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The town meeting is a Yankee tradition. Does it still make sense?

Chester's town meetings are held at the Chester Meeting House, a historic building tucked away from the town center.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
Chester's town meetings are held at the Chester Meeting House, a historic building tucked away from the town center.

“Be seein’ ya at the town meetin’.” (Imagine a Yankee accent)

Nothing says small town New England like the town meeting. Derived from English village and Puritan church assemblies, the town meeting/board of selectmen structure is the oldest form of civic government in the country, stretching back nearly four centuries.

Direct participation in local governance won high praise from one of America’s premier 19th century tourists, the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville. Norman Rockwell, who lived in a small town in Vermont, chose a town meeting to illustrate Freedom of Speech, part of his famed 1943 “Four Freedoms” collection.

The town meeting/selectmen structure is still the most common form of municipal government in Connecticut, used in more than half of the state’s 169 municipalities. But it was created for small communities with common interests. The world has changed in ways the most visionary Puritan could not have imagined. Is the venerable town meeting still viable and relevant, still the best way to govern not-quite-as-small communities with many and varied interests?

Here is one opinion:

“The New England town meeting is a beautiful thing, the last bastion of direct democracy, but it is not suited to this era, and I don’t how it can survive much longer,” said Gary Greenberg, first selectman of the small eastern Connecticut town of Scotland.

Here’s another: “The town meeting will continue to exist, but it is slowly changing as people become more aware of forms (of government) that give better representation at the local level,” said Matt Knickerbocker, former first selectman of Bethel and now town administrator of Wilton.

Matt Knickerbocker served as first selectman of Bethel for over 12 years. He is now the town administrator of Wilton.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
Matt Knickerbocker served as first selectman of Bethel for over 12 years. He is now the town administrator of Wilton.

Change inches along, as it will in Connecticut. A number of towns have either dropped the town meeting/selectmen form in recent years or altered it, by in bringing professional town managers or town administrators and by giving more legislative responsibility to the board of selectmen. The most recent was Marlborough, which just named its first town manager and expanded its board of selectmen from three members to five. In the past decade, Clinton, Simsbury and Cromwell have opted for town managers.

No town has gone back to the selectmen/town meeting format.

Change in Chester?

The question of what municipal government structure works best in small towns was raised in a recent study in Chester.

Chester is a tidy and tranquil town (population 3,749) in the lower Connecticut River Valley that has used the town meeting/board of selectmen form of government since it broke off from Old Saybrook and became a separate town in 1836. In recent years, there had been some talk of examining the structure of local government; events last year amped up the discussion.

The recently reelected first selectwoman, Lauren Gister, resigned in January 2022 to take a job as a town manager in Carbondale, Colo., leaving the town without its chief executive officer. Another board member, Charlene Janecek, agreed to take the post, and a former first selectman, Ed Meehan, was induced to rejoin the three-member board to fill the Gister vacancy.

As the year wore on, it become clear that none of the three board members would seek reelection. This and other issues prompted two residents, businessman Jon Joslow and former state Department of Transportation official Michael Sanders, to propose to the selectmen that they initiate a study of other available forms of local governance to see if there might be a better fit for Chester.

The governance study was completed earlier this year and has been well-received locally and by officials in other towns.

The study suggests that the romantic ideal of the town meeting belies a faltering modern reality. The traditional system has a number of shortcomings, the study found, issues that affect Chester and many other small towns.


The one staring Chester in the face is lack of continuity. If the whole board of selectmen goes out the door at the same time, the new crew has to get up to speed, which by some estimates could take most of their two-year term. Constant turnover was one reason why the shoreline town of Clinton, which had three first selectwomen in five years, voted to adopt a council-manager system in 2018.

Also, the first selectman doesn’t have direct control over other elected officials or boards, so the executive power is diffused. Thus, so is accountability.

“The board of finance is the keeper of the money. If they don’t want to appropriate the funds, the project doesn’t go anywhere,” said Chester selectman Meehan. He is a former Hartford city planner and Newington development director.

Good coordination and communication can help offset the diffusion problem, but that is not guaranteed. Some towns have solved the board of finance issue by eliminating the board.

Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror

It’s complicated

In addition, the first selectman’s job has gotten vastly more complex than it was in earlier times, which argues for professional management. Mark Walter, former first selectman of East Haddam and now town administrator of Columbia, said the post has “tripled in complexity” in the 17 years he’s been in municipal government.

Gary Greenberg of Scotland elaborates: “In addition to the list of duties that go with the job — municipal CEO, cemetery sexton, highway supervisor, chief of police, tree warden and a couple more I can’t remember, there’s grant administration, municipal finance, labor law and human resource management, OSHA, facilities management including construction oversight, procurement policy and land use law.”

The first selectman has to know these things because, in a small town such as Scotland, “there are very few executive/managerial level staff to whom to delegate.”

Greenberg, who makes $45,000, and many other first selectmen of small towns are paid as if the position is part-time.

