The Charter Revision Commission in Stonington has recently recommended that the town's form of government change from the traditional town meeting/board of selectmen to council/manager. This means that the First Selectman, who can function something like a strong mayor in larger towns, will no longer have direct control over town departments. The administrative functions of the town would be assigned to a town manager, who is hired by the town council for that purpose.
Current First Selectman Bill Brown, once in favor of the charter revision, has not surprisingly turned against the measure that would cost him his position.
"I believe that we need to maintain the current form of government," Brown said in a recent interview in his office at Town Hall. Brown admits that being First Selectman has influenced his opinion. "Having sat here in the office for a year, I realize it's that personal contact with the constituents that's more important than anything else," Brown said. Calling it the "purest form of government" Brown said the first selectman is easily held "accountable through elections." A town manager, on the other hand, would feel obliged to "serve the will of the council"... (Peurano)
Obviously, he's a bit of a hypocrite and some of his assumptions about town managers are just plain wrong. However, that aside, this piece of news brings up the excellent question of whether town administrators should be elected or appointed, and of how towns can best govern themselves.
Town meeting/Board of Selectmen
By far, the most popular form of town government in Connecticut is the town meeting/board of selectmen form, which 109 towns practice (according to statistics from the state). This form of government can take a number of varying forms, but its essential quality is that an elected board of some kind, either a board of finance or the board of selectmen, prepares the budget, which is then approved by the voters in either the town meeting or an open referendum.
This is one of the oldest forms of government in America, and is the direct ancestor of the first democracies that emerged in New England nearly 400 years ago. It is also the most openly democratic of the three forms, since most people involved in the governing process are directly accountable to voters.
That said, it can be clunky and inefficient, especially when a majority of the populace doesn’t care enough to attend town meetings or vote in referenda. This can lead to a town’s budget and policies being controlled by a small, vocal minority, such as taxpayers’ groups who put low taxes before essential services.
This form of government seems to work very well for small towns, especially those with under a few thousand people, where a large percentage of the population can attend town meetings. This form of government is especially popular in the extremely small towns of Western Massachusetts, where some towns clock in at around 150 people. But what is good for Andover and Union may not be good for Ellington or Stonington, which are much larger.
This form of government is used by medium-sized cities and towns, and is the second most popular governmental style. As discussed above, a town or city manager is appointed by the council to appoint department heads, oversee staff and prepare the budget for council approval. These towns may have a “mayor”, but in many cases the power of the mayor is limited. Enfield, for example, has a mayor who is chosen by the council and whose function is basically that of majority leader. Other towns have mayors who are directly elected, but even their powers aren’t particularly great.
What’s good about this form of government is also what’s bad about it. The town/city manager is not accountable to the voters, but only to their elected representatives. This means that the manager doesn’t have to run for office every two years, but it also means that voters don’t have a direct say over what he/she does.
This form of government is very stable, but this, too, can be both good and bad. Bad habits and inefficiency can crystallize during the tenure of a manager (which can last for a long, long time) without the constant flux of election cycles to shake things up. Of course, this means that progress on issues that voters don’t necessarily understand can be made, and that a new government won’t be able to completely upend the town structure.
It helps that the manager is a professional, although this doesn’t guarantee a good manager. A dedicated professional will likely take much more time and effort to govern the town departments than a mayor or first selectman who is doing the job for free.
Medium-sized towns and cities use this form of government, as it allows a growing administrative burden to be taken off the shoulders of elected officials who are not equipped (or paid) to handle it. There are rarely town meetings (usually there aren’t any at all), and in most cases residents do not directly vote on the budget.
This is the form of government in the state that the least number of towns use, but more people live under it than do under either of the other two. Large cities and towns use this form of government, in which a strong mayor or a strong council oversees all aspects of town/city government and bureaucracy, including the preparation of a budget and the appointment of department heads, although sometimes the budget is prepared by an independent board of finance instead of the council or the mayor.
The advantage of this form of government is that elected officials, directly responsible to the voters, are in charge of managing everything. This can also be a drawback, especially if the elected officials are corrupt or incompetent (although, to be fair, town and city managers can also be incompetent and corrupt).
Hartford recently changed its charter to create a strong mayor form of government instead of the council/manager form it had been under for decades. Eddie Perez is Hartford’s first strong mayor, and he has a great deal more power than his predecessor, Mike Peters, who was little more than a figurehead.
So which form of government is best? Each form has its advantages and drawbacks. What seems to work in practice is that form of government is related to size. The average population of towns with selectmen/town meeting forms of government is 9,660, for council/manager towns it is 27,169 and for mayor/council towns the average is 52,973 (State of CT). The dramatic progression in size suggests that selectmen/town meeting works best for small towns, council/manager for medium-sized ones, and mayor/council for large cities and towns.
Each form of government adapts itself to the town it serves. If a town has a need for a complex bureaucracy, a council/manager form or a mayor/council form might be best, depending on the needs of the town. If a town doesn’t have a large bureaucracy and a citizenry interested in the governance of its town, the town meeting/selectmen form is best.
Certainly the larger a town gets, the less useful town meetings and budget referenda become. Representative government becomes more productive than direct democracy when a large percentage of the citizens don’t participate. The logic of having an unelected manager also decreases as the size of the city and the bureaucracy expands.
So which is best for your town? Stonington is probably doing the right thing in opting for a manager as the town grows and becomes more complex... but it may be a long time before citizens afraid of losing control of their government see that, in fact, they’ve strengthened the stability of their town.
Peurano, Heather. “ Fate of Stonington's Leadership in Hands of Selectmen. The Stonington Times 22 April, 2005.
A useful site for definitions of each government type, but twenty years out of date otherwise.
The state's statistics on towns and cities.