Charter Panel Gathering Input On Boards Of Finance, Education Reviews
This is the first of two reports covering the two May Charter Commission meetings. Since this segment mentions current First Selectman Dan Rosenthal as well as his father, former First Selectman Herb Rosenthal, both are identified by their full names throughout.
In back-to-back Wednesday meetings May 12 and 19, the Charter Revision Commission (CRC) began to gather information ahead of deliberations and potential revisions stemming from charges suggested by or involving the Board of Education and Board of Finance. Before guests from those elected boards were heard, CRC members heard from the second of three Rosenthals who have held the first selectman’s post — Herb Rosenthal.
Herb Rosenthal’s son, Dan, is the current first selectman; Herb’s late father, Dan’s grandfather, Jack, also formerly served in that capacity.
Charter panel Chairman Andrew Buzzi had advanced in April that Herb Rosenthal had requested to address several proposed charter changes. Once he was recognized, the former first selectman spent about half an hour offering his insights and fielding questions.
Herb Rosenthal began by reminding the commissioners that while a regular review of the Newtown Charter is a requirement, changes are not, and that compelling changes should rise to be the primary focus of the commissioners’ attention.
He then moved to the suggested review of whether the elected first selectman should be stripped of the privilege of ex-officio or non-voting status on the school board, a subject that was also discussed at length with education officials on May 19.
Noting that he is likely the only person in town who has served as both first selectman and the Board of Education chairman, Herb Rosenthal said that the ex-officio provision has been part of Newtown Charter mandates since its original drafting.
In his time, he said, he had never seen nor heard that such access to school board meetings and discussions was abused, recalling that his father (Jack) had taken advantage of the opportunity to sit in and engage with school board officials on several occasions in his tenure from 1976 to 1987.
Herb Rosenthal said if they opt to sit in, first selectmen should aim to be supportive, especially in situations where the school board’s actions could have broader, town-wide implications. In those cases, he said, “If you don’t participate, you can’t criticize the Board of Education’s behavior,” after the fact.
If the ex-officio privilege ever were abused, he said, the situation could be rectified either at the voting booth or by a charter change.
Next, the former first selectman weighed in on a charge asking whether the Board of Education was a “town department.”
This subject was also discussed at length on May 19.
Herb Rosenthal said with 14 years on the school board and 14 years as first selectman or selectman, he does not see any parallel between those boards as suggested in documents supporting the charter panel’s requested review of the subject.
“The Board of Education has a much narrower focus,” he said, adding that the first selectman is responsible for everyone in the community, including all resident school children. In contrast, a school superintendent is only responsible for students, school personnel, curricula, and facilities.
And while the superintendent is appointed and hired by the Board of Education, the first selectman and Board of Selectmen are elected by voters, Herb Rosenthal pointed out. As far as the charge request, the former first selectman opined that there is no question the Board of Education is a town department, since it draws more than 60%of annual taxpayer revenues.
He said even considering re-classifying the Board of Education would further exacerbate an “us versus them” attitude that would lead to more perceived separation of the two entities that already receive voter endorsement separately, by charter, during annual budget balloting.
Removing the school entity as a town department could also create legal issues related to the transfer of town funds, Herb Rosenthal suggested — echoing the input of Dan Rosenthal, who addressed the issue with charter officials in April. (“Charter Panel Gets Marching Orders, Input From First Selectman,” The Newtown Bee, April 23, 2021.)
Later in the meeting, Charter Commissioner Dennis Brestovansky asked whether the political party majority of the Board of Education should be increased.
The former first selectman responded, saying that creating a super majority is another pathway to more division between the school board and the municipality.
Considering The BOF
Turning next to the charge to consider eliminating the Board of Finance, the former first selectman firmly stated he was against it. He then spent a few minutes explaining how the current Board of Finance, with its uniquely limited statutory powers, developed out of a more than two-decade-old charter revision referendum anomaly.
Herb Rosenthal suggested that instead of dwelling on its elimination, charter panel members should look at eliminating overlaps between the finance board and Legislative Council that have existed since after that confounding referendum. He agreed that a finance board could be directed to concentrate more on financial policies and planning, while the council entertained direct appropriation and other related requests directly from the school board or first selectman.
Charter Commissioner James Gaston, himself a former selectman and finance board chair, said that while he was not going to prejudge whether to eliminate the Board of Finance, he recalled numerous good reasons why residents supported its creation at the time.
“There was an undercurrent to create a Board of Finance at the time,” Gaston said, because, “too few Legislative Council members were making budget decisions out of subcommittee.”
Finance Officials’ Input
The current finance board chair and vice chair, Keith Alexander and Sandy Roussas, respectively, both said they hoped to see an outcome from the revision that promoted greater respect for the finance board’s efforts, and possibly vesting that elected panel with creating binding financial policies.
The driving message Alexander presented was to free the finance board from being involved as a “day-to-day business manager” and empower it to be more of a “policy goal-setter,” and “decision-maker on how things should be done” regarding long-term financial planning.
“With more authority, it gives value to the work we’re doing,” Alexander said. “In recent years, the board of finance was not used that way.”
With six years on the finance board, Roussas agreed there are overlaps and redundancies between the Board of Finance and the council, and that these could be easily eliminated.
Saying much of the overlap also involved “minutiae,” she noted, “I don’t think the Board of Finance needs to be bogged down with that.”
Roussas added that it had been “a little frustrating that we’ve pushed policies to the Legislative Council and they sat, or were not acted upon or reworked. That’s the sweet spot where we could be useful.” She also questioned whether the already heavily burdened council had the capacity to entertain financial policy work and the deep dive research and analysis it required.
Roussas also objected to making a future Board of Finance or similarly named panel appointed versus elected, saying it would be difficult for a policy-making board to function with political appointees. If elected finance officials are not doing their job in the span of their two-year elected term, Roussas said, the easy fix is to “vote them out.”
Next week’s Charter Revision Commission report will cover input presented May 19 by members of the Board of Education.
Associate Editor John Voket can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.