Change is difficult, it is uncomfortable and change for change’s sake is generally not a good idea. To ask a community to change key aspects of how they manage their Town affairs requires a compelling argument. This year Brookfield residents will have an opportunity on the November ballot to vote on 9 recommendations for changes to our Charter. Some are substantive, while others are more mundane. I believe all of them deserve support. While I acknowledge we are all not going to agree I hope that the Community will give careful and thoughtful consideration to each, weighing the advantages and disadvantages.
A brief explanation of the Charter Revision process:
Connecticut has a strong sense of local control and provides for communities to determine local rules and ordinances through the adoption of a Charter. The Town Charter is our “Constitution” providing the framework for how we set local policy. We are required to review the Charter periodically by the appointment of a Charter Revision Commission. This Commission was established by the Selectmen in 2011, comprised of nine members representing a broad spectrum of views and perspectives. The Commission conducted several public hearings and presented its findings to the Board of Selectmen. The Board of Selectmen gave feedback which the Commission considered before issuing its final report. The Board of Selectmen then had a public hearing on the recommendations and finally decided on the questions to be presented to the public. The Charter Revision Commission was unanimous in its recommendations to the Selectmen. And although the Selectmen did not agree on all the recommendations they did vote to send them all as recommended to the public for their vote.
In considering the recommendations we should understand the Town of Brookfield has an annual budget (excluding education) of just under $20 million; it employs approximately 125 people in functions that range from public health and safety to recreation. The Town employees are responsible for the maintenance of over $200 million worth of buildings and facilities including 725 acres of municipal land. In the last 40 years, when the Town Charter was first established, Brookfield has grown from a population of under 5,000 to over 16,000 today. In that context it is worth considering whether the changes proposed help manage the Town affairs in a more efficient manner with greater security and greater value for our tax dollars without sacrificing the popular desire for the people to continue to have the ultimate say in how our Town is run.
Our Current Form of Government: Brookfield has a Selectman / Town Meeting form of government and the recommended changes not only retain this but several recommendations give greater authority to the Town Meeting. The recommendations do not change Brookfield’s form of government. There is nothing in the recommendations that limits the authority of the Selectmen or the Town Meeting as it relates to budgets, spending, laying of taxes or making policy. And there is nothing in the recommendations that expands the role or functions of our Town government.
Question 1: Shall the Charter be amended to provide for a Town Manager to be hired and managed by the Board of Selectmen, while retaining the Town Meeting form of government?
The Charter currently lists over a dozen positions that the Town must hire. These include a Controller, Chief of Police, Town Attorney among others. The Charter did not always include these positions. For example; years ago the elected Treasurer maintained the books and paid the bills. At some point the Town’s people realized that, even though we had a very competent Treasurer, for the benefit and sustainability of the community the job of managing the Town’s finances had grown beyond the capability and scope of an elected position and required constancy and specialized skills of a trained professional. Even if today we were to elect a CPA as First Selectman, would we then consider we did not need the Controller?
As noted above, the Town has grown to a point where managing the day to day affairs of Town services; labor negotiations, personnel management, project management, economic development, has exceeded the expectations of a bi-annual election cycle. Why? Even when we elect someone with all the requisite skills, the term of office is inconsistent with a sustainable economic model. What company runs on a model of turning over their Chief Operations Officer every two years? And what of those times when we elect people who posses only some of the needed skills or in some cases none? And what of those decisions that are made for short term expediency of an election cycle, rather than consideration of the long term consequences? Some people have argued we do muddle through, or all we need is common sense, but at what cost? The consequences of decisions are not just short term or temporary.
One example of many; consider the changes to pension commitments Selectmen (no doubt with good intention) agreed to in 2005 without providing funding or the proper actuarial studies and the subsequent shortfall in our pension funds and you can see the consequences of a failure to consider or to understand the true impact over time of some of those decisions.
A professionally accredited Town Manager, under the oversight of the Board of Selectmen would have the “long view”. He can bring consistency to projects which could save thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. This would assure challenges, like the drainage problems plaguing Meadowbrook Manner, do not get forgotten or pushed aside in the transition from one administration to another.
