There has been a great deal of discussion about the recommendations of the Charter Revision Commission (CRC) and the nine questions resulting from their deliberations that will appear on the ballot in the upcoming election. The CRC recommendations that have generated the greatest interest and have emerged as the most controversial are the following:
- Hiring a Town Manager
- Increasing the Board of Selectmen from 3 to 5 members
QUESTION # 1: Shall the Charter be amended to provide for a Town Manager…
The Town Manager would be hired by the Board of Selectmen (BOS) and serve as the chief operational officer of the Town. According to proponents, under this new form of government, the Town Manager would free up the BOS to focus more on policy rather than on “day-to-day” operations. The Town Manager position would reportedly bring a level of consistency and expertise that may not always be a certainty under Brookfield’s current from of government. CRC member, Ron Jaffe, in an advocacy piece recently posted on the Patch, asserts that a Town Manager would be “an accredited professional who has the education and experience to manage organizations, interface with state and federal government, (and) provide consistency when executing multi-year economic development plans, etc.”
Mr. Jaffe also expressed concerns about “the pool of candidates” that we have available for the office of First Selectman, and seemed to compare Brookfield’s municipal elections to a “lottery”, which I suspect would offend a large swath of the electorate that makes a concerted effort to know the issues and the candidates and does not see our biennial vote for the Board of Selectmen and other offices as a game of chance.
Is there not a recurring theme here, implying a lack of confidence—if not a whiff of disdain—for the individuals who have stepped up to the plate and served as First Selectman—effectively and admirably for the most part? The implication seems to be that, yes, they may have muddled through, but now we need a “professional”.
Brookfield recently survived a rogue First Selectmen for two years and a great deal of the credit goes to the other members of the BOS at that time, who, in spite of taking heat from their respective parties as to why they were “propping up this guy rather than letting him fall on his face”, did yeomen’s work to ensure that Town government continued to move forward on an even keel. These two individuals are indicative of the competence, integrity and commitment to service that has characterized the Brookfield BOS throughout its history.
Adding a Town Manager would represent a profound change in the structure of Brookfield’s government and is not to be taken lightly. Organizational change of this magnitude is generally the result of some negative experience or evidence of adverse outcomes or consequences that provide an impetus for change.
Where is that impetus? There does not appear to be any reason—compelling or otherwise—to undermine and diminish the office of First Selectman through the addition of a Town Manager.
And what about cost?
Looking around the State of Connecticut, and Fairfield County in particular, it is safe to assume that a Town Manager position would probably command a salary in the $150,000 range, and coupled with a benefit package, the total expenditure would be closer to $200,000—and that’s without factoring in the cost of support staff. And before long, there would likely be budget requests for an assistant and additional staff.
If Brookfield voters were to approve the addition of $200,000 or more to the Town budget, they would be much more inclined to put these monies toward the hiring of additional teachers, police officers, improving our recreational facilities, or other direct and tangible benefit, rather than adding another level of management bureaucracy at Town Hall.
Under our current system, Brookfield voters get to hire or fire the First Selectman every two years by exercising their option at the polls. The CRC would like us to believe that the Town Manager would serve at the pleasure of the BOS and could be fired “at will”. Yet, in today’s litigious environment, that is a naïve assertion, as a Town Manager finding himself or herself in that situation would hire a competent attorney to challenge the dismissal and the Town could find itself in a protracted and high-cost lawsuit and a likely expensive contract buyout.
The CRC asserts that the addition of a Town Manager maintains the Town Meeting form of government, but upon further scrutiny, it is not hard to see this as an incremental step—albeit a major one—in the sure and steady slide to a form of government that minimizes and limits the direct access, influence and power of Brookfield voters in determining the future direction of the Town.
QUESTION # 2: Shall the Charter be amended to provide for a five (5) member Board of Selectmen…
The CRC argument for the move to a five-member Board of Selectmen is that it would provide for more representative government and reflect the fact that with 16,000 residents, Brookfield is a much larger town than when the three-member BOS was first established.
At first blush, the move to increase the BOS from three to five members sounds reasonable. However, such a move presents a potentially troubling aspect by increasing the quorum necessary to conduct official business from the current two to three members. As such, two members, including the First Selectman and a Selectman—regardless of political affiliation—could discuss Town business privately or on the phone and away from the public eye since by not establishing a quorum, the meeting would not be deemed “official” and would not be subject to freedom-of-information (FOI) access.
By maintaining a three-member BOS, Brookfield residents are assured that all matters under the jurisdiction of the BOS must be conducted in public since any meeting would, by definition, include at least two BOS members, i.e., a quorum. Having served on the BOS, this admittedly can prove inconvenient and present some frustrating moments. I believe I even quipped one day that “this is no way to run a business”. But this is not private enterprise, and the public trust must be safeguarded regardless of the sometimes seemingly stilted and inconvenient process.
It should also be noted that the move to increase the BOS from three to five members has been presented as a ballot question in two previous elections: 1997 and 2007. The proposed change was overwhelmingly rejected by Brookfield voters in both instances.
In conclusion, it seems rather ironic that while the move across much of the country is for smaller, leaner and more transparent government, these two recommendations from the CRC, if approved, would take Brookfield in precisely the opposite direction.
Art Kerley, a former Selectman, is a member of the Planning Commission. He was recently appointed as an alternate on the Brookfield Republican Town Committee.