and others, he said his philosophy in dealing with department workers was simple: He wanted to know what they knew so he would not be blindsided by a constituent.

“I want to know if I’m going to hear about it at the gas station or the grocery store,” Nicholson said.

That could amount to a mountain of minutiae. There is such a thing as a topic being too minimal for public consumption. When the phone rings at city hall and someone asks to speak to the mayor, they are not put straight through. Nicholson’s administrative assistant, Jane Hays, intercepts the calls. She is the gatekeeper of Nicholson’s official time.

Hays listens to what’s on the caller’s mind and often, “I say, ‘He’s in a meeting. I’ll see what I can do.’” Sometimes, she sends them to a city department, which may be able to provide an answer.

“A lot of people just want to be heard,” she said.

Other times, when there is a break in his schedule, Nicholson may sit at the front desk and answer calls.

“I think some people are shocked when they walk in (and see him there),” Hays said.

When people show up to vote, how they cast their ballot may not depend on political policies but remembering common courtesy.

10 a.m.

Mayor Matt’s first meeting was at 10 a.m. in the Johnson Conference Room. At 11 a.m., Nicholson was off to the city council chambers for the board of public works and safety meeting, which had a wide-ranging agenda, including granting permits for a food truck license renewal, handicap parking place designations in front of residences and approval of festival special events.

He and the rest of the board gave the OK to the parking spaces and the other requests. There were a dozen or so people in the audience, but it was a noncontroversial agenda, and no one objected to anything.

Nicholson presented service awards to two employees who had completed five years of work for Seymour and another for someone with 15 years in. Seymour is budgeted for 220 positions, but with 213 on the job, there are openings.

“Employees are scarce these days,” Nicholson said.

This agenda led to quick adjournment, leaving time for the mayor to schmooze with board members and others.

Next up was a noon business lunch about transportation matters.

An avid, longtime bicyclist who owned a bicycle shop for 19 years, Nicholson knows about that form of transportation. He also is trying to adhere to a fitness routine requiring monthly quotas of walking and bicycling. It was the end of the month and he worried he might fall slightly short of his goals.

He and lunch partners walked to Brewskies Downtown, though that covered barely a quarter of a mile. Nicholson may have saved a few calories ordering applesauce instead of fries to accompany his bacon barbecue burger but also got another quarter of a mile of walking in on the way back to the office.

The 1:30 p.m. session was with parks and recreation officials. Nicholson is a parks guy. He and his wife, Zabrina, of 22 years (but dating going back to high school) and their three daughters, Jozie, 20, Matte, 18, and Sallie, 14, have taken camping trips, and there is an affinity for bicycling.

The mayor inherited his affiliation with the Republican Party from his parents. He is very much conservative on fiscal matters, including in his personal life, but has more of a live-and-let-live outlook on social issues with a viewpoint that government should not intrude in personal lives as long as nobody is getting hurt.

When he operated the bicycle shop, Nicholson played devil’s advocate, for amusement taking a Republican position arguing with Democrats, taking a Democratic position arguing with Republicans and sometimes adopting a Libertarian outlook. Nicholson said when elected, a Democrat asked him, “When did you switch parties?”

The park and rec meeting revolved more around golf and pickleball than bicycling, but bicycling is as much a way of life as a sport for Nicholson. Some days, he takes the short ride to city hall. But he has done 24-hour races, accumulating 208.8 miles, and in a 12-hour race, he stayed on the bike for all but two minutes and compiled 175 miles. He has also competed in RAIN, the Ride Across Indiana.

Four meetings into the day by 2:15 p.m., Nicholson had listened to reports on numerous issues, none of them explosive enough in nature to bring a crowd to city hall but all requiring governmental steps to become reality. They ranged from minor permits of approval on parking to checking on potentially dangerous intersections for traffic.

“This is the stuff we deal with every day,” the mayor said.

Later in the day

It’s the stuff Nicholson doesn’t deal with every day, however, that can be the most fun. Turns out that when you become mayor, you get invitations to all kinds of events. Some are somber, but others are lighthearted.

“I try to have a sense of humor,” Nicholson said.

After all, this is a guy who completed a 10-week clown school class and has performed at senior citizen centers and schools. It was noted publicly admitting to being a clown and being in politics is a mix asking for trouble, and he said, “I know.”

Recently, thinking back to his teen years when he played drums, Nicholson decided he missed it. As someone who keeps an eagle eye on public spending and applies the same standard to his own frugality, he spent $100 for a drum set.

Defining the purchase as the last time he splurged, Nicholson said, “I got a good deal.”

Nicholson said he believes it is important to get kids thinking about civic issues early. After he spoke to fifth-graders at St. John’s Sauers Lutheran School, the entire class requested his autograph. That didn’t happen at RAIN.

“You are the future,” he tells schoolchildren.

When he walks the half-mile back-and-forth to work, he either initiates or receives about 25 waves from passing cars. Someone might think he was as big a local celebrity as John Mellencamp.

Through his local newspaper column or in conversation, when he recommends a book, he is startled that so many others want to check it out.

He threw out the first pitch at a Special Olympics Indiana Jackson County softball game.

Granted a position of honor at the Oktoberfest stein hoisting contest, Nicholson tapped a wooden keg of beer for the masses.

Some mayoral tasks are less drudgery and more purely for laughs, more a treat than the workdays that begin at 5 a.m. and run until 11 p.m. Those days, he doesn’t get home for dinner.

Taking a break

The mayor did go home in late afternoon before his first Curbside Chat at Burkhart Plaza. He walked back downtown, picking up some bonus mileage in his exercise quest, but after debating putting on slightly more formal attire, he merely pulling on a light jacket over his polo with the temperature dropping.

Nicholson had no idea what to expect from his stint on the corner of Chestnut Street and the railroad tracks, but came earlier than 6 p.m. and sat down on one of the large swings to wait for the public.

Only most of the public took the night off. Just three people showed to discuss his vision of making “Seymour the best Seymour it can be” with Nicholson and three city employees who joined him by 7 p.m. There will be one chat a month into September.

Another citizen happened by. Seymour High School student Chase Vogel was having his senior pictures taken by a friend, and Nicholson accommodatingly got out of the way. Then someone asked if Vogel would like to have his photo shoot with the mayor.

As a surprise, as cameras clicked, the mayor scooped up the shorter and lighter Vogel into his arms sideways much like a groom would carry his bride across the threshold.

Then raindrops began falling on Nicholson’s head. “Just Matt,” Mayor Matt, began his half-mile stroll home, prepared to wave to passersby before he got soaked.

Mayor Matt Nicholson’s Curbside Chat schedule 

6 p.m. today at Shields Park Nicholson and Building Commissioner Jeremy Gray

11:30 a.m. June 13 at the John Mellencamp mural Nicholson and Jarin Gladstein, director of Seymour Water Pollution Control

6 p.m. July 12 at the Gaiser Park shelter house Nicholson and the Seymour police chief

7 a.m. Aug. 18 at Crossroads Community Park Nicholson and Seymour Fire Chief Brad Lucas

6 p.m. Sept. 14 at Westside Park Nicholson and Stacy Findley, director of the Seymour Parks and Recreation Department

For information, contact January Rutherford, the city’s public information specialist, at 812-216-5644 or by email at [email protected].