We do not have to rely solely on anecdotal evidence to reach this conclusion. Refer to “Financial Performance in Connecticut’s Municipalities: A Comparison of Manager, Mayor-Council and selectmen Forms of Government” (copy available upon request) that “assesses the relative performance of the council-manager versus the two predominant political models of government in Connecticut: Mayor-Council and Selectman forms of government.”
Will it cost more money to have a Town Manager? The Charter currently requires the First Selectman to be a full time employee of the Town and provides for the annual budget process to set a salary. The proposal removes the requirement that he is a full time employee and one can assume that a salary will be less than the current amount. How much the difference would be is speculation. The recommendation also removes the requirement that the other Selectmen receive compensation tied to that of the First Selectman. However, the bigger issue is what value the constancy and professional management expertise would bring in savings to our annual operations, particularly in labor negotiations, management of large projects and in shepherding development that would expand the tax base and lower overall property taxes.
Is it Big Government? I believe that when people take issue with “Big Government” they are referring to one of two things. First is government moving into new areas that are beyond what they consider appropriate, taking on new responsibilities that are best left to the individual. The second concern is cost. The Town Manager position does not add to any Government function. So the answer to the first concern is no, it is not Big Government. As to cost, some have speculated that a Town Manager will need additional staff, space or other items that add cost. Nothing in the proposals requires this. These are not charter provisions; they are subject to the annual budget process that our elected representatives review and present to the voters for their approval. As to other issues of cost, I mentioned them above and I leave it to each individual to judge if the position brings added value to justify itself.
Does having a Town Manager reduce public input into management of Town affairs? The Town Manager will be an employee of the Town and answerable to the elected Board of Selectmen. As an “at will” employee he can be removed by the Selectmen at anytime. While the Town Manager will have direct authority over the day-to-day operations, he operates under the direction of the Board of Selectmen and the Board has the authority to overrule the Manager in all hiring and termination decisions. The Board of Selectmen set policy, review and propose budgets to the Board of Finance and continue to operate as the legislative body of the Town in every way. The Town Manger is responsible to implement the policies as set by the Board.
Question 2: Shall the Charter be amended to provide for a five (5) member Board of Selectmen?
Brookfield’s charter lists about two dozen Boards and Commission. In addition there are other committees formed through ordinance and resolution for purposes not foreseen in Charter. Many of these Boards are elected while others are appointed by the Board of Selectmen. These volunteer commissions have responsibility for areas as diverse as youth activities and advocating on behalf of our senior’s needs. They have oversight and enforcement responsibilities for public safety, education and land use regulations. Only three have fewer than five members. These are the Ethics Commission, the Board of Assessment Appeals and the Board of Selectmen. While the former review appeals in their respective spheres of activities, they have no policy authority.
The Board of Selectmen is the legislative body of our Town. In addition it has responsibility for the oversight of the delivery of all Municipal services. It is all about policy and setting a direction for our Community. The recommendation to expand representation on this Board from three to five is consistent with increasing the people’s voice in the affairs of their town. Having more voices participating in the key decisions affecting our Town can only enhance the quality of those decisions. Including additional representation insures greater deliberation, transparency, and input to decisions and oversight of Town departments and budgets.
Is it Big Government? The addition of two people to the Board of Selectmen adds no new functions or expansion of responsibilities and as noted above adds no cost.
Does this lead to secret meetings or lack of transparency? Some have suggested that having a five member Board will lead to members having secret meetings. Let’s be clear, right now the law allows members of the same party to meet in caucus regardless of whether or not there is a quorum. Board members of different political affiliations may meet as long as it does not create a quorum. This goes on in various sub-committees of many other Boards, including the Boards of Finance, Education and Zoning to name a few. Expanding the number of members of the Board of Selectmen does nothing other than afford its members the same opportunities to discuss issues that other Boards currently have. We should expect that this would lead to greater communication and cooperation and again better decision making. If the issue raised by those who object on these grounds were serious one has to wonder why there is no hue and cry to reduce the number of members on these other Boards. And let’s not forget, all votes on all decisions must be made in a public meeting called for that purpose. Most of the decisions of the Selectmen are subject to public hearing and all are subject to overrule by Town Meeting. These other Boards have regulatory and policy authority that is not subject to any other scrutiny, yet they seem to function with full transparency and efficiency with more than three members.