I’d rather shave my head with a cheese grater.

“There’s no such thing as a part-time first selectman,” said John Filchak, executive director of the Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, which serves 16 small towns in the Quiet Corner, including Scotland.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is getting harder and harder to find people to run for first selectman. Greenberg is leaving office after four years. He said he approached someone he thought might be an able successor, and the fellow replied, “I’d rather shave my head with a cheese grater.”

An obvious risk in towns with few candidates is that the job goes to someone who isn’t up to it. This could render a town government dysfunctional, said Filchak.

“These towns are the equivalent of multimillion-dollar mid-sized businesses. You wouldn’t want someone with no expertise running one, right?”

“A lot of towns have been lucky” that qualified people have stepped up to serve, said veteran municipal lawyer Richard Roberts of Hartford. Whether that continues remains to be seen.

Other positions

It isn’t just selectmen candidates who are hard to find. In recent years, the study reports, Chester “has had difficulty recruiting and replacing employees who have left town service.” For example, in the last two years, the town has had long-term vacancies in the inland wetlands and zoning compliance officer positions, both required by state law. Since November 2021, retirements created vacancies in the elected positions of town clerk and treasurer, as well as the appointed position of town assessor.

Also, the town, like many others, has had difficulty filling all the positions on volunteer boards and commissions. The study notes that these entities deliver services to the public, and without full complement of members, they cannot do so as effectively as they might. Vacancies on all boards and commissions ranged from 7% to 22% over the period 2011-12 to 2021-22 and was at 9% at the end of 2022, the study reports.

“We are definitely having difficulty getting people to serve on boards and commissions. People are busier and not as interested in public service. It’s very challenging,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns.

Canton Town Hall in the Collinsville section of town. Canton has a board of selectmen.
Stephen Busemeyer
CT Mirror
Canton Town Hall in the Collinsville section of town. Canton has a board of selectmen.

What if they build it and nobody comes?

Perhaps the most confounding issue with the town meeting is attendance — more specifically, lack of attendance. Unless there is a particularly important or contentious issue, not many people show up for town meetings.

“It’s not uncommon to have four people in the audience,” said Filchak.

Mark Walter said town meetings in Columbia usually draw about 10 people, unless there’s a hot topic on the agenda. One of the last was in 2009, when officials had proposed building sidewalks in the center of town. Some 300 residents showed up and voted it down, 2-1.

Chester doesn’t report town meeting attendance as a rule, but the governance study committee observed in its report to the board of selectmen that two special town meetings held in 2019 were counted, and the participation rate of registered voters was 0.1% and 1.31%, or, based on the state’s count of 2,875 registered voters that year, three and 34 persons, respectively.

There are several reasons people might not attend the town meeting. Some don’t like to speak in public or contradict their neighbors. Some, said Gara, are not unhappy with how their town is run. The big reason is likely other obligations: busy, busy.

Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said when the town meeting was created, “people weren’t driving their kids three states away for AAU basketball tournaments.”

Milford Town Hall
Kyle Constable
CT Mirror
Milford Town Hall

Except when there’s a school issue that brings out parents, the folks who do attend skew older.

“Older people show up, “ said Sam Gold, executive director of the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments, or RiverCOG. So, he said with tongue slightly in cheek, attendance could be improved by making the state friendlier to retirees.

Various ideas have been tried across New England to increase attendance, from snacks, raffles and day care to Saturday meetings, with varying results. While many local meetings are streamed, town meetings are not, because Chester does not have the ability to verify the identity of voters or have them vote online, Meehan said.

Some think attendance would improve if people were better informed about issues facing the town.

“This is where the decline in local news coverage hits home,” said Filchak.

Gara said email newsletters, which some towns including Chester do, help educate residents about issues and board vacancies. Social media, she said, is not as helpful.

Attendance is vital, the Chester study finds, because “without a reasonably high level of public engagement and participation, the value and effectiveness of the town meeting serving as a town’s legislative body is questionable.”

Avon has a council/manager form of government.
Stephen Busemeyer
CT Mirror
Avon has a council/manager form of government.

Adjourn to referendum

Some towns adjourn their annual budget town meetings — or send proposed expenditures over a certain amount — to referendums.

“Referenda increase turnout significantly, but it is still low compared to other elections,” observed UConn political science professor Michael E. Morrell, who has studied town meetings, in a presentation to the Killingworth Charter Revision Committee in 2020.

For example, Chester is part of Regional School District No. 4 with Essex and Deep River. Voters in the three towns must vote on the regional school budget at a referendum each year. According to the study, Chester’s average annual voter turnout between 2011 and 2021 was 127 votes cast out of an average of 2,567 eligible voters, resulting in an average participation rate of 5%.

A referendum is not a magical solution. Residents can keep voting them down. For example, veteran Coventry town manager John Elsesser recalled that in 1990, his town’s budget went to five referendums, stretching from May until late October before it was approved.

