On November 19, 2019, the Town of Clinton will become the 31st town in Connecticut, and the second on the shoreline, to adopt the town manager form of government.
“The council-town manager form of government is the most popular form of government across the country, except in some areas like Connecticut,” said Doug Thomas, the recruiter for the Clinton town manager through Strategic Government Resources.
Clinton, like most towns in the state, has operated with a first selectman, or other elected official, as chief executive for well over 150 years, but in recent years, frequent turnover and the growing demands on local government have made the idea of a town manager attractive.
“I think people want to see some professionalism brought to town hall,” said Christine Goupil, the current first selectman in Clinton. “I think people are looking for continuity. With political campaigns you never know what you’re going to get every two years.”
Towns across southeastern Connecticut have reported increased difficulties with operating a mostly volunteer government. Several towns – including Clinton and Old Lyme – are unable to fill all the positions on their boards and commissions. Other towns, like Essex, have gradually transitioned much of their former volunteer roles to paid employees to add a little more expertise to town hall.
“The obvious thing is managing a city or a town has gotten very complex over the last 20 years. It requires skills and knowledge that most people who run for first selectman do not have,” said Phil Sengle, the chair of the town manager search committee and a member of the board of selectman in Clinton. “When people are elected it takes them a minimum of one year to get up to speed, and then we lose ground against other towns.”
Clinton is in competition with neighboring towns for the few new residents who are moving into southeastern Connecticut, Sengle said. An unstable town government might make the difference between a resident or business choosing to operate in Clinton rather than in another town.
In the Town of Clinton, which is on its third first selectwoman in five years, the problems of a volunteer and elected government have especially acute. That’s at least part of what spurred Goupil to run on a platform that included replacing the first selectman with a town manager in 2017.
“Your first year you’re doing your job, and the second year you’re running for office. It makes it difficult to do any strategic planning or long-term thinking,” Goupil said.
The transition between each first selectman also comes with a substantial amount of work for the finance office to switch bank accounts, documents, health insurance, retirement checks. It’s a lot of time and money spent every two years, Goupil said.
“Our town, like many of these towns, is greatly run by volunteers. All the boards and commissions are volunteers and some have little experience in the area that they are responsible for and it’s the same with all the elected positions,” Sengle said. “If you want to run for first selectman there are no requirements whatsoever other than you are a voter in the town. So, you get what you get.”
It took Clinton two attempts to pass the new charter for a town manager form of government by town-wide election.
“The charter reform committee brought forward a town manager and council form of government proposal, but they did not put a date on the charter,” Goupil explained. “So, what would have happened, was that administration would have been able to appoint a town manager of their choice, not allowing the new administration as of 2017 any choice.”
In response, residents supporting a shift to town manager nevertheless campaigned to oppose the new charter with the slogan “Vote No now for a better Yes later.”
The charter was voted down. On a second vote, with a transition date set of November 19, 2019, the charter passed with a 2:1 margin.
“People want professional management and they are tired of the petty, partisan politics that infects a lot of small towns,” Sengle said.
Sengle has dedicated the last several years, along with 20 other town residents, to change the direction of local government.
“The town was run by a small group of maybe 50 people. All of them seem to pick each other for elected or appointed positions. I say this as one of those people. In the end what happens is you look for good candidates to run, but in the end the number one issue is getting somebody to run. Nobody wants to do it.”
The Town Manager Search Committee, established after the new charter passed, is contracting a professional firm to help them find, interview and hire a town manager, with a target date of 2020.
As Clinton transitions from first selectman to town manager, the town will also eliminate its board of finance, and a town council will be elected as the governing body. The council chair will act as the ceremonial head of the town, while the town manager oversees day-to-day operations.
As part of the reform, the new town manager will be required to have a master’s degree in public administration, business administration, accounting or economic development. The town is also seeking a candidate with five to seven years of town or city management experience.
The firm conducting the search should have narrowed the applicant pool to between three and five candidates for the council to interview by the time a new town council has been elected on November 19. In the interim, the council will appoint an acting town manager to fill the gap between Goupil’s last day in office and the first day of Clinton’s first town manager.
“The town manager is new and new can be scary for some people,” Sengle said. “Our town manager cannot fail the first time out. We don’t want anyone to say see this doesn’t work.”
Clinton will continue the practice of holding town meetings for certain government functions after November 19, including the approval of allocations exceeding $35,000, bonding, and the sale of real estate. The municipal budget will still also require approval by referendum.