Question 3: Shall the Charter be amended to provide for the election of the First Selectman separately from the other Selectmen?
Under the current charter provisions, there are three Selectmen; however we only get to vote for two. This is the only time in municipal elections when we do not get to vote on all the open positions. This is in part because the loser of the First Selectman race gets put in the pool for the other two positions. The highest two vote getters of those running for Selectman and the loser(s) of the First Selectman race are elected to the remaining positions. The only exception to this is that we may not end up with three members of the same political party. This often confuses people as to how the loser ended up on the Board.
In addition to ending this confusion, we should separate these positions because the role of the First Selectman, as Chief Executive of the Town is considerably different from the other Selectmen whose primary function is legislative and oversight.
Question 4: Shall the Charter be amended to allow the Board of Selectmen to place “non-binding” questions on the ballot for the town and education portions of the budget; the questions shall be limited to the following responses, “Too Low”, “Adequate” or “Too High”?
For many years the Town did include questions of “Too High” or “Too Low” on the budget ballot. More recent interpretations of our Charter and State Statute have led us to the understanding that we may not put these questions on the ballot unless our Charter specifically allows for it. This question seeks to correct that oversight.
Questions 5: Shall the Charter be amended to modify the number of electors required to sign a petition on a referendum to overrule the Board of Selectmen, or to initiate an Ordinance?
Throughout the charter there is the ability to petition to move issues to either a Town Meeting or to a machine vote. This question seeks to bring consistency to the number of electors it takes for these various initiatives to 4% of electors. In some cases 4% is greater than what it currently takes and some argue that this reduces public input. Brookfield is a community of 16,000 with just over 10,000 registered electors. While it is true 4% is greater, in some cases, than the current requirements, it is also more representative of the total population and sets a higher bar so that a few may not disrupt or obstruct the efficient running of the Town operations.
Question 6: Shall the Charter be amended to provide for the right to petition actions of the Board of Finance or transfer to a special town meeting or referendum relative to special appropriations?
This addresses an issue that has not come up recently but is, in my opinion, an oversight in our current charter. Under the current provisions of the Charter, when a request for some funding goes to the Board of Finance, regardless of the level of public support, the Board of Finance can veto it. Presently there is no right of the public to appeal this decision. This change will give the public the right to petition a request for funding to a Town wide referendum.
Question 7: Shall the Charter be amended to allow the Board of Selectmen to approve special appropriations in an amount not to exceed $50,000?
The current limit on transfers, set decades ago when the Town budget was $5 million, is $20,000. This update is meant to keep pace with more reasonable current budget limits and encourage greater efficiency.
Question 8: Shall the Charter be amended to provide that if the number of electors present at the annual Town Meeting equals at least 4% of the registered town electors, then the annual Town Meeting may change (increase or decrease) the Town Budget or Board of Education budget?
Currently the charter provides that when there are at least 4% of electors at the Annual Town Meeting they may reduce line items in the budget by majority vote. That does not change. This change empowers the Town Meeting to also add to line items, provided they may not add new items and they may not exceed that which was approved by our elected representatives on either the Board of Selectmen or the Board of Education.
For years, when the annual budget was sent to referendum, the Annual Town Meeting was called to hear information on the budget, but the only action they could take was to vote on the date of the referendum. While this is a Town Meeting form of Government in name, the inability to actually take action at the Town Meeting on the most important issue we deal with each year, the budget truly undermined the real meaning of a Town Meeting. The change to the charter in 2007 broadened the authority of the Town Meeting by giving it the power to split the vote between the Town and Education budgets and to take limited action on the actual amount to be presented. This change continues that trend to increase the authority of the Town Meeting to make it something more meaningful. If we truly believe in giving power to the public and in a meaningful Town Meeting form of Government then this change should be embraced by all.
Question 9: Shall the Charter be amended to make certain technical changes?
While there's a lot here, this group of amendments in no way changes operations or control of aspects of our town. These changes are technical in nature — clarifications, updates to reflect current practice, word changes for accuracy/clarity. For example clarification of when and how the Selectmen are sworn in, Changes to lists of Commissions and positions to conform with current practice, Extending the time in which the Board of Finance has to respond to requests.