Let me start by saying that I endorse the proposed Charter Revision changes. These reasonable and important modifications would improve the management and governance of our town while retaining the Town Meeting form of government. These proposed revisions were worked on, researched, and developed by people you know — dedicated community members who worked for a year and a half to develop recommendations they unanimously endorsed.
Brookfield's Republican Town Committee (BTRC) has taken a very public stance opposing all proposed Charter Revision changes. Their statement to this effect has been on their website for months. I suspect this is in fact an overstatement — I'm not sure that anyone really opposes the idea of allowing advisory questions to be included in budget referendums (Ballot Question # 4).
But the BRTC has been quite vocal from the time the Charter Revision Commission was established that they opposed some of the larger changes the Commission was considering. I was honored to be on the 9-member Charter Revision Commission. I have rarely worked with a group of detail oriented, dedicated, conscientious volunteers who came with varying perspectives but who worked collaboratively to come to unanimous consensus on what to present to the Town. Our deliberations were respectful, our research thorough, our discussions non-partisan, our meetings open and transparent. And our recommendations are worth understanding.
But right now, I'd like to focus on the two questions the BRTC specifically discusses.
Question #1: Addition of Town Manager
The BTRC says voters should hire and fire the person running town government every 2 years. What is being proposed is that the position of First Selectman remains, but that the operational functions be turned over to an accredited professional who has the education and experience to manage organizations, interface with state and federal government, provide consistency when executing multi-year economic development plans, etc. The proposed change creates an operational position — but keeps policy decisions where it currently exists — with the Board of Selectmen.
The BTRC believes that voters are doing a great job of hiring and firing individuals to run day to day operations of our town. I certainly have faith in voters. My concerns, however, go to the variability of the pool of candidates we actually have to vote on every 2 years. If you were investing in a $20-million private business, would you hold a lottery every 2 years to see who would manage your investment or would you hire a trained professional who had the necessary skills? While I applaud anyone who puts themselves up for election, the fact is that our First Selectmen have had varying levels of experience (or lack of experience) with finances, contract negotiation, municipal construction, public health, etc. It is also true that far more municipalities are moving to inclusion of a town manager rather than away from one. If you want to understand a bit more about Town Managers, look at the association website: icma.org
The BTRC says that it is a well documented fact that towns with town managers experience a drop in voter turnout. The Commission looked into this claim. One of the assets the Commission had was a WestConn student whose research showed no cause and effect relationship between having a Town Manager and smaller voter turnout. My own observation is that — particularly in local elections — turnout is high when there's a controversy, so low turnouts could reasonably be the result of voter satisfaction.
As for the town's ability to get rid of a Town Manager, if we sign an at-will contract we can terminate the Town Manager's contract at any time (and at-will contracts appear to be standard). The statement that it would be difficult and expensive to get rid of a town manager simply does not reflect what I learned while on the Commission. Simply put, the Town Manager would serve at the pleasure of the Board of Selectmen.
Question #2: Expand Board of Selectmen to 5 members (currently 3)
Opposition to this proposed revision, quite frankly, makes no sense to me. In a town of 17,000 people, our current Board of Selectmen allows as few as 2 individuals (on a split vote) to make policy decisions. Astounding. To me, the best argument to expand the Board of Selectmen (BOS) to 5 is that additional perspectives and backgrounds would enhance discussions and lead to better decisions for the Town.
The BTRC says that a 5 member board would promote secretive town government. Let's understand the realities of where we are right now. Current FOI (Freedom of Information) law prohibits a quorum (a majority of board members) from discussing town business as that would constitute a meeting, and meetings need to be noticed (announced in advance and posted) and open to the public. The only exception to this is that members of a political party can meet as a caucus to discuss issues. So for the current Board of Selectmen, 2 members of a political party can talk but there can be no discussion across party lines.
Several observations here.
First — based on numbers, members of the Board of Education (BOE) and Board of Finance (BOF) DO have the opportunity currently to have discussions across party lines. So this recommendation would provide BOS members with the same opportunity that BOE and BOF members already have. But more importantly, understand that political caucuses do take place right now. I am not saying that anything is wrong with this — members of a party have the right to meet and agree on strategy. But I don't hear complaints that these current caucuses promote secretive government. Remember that what's being proposed in fact expands the potential for discussion beyond political affiliation. How can this be a bad thing?
The BTRC says that expansion from 3 to 5 Selectmen will increase the size and cost of government. If adding 2 citizen representatives to the Board of Selectmen is an expansion of government, I'm all for it. As for cost, one of the recommendations of the Commission (included in Question #1: C4-13) is the elimination from the Charter of any requirement that Selectmen be paid, leaving all decisions on payment (whether to pay, how much to pay) to be made during our annual budget process. This proposal in fact provides the town more flexibility than our current Charter. But it also reflects the Commissions belief that the Board of Selectmen could be all volunteer.
Finally, the BTRC says that we've been served well by a 3-member board. Perhaps. But I believe that the town would be served far better by a larger board that has the capacity to be more representative. Of the 13 towns in CT with similar populations (15,000 to 20,000) and a Selectmen/Town Meeting form of government, only 4 have 3 Selectmen. The other towns of similar size have between 5 and 12 Selectmen. Expanding our Board of Selectmen from 3 to 5 may not be 'an emergency' but Charter Revision Commissions have proposed the same revision consistently over the years. It's time for Brookfield to make this move.
I've gone on a while, but these are complex issues and sound bytes should not determine your understanding of the revisions you'll be see on the ballot on November 6. The ballot is complicated, but it is important that we understand every one of the Charter Revision questions.
The Charter Revision Commission unanimously endorsed all of the recommendations. The Board of Selectmen chose to allow Brookfield voters to have the opportunity to consider all of the recommendations. I urge all voters to learn about the Charter Revision questions, and I hope you chose to support these important modifications that will help our town run more effectively. There will be a public forum at the library on Monday October 22 (7:00 pm) where the Charter Revision Questions will be discussed. This will be a great opportunity to learn more.
Remember to vote on November 6 — and to vote on all of the ballot questions.