Committee questions level of power given to town manager


GROTON — The Blue Ribbon Form of Government Committee continues to review of the first draft of a proposed home-rule charter intended to be the framework for a new form of town government.

The committee was joined at its Jan. 30 meeting by town accountant Valerie Jenkins, treasurer Christine Collins and assessor Rena Swezey.

Also at the meeting was Selectman George “Fran” Dillon, assessors members Edward Kopec and Hugh McLaughlin, and former Finance Committee member Steven Webber.

Jenkins, Collins and Swezey were invited to offer any impressions and suggestions of the 27-page draft charter — the most significant part of which is the creation of a town manager and how it will relate to fiscal officers and committees.

McLaughlin questioned the need for a single “executive” at the top of the municipal pyramid who would answer only to the Board of Selectmen.

Committee Chairman and Selectman Peter Cunningham characterized the current order of government as “fractured” and in need of a streamlined command structure.

McLaughlin also questioned wording in the draft charter that gives the town manager — with the approval of selectmen — the ability to create new law outside of town meeting.

“We can do that now,” Cunningham said, describing the concept of “administrative orders,” which he said the board has rarely exercised in the past.

The provision in the draft represented no radical departure from current practice, said Cunningham. In any case, he said it’s not in the interest of the board to permit the town manager or anyone else to circumvent town meeting since the ultimate responsibility for whatever results would still devolve to selectmen.

At the same time, Cunningham said he believed selectmen must be open to new ideas if they are presented by a town manager.

According to the draft charter, the town manager “shall be the chief administrator of the town and shall be responsible to the Board of Selectmen for the proper administration of all town affairs placed in his charge by this charter.”

To be appointed by the Board of Selectmen, the responsibilities of the town manager would include “the efficient and coordinated administration of all town functions” and the management and coordination of the activities of all departments serving under him.

Further, the town manager would have the power to appoint or dismiss department heads or employees for whom there are otherwise no provisions in the charter. All appointments made by the town manager would be confirmed by a vote of the selectmen.

The town manager would also have the power to submit candidates for police and fire chiefs, negotiate with labor unions, conduct performance reviews of employees under his supervision, fix the wages of employees he is responsible for hiring and prepare the town’s annual operating budget.

It’s the latter provision that concerns the town’s fiscal officers. They question the town manager’s ability to create the new position of finance director if he saw fit.

Jenkins asked the committee about the need to create a finance director along with a Finance Department that would act as an umbrella group embracing all of the town’s fiscal committees and offices.

“I wouldn’t envision us bringing in someone to be finance director specifically,” said Cunningham, who expected the town manager to assume that role at least in the beginning.

Collins suggested that the person chosen have a strong financial background.

“This person needs to know a little about all areas (of town government),” said Finance Committee Chairman and blue ribbon committee member Jay Prager. “I don’t think this person is going to be an all-seeing expert on all things financial.”

Prager thought a separate finance director position wouldn’t be needed at the start.

Instead, he foresaw the manager gathering a team composed of the town’s fiscal officers and leading them in the budget formulation process.

From fiscal matters, discussion moved to the merits of elective versus appointive positions, but it was soon apparent that arguments could be made supporting both sides of the debate.

The committee is expected to reconvene on a regular basis to discuss the issues and prepare an article for the Annual Town Meeting that asks residents to consider a change in town government, whatever that may turn out to be.