To the Editor:
Town government in East Lyme has decided to not follow the example of the town of Clinton, which in 2019 changed its charter from a first selectman/board type government to a town manager and town council system. Clinton has two-thirds the population of East Lyme and its budget is about three-quarters the size of East Lyme’s. Per a CT Examiner article from July 2019, “people wanted professional management.” The first selectman system was popular in the nineteenth century and is ideally suited to rural towns with small populations and budgets. East Lyme has ceased being that type of town since the 1960s even though we like to delude ourselves that we are still one. We neglect to note the difference between a small town social frame of mind and the realities of our situation.
The day-to-day management of a town with roughly 20,000 inhabitants (which swells to 30,000 in the summer) and total budgets north of $80 million is exceedingly complex and requires specific skills in public administration, management and budgeting. The East Lyme Charter Commission, in its infinite wisdom, recognized that the current positions of Town Clerk and Tax Collector also require specific skill sets and experience to perform their jobs well and recommends that those positions be shifted from elected to appointed. Yet the Commission feels that the complex needs of our town can be best met by an elected official without any experience or skill in managing all of the town employees and operations.
The Examiner also quoted a then-selectman from Clinton who said that “[people] are tired of the petty, partisan politics.” With East Lyme’s current first selectman system, the first selectman — an elected official – does the hiring as well as performs job reviews without any specific training. Hiring and personnel management can lead to a fairly partisan group of town employees, especially in the case of East Lyme, where the selectman has been almost exclusively from one political party for the past twenty years.
There’s also the issue that sound administration, especially governmental administration, is founded in separating those who make the policy from those who administer the policy. However, in a first selectman system there is no separation. The first selectman is both chief policymaker as well as chief administrator. This is nowhere near optimal management, or transparent and effective governing.
The East Lyme Charter Commission, also in its infinite wisdom, recommends extending the term of the first selectman from two to four years, citing the expense and effort of campaigning every two years. One might note that our state constitution does not give East Lyme voters the ability to recall and replace its first selectman should the first selectman be incompetent at running a very complex organization. If voters make a bad decision, they are stuck for twice the time. Our current system does not have much in terms of checks and balances should a first selectman turn out to be a very bad choice. At least, an election every two years gives voters more power and makes the first selectman justify their management to voters. It’s called accountability, a hallmark of governmental transparency and a responsive government.
In addition, the Charter Commission, and by extension the Board of Selectmen, also endorse the lengthening of the terms of all the members of the selectboard from two to four years and stagger the election of members so only half are elected at any time, much like how the federal Senate is elected. Such a system isolates the selectboard from the majority rule of voters since only a portion of the board is voted at any time. This move makes the board even more unresponsive to the needs and wishes of the majority of voters.
In all, the recommendations of the Charter Commission do not strike me as consistent or as truly trying to make government more responsive and transparent to voters. Their recommendations do strike me, however, as more jury-rigged efforts to patch together an antiquated, nineteenth-century form of government on a town that badly needs professional, transparent and effective government. Last I knew the date was 2023, not 1893. Many of the problems that East Lyme faces can be attributed to our refusal to grow up and accept facts that we are no longer a small rural town. These problems can only be aggravated by the demands of the twenty-first century. Things are not getting simpler; they are growing more complex. And the town of East Lyme deserves the professional governmental management of a town council/town manager system of government.