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Does Connecticut still need town meetings?

Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror

Town meetings have been part of New England culture for hundreds of years. But are they still necessary?

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Tom Condon to discuss his article, “The town meeting is a Yankee tradition. Does it still make sense?” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Tom. You say the town hall is Yankee tradition in Connecticut. But you write that some small towns are concerned it might no longer make sense. What appears to be the problem?

TC: Well, there are a number of them. First of all, the town meeting goes back 400 years to a much simpler time when people in what were then in small towns met in a meeting house, the same place where they had their congregation or Puritan or congregational church service. So it was kind of a theocratic arrangement, and over the years, society has gotten much more complex. So there are a number of problems with the town meeting. Now, let me say that more than half of the towns in Connecticut still use it. So it's not that it has gone away.

Problems: one, lack of continuity. The whole board of selectmen all leave office, which looks like it will happen this year in Chester, and whatever projects were going on have to stop, the new people have to be brought up to speed, which can take a long time. So lack of continuity. Lack of accountability in the selectmen town meeting system, the selectmen don't have authority over the independent boards and commissions in the town. So the selectmen can come up with a project but if the board of finance doesn't fund it, no project.

Finally, here's a big one. In recent years, attendance at town meetings, more specifically, lack of attendance, has become a big problem. People aren't coming out to the meetings for a variety of reasons. A lot of town meetings just have a handful of people there. And I mean, the point of the town meeting is for live discussion, but that doesn't work if you don't have live discussions. So lack of attendance has been a problem.

WSHU: So Tom, you mentioned the Town of Chester there. And Chester decided to do a study to look into this because it was becoming more and more of a problem and they wanted to figure out what could be done to improve governance at the local level. What did they find? What were the recommendations?

TC: They did what is called a governance study and it looked at options. There are three major forms of municipal government in Connecticut. There is the selectmen town meeting, which Chester has had since it broke off from Old Saybrook in 1832. So it's a historic form in Chester. So selectmen town meeting, council manager, and council mayor.

There are some variations down in your neck of the woods, you would know, the representative town meeting is a variation of the selectmen town meeting form, but those are the main forms. And Chester identifies these options and notes that they can, by adopting a charter, which is kind of a constitution for the town, they can make changes, they have flexibility. They can, for example, bring in a town manager, professional management.

WSHU: Talking about Chester here, unlike Fairfield, which has an RTM, Chester has a population of less than 4,000 people, right? So it's a really small town and you have to have all the services and someone to see to provide those services. And so they're running into a problem having continuity in government.

TC: They are also running into a problem of finding workers, finding people to supervise and deliver those services. This is a problem across the state, municipal workers in the technical fields are getting hard to find. That's been a problem in Chester as well. Also, getting people to serve on boards and commissions. This has been a problem for whatever reason, people are busy, maybe they're not as civic-minded as they once were. But that's been a problem. And that's a problem in many towns as well.

WSHU: So now they came up with this report. And what are they going to do with it?

TC: They formed a charter commission, which is now working to come up with a proposed charter for the 2023 municipal election. So they hope to have a proposed charter for residents to vote on, but they haven't done it yet. But that would allow them to make changes in their form of government.

WSHU: And that might be on the ballot this November?

TC: It might be.

WSHU: Talk about towns that have a professional manager. How does that work?

TC: Well, it can work a couple of ways. In one case, I think there are 34 towns in Connecticut with town managers. The town manager is a professional, usually has a degree in public administration and has worked in local government, knows how things work and is the executive. And so they run the show, reporting either to the board of selectmen or to the city council, or in Stamford as the Board of Representatives or Board of Aldermen, the names change, but essentially reports to that body.

Another option is sort of a town manager-lite, is called a town administrator. In this case, the first selectman remains the chief executive but the town administrator works as an aide to the first selectman that does a lot of the technical work under the first selectman. So that's the town administrator, and there are 12 or 13 towns in Connecticut with town administrators. So those are two options. I think Chester will look at both of them.

WSHU: And also there's an issue with the pay for first selectman. It's taken as a part-time job, and therefore the pay is not that high to attract people to take that job. Could you just tell us a little bit about that?

TC: A number of towns pay the first selectman as if it were a part-time job. But the job has gotten so complicated that there's no such thing as a part-time first selectman. So you're making essentially very little money for a lot of work. People aren't doing it for the money. Let's put it that way.

I reported that first selectman of Scotland, Gary Greenberg is leaving office this year. After four years, he went up to somebody who he thought would be a good replacement and asked him to run and the person said he would rather shave his head with a cheese grater. It's getting hard to get people to run. I mean, retired people on a pension can afford to do it or you know, if your spouse is a millionaire or whatever, but, but average working people need to support a family. So that's an issue.

WSHU: Now, another issue you say is getting people to come to meetings unless it affects the school system. They get high attendance for school meetings. Other than that, very few people show up. So any solutions to that to getting more people to come to these meetings?

TC: Well, you're right, unless it's a school issue or a local controversy. There was one meeting in Chester some years ago about allowing power boats on Cedar Lake that drew a pretty big crowd. But in the usual run of the mill, it is hard all across New England. The town meeting is only in New England and the rest of the country doesn't do this. They've tried everything. I mean, they've tried having meetings on Saturday, they've tried having food, snacks, you know, they've tried in one town a raffle to get people to come. So they've tried everything with varying degrees of success.

WSHU: In the meantime, what's happening at the state level, the state legislature? What are they doing about this?

TC: Well, there was a proposal to streamline the state laws that govern municipalities. And there's a whole body of state law mostly in Title 7 and the general statutes. So last year in 2022, the legislature created a commission to study Title 7 and it hasn't started yet. Their deadline is Jan. 1, 2024, which is only four months away. Hopefully they'll get going there. They're gonna have to extend that deadline. They’ll never get it done in four months.

WSHU: So no solution soon from the state legislature.

TC: No, I mean, there isn't any. One part of the problem is training municipal workers. And so UConn and the Capital Region Council of Governments, some other people are talking about improving the training. I mean, that's a problem. I mean, kids don't grow up wanting to be a tax assessor. But these are important jobs and good jobs. So this scenario really needs to be addressed.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.