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Selectmen Consider Idea Of Town Administrator



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First Selectman Dan Rosenthal has long been a proponent of relieving the elected first selectman of day-to-day administrative duties and assigning them to a different individual, such as a town manager.

The change would, however, require a change to the Town Charter, and the Legislative Council declined to charge the 2021 Charter Revision Commission with looking at a town manager, preferring instead to concentrate on another potentially large change — whether or not to keep an elected Board of Finance.

That proposed elimination was rejected by voters at referendum on November 8.

However, a recent initiative by Wilton drew Rosenthal’s attention and gave him a new way of looking at things. Wilton has hired a town administrator that works alongside the first selectman, rather than changing the first selectman’s designation in the Charter.

At the Board of Selectmen’s November 21 meeting, the selectmen discussed looking into the idea, and decided to form an ad hoc committee to consider it.

Rosenthal said that creating a town administrator position could metaphorically give the town an ability to kick the tires on a town manager style of government without formally committing to the time consuming process of including it in a future charter review.

“We can see how the revisions go,” said Rosenthal. “The big thing with a charter change is fear of the unknown. It’s a cliff jump. You’ve changed the charter and what if it doesn’t work out? Now you’ve changed the governing documents, and you have to change them back.”

Hiring a town administrator alters that by not requiring the charter change. The first selectman would still be a full-time position and still be charged with everything it is charged with in the charter, but the town can see how a professional town manager would change how the government runs in its day-to-day routine.

‘Proof Of Concept’

Rosenthal said that as time goes on, having the position will be “proof of concept,” and allow the public to become familiar with the idea. Any charter changes, say to reduce the first selectman’s role to allow a town administrator to fully take on administration of the town, could be made later.

The town administrator position would take on day-to-day duties like managing staff, which would free up the first selectman to look at regional issues, economic development, and policy matters. Rosenthal said the position would give more stability for current staff, as the person they report to is not potentially one person, and then a different person in two years.

If the town administrator works out and a charter change is made to make the first selectman no longer a full-time position, Rosenthal said that would also attract more people to come forward and run for the position, as it would no longer be necessary to give up another job or running a business to take the position.

The change would require an additional salary to be in the budget. Selectman Ed Schierloh said he liked the concept, but noted that the pay and benefits might need to be comparable or higher than the current first selectman position to attract quality candidates.

“No question there will be additional cost in the budget,” said Rosenthal.

The position would be reviewed by the Board of Selectmen.

Rosenthal said that Wilton hired a former first selectman, Matt Knickerbocker, as its first town administrator. He said an ideal ad hoc committee would be comprised of former first selectmen and other people with a large amount of experience with Newtown’s government.

Selectman Maureen Crick Owen said that “big picture,” she liked the concept, but that there were lots of details to work out. She thought an ideal candidate would have a business background or a background running a municipality like Wilton’s choice of Knickerbocker. She approved the idea of a work group to review whether the idea “makes sense.”

Rosenthal said he thinks it will be a while before something is brought forth to actually be voted on and approved by town bodies like the BOS or the Legislative Council, possibly two or three years down the road” as a working group reviews the idea and hammers out the details of what it would look like. Rosenthal wants an “open minded group,” so that the outcome “is not pre-determined.”

“What this will look like, whether we get there or not, I don’t know,” said Rosenthal.

Associate Editor Jim Taylor can be reached at jim@thebee.com.

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