Residents Discuss Town Administrator At Hearing
Though turnout was small, the Town Administrator Workgroup did get some long-sought-after input from the public at a hearing on May 15.
Resident Elizabeth Lincoln wanted to make sure that a potential town administrator was the “personal choice” of the currently elected first selectman.
“I don’t want any helper to be more important than the first selectman,” said Lincoln. “I really want the first selectman to be the first selectman. The first selectman should have the responsibility and choice in who to bring on.”
Selectman Ed Schierloh, speaking as a citizen and not a member of that board, said that Newtown is “no longer a small town,” and while he’ll “reserve judgement” on the issue until he sees the final report, he believes that a town administrator is an issue that should be looked at.
Schierloh complimented the workgroup on the job it was doing, saying “it’s a lot of research.”
“The big thing as we move forward is that we need continuity,” said Schierloh. “A town administrator could help bring that.”
James Gaston, a member of the Borough of Newtown’s Board of Burgesses and a member of last year’s Charter Revision Commission, said that for his 32 years in town, Newtown has had “damn good first selectmen.”
“They’ve all been stellar,” said Gaston.
Gaston expressed concern about the legality of a possible town administrator position, noting the legal concept of the “delegation doctrine,” in which an elected official can’t delegate away their statutorily given responsibilities.
“If we do that, we have to be comprehensive in what duties the town administrator has and doesn’t have,” said Gaston. “Issues can come up with what can be delegated out. For the protection of the public interest, it has to be comprehensive.”
While Gaston, an attorney, could not find any litigation that would provide legal precedent in the matter, if the town created a town administrator and it’s ruled illegal, “now we’ve created a mess.”
Another concern Gaston expressed is a case where a first selectman and town administrator are together on policy that is unpopular among voters, and the first selectman is voted out for those policies.
“Will the administrator stay with that vision?” he asked.
Gaston said he is confident the town will continue to have a good first selectman, as “a lot of people are interested in running.”
Ideally, any change for a town administrator or town manager should go to a Charter Revision Commission, said Gaston.
‘Democracy Is Lengthy’
“Sometimes democracy is lengthy, but it works,” said Gaston. “Maybe I’m a traditionalist, but I think to go forward, it should go with a charter revision.”
First Selectman Dan Rosenthal said that he appreciates all the effort the workgroup has been putting in and said they’ve been “very thorough.”
“I think the result will be thought provoking,” said Rosenthal.
The final result will not be for the current Board of Selectmen to decide, according to Rosenthal. Both Rosenthal and Maureen Crick Owen will not be running again in September. Selectman Schierloh has yet to announce his intentions.
“I think it’s appropriate for the next Board of Selectmen to review this group’s results,” said Rosenthal.
Earlier in the meeting, the workgroup interviewed Wilton First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice. Wilton recently hired a town administrator, Matt Knickerbocker, which was the impetus behind Rosenthal deciding to look into a town administrator for Newtown.
Vanderslice said she had been a “big advocate” for the town administrator position, which was first discussed in 2019 as the job of first selectman was becoming “larger and more complex.”
Former First Selectman Bill Brennan said he was putting in 60 hours per week in the position; Vanderslice said when she became first selectman she was putting in 70 to 80 hours. Any movement on the idea was put on hold during the pandemic and it was not brought up again until 2022.
Vanderslice said residents were “very supportive” of the idea of a town administrator, seeing how large a workload had been placed on her as first selectman.
She said the town will be remaining with a town administrator for the immediate future, but may consider a town manager if the town moves away from its current town meeting style of approving budgets.
“We can make that the next conversation,” said Vanderslice.
When asked about the pool of candidates Wilton received for the town administrator position, Vanderslice said that there was a “large pool of interested people with diverse skills and backgrounds.”
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