Elsesser is among the departures — he retired at the end of June.

The advantage of the in-person town meeting over the referendum, Morrell observed in an email, is the opportunity more deliberation and discussion. But that presumes the presence of deliberators and discussers.

The point of the Chester governance study as to look at issues and options, said committee member Richard Strauss, like Sanders a former state Department of Transportation official. What are the options?

Representative democracy

There are three major forms of municipal governance in Connecticut: selectmen/town meeting, mayor-council and council-manager, plus some hybrid variations, such as the representative town meeting or RTM, where members are elected to participate in town meetings.

Selectmen-town meeting is still the most common. It is the state’s default form of government. Towns such as Chester that do not have a charter are required by state law to use the selectmen/town meeting system. According to the Chester study, 56 towns without a charter use the traditional system, as do 42 with a charter (data is from the 2020 census and may have changed slightly).

Unless modified by charter, the board of selectmen is the executive branch and the first selectman is the chief executive officer, and the town meeting is the legislative branch — it votes on expenditures, ordinances and other matters.

The format is used by small towns. Town meetings become unwieldy when towns get bigger, and towns tend to move toward a representative government structure, that is, where elected officials make decisions on behalf of the voters who elected them. One major form is mayor-council, used by 30 large and some mid-sized cities. Usually the mayor is the chief executive and the council is the legislative branch, though it is possible to have a ceremonial or “weak” mayor in a council-manager system, as Hartford once did.


The other major format is the council-manager system, in which the town manager is the CEO appointed by the council, which is the legislative body. According to the Connecticut Town & City Management Association, 34 towns now have a town manager. Begun in the early 20th century as a response to political corruption in some cities, council-manager offers nonpartisan expertise and continuity. It allows the council to direct the work of the manager and otherwise focus on policy issues.

Council-manager has become one of the most popular systems in the country. According to a survey by the International City/County Management Association cited in the Chester study of nearly 11,000 U.S. towns with populations of 2,500 or more, 78% use either the council-manager (40%) or the mayor-council (38%) form of municipal government. Less than 10% of towns, all in New England, use the selectmen/town meeting.

There is a variation of the latter that might appeal to Chester. A dozen towns including Wilton and Columbia have town administrators, a kind of town manager-lite. Administrators assist the first selectman in the day-to-day running of the town, but the selectman is still the chief executive. Like a town manager, an administrator brings expertise and continuity to town hall and may even encourage more people to run for the board of selectmen.

Chester Charter Commission

After the governance report was presented to the Chester board of selectmen in February, the board created a charter commission to further explore possible changes in local governance.

It is possible to make some changes in local governance by ordinance, as Chester did this year when its part-time elected treasurer position became vacant. The selectmen passed an ordinance making the position appointive and gave the duties to the town’s accounts manager.

But a charter offers more flexibility. A charter gives a town “a great deal of freedom to decide how things should work,” said attorney Roberts.

With a charter, a town can drop or alter the selectmen/town meeting system. Instead of the town meeting as the sole legislative branch, a charter could allow the selectmen to take on some legislative responsibility. For example, instead of sending every new ordinance or relatively minor expenditure to a town meeting, the selectmen could vote them up or down and save the town meeting for major items such as the annual budget. The size of the board of selectmen can be expanded, as Marlborough did; terms of office can be staggered or extended from two to four years for continuity’s sake.

While it is possible to appoint a town manager without a charter, all 34 towns that have done so have charters.

That Chester has a charter commission doesn’t necessarily mean it will have a charter. The process takes more than a year and involves a lot of give and take. Some residents may object to paying another salary, as has happened in some thrifty Yankee towns; the rejoinder is that professional management can create money-saving efficiencies.

But it can be done. Many towns have adopted charters. The Chester Charter Commission hopes to have a proposed charter ready for a referendum in the 2024 general election.

Chester’s town meetings are held at the Chester Meeting House, a historic building tucked away from the town center.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
Chester’s town meetings are held at the Chester Meeting House, a historic building tucked away from the town center.

Possible changes

The Chester governance study also recommends the town work with the RiverCOG and area towns to “explore creating regional pools of administrative professional employees (building inspectors, zoning officers, assessors, planners), that can be shared by multiple towns (similar to a health district) to improve service and possibly reduce costs.” The study doesn’t go the next step and suggest regional governance.

Finally, the state’s laws concerning cities and towns are somewhat disorganized and occasionally confusing. The General Assembly created a task force in 2022 to review Title 7 of the General Statutes, which contains most of the laws concerning municipalities. The goal is to “revise the title for clarity and streamline municipal processes,” which, the Chester study says, could result in “opportunities and changes in the way in which local governments operate.”

The good news is that task force is scheduled to report no later than Jan. 1, 2024. The not-as-good news is that it hasn’t started its work yet.

This reporting was made possible, in part, through generous support from Robert W. Fiondella and the Fiondella Family Trust.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.