Finding the best fit for running Stonington

Stonington's Town Hall pictured on January 26, 2006. (file photo)
Stonington's Town Hall pictured on January 26, 2006. (file photo)

In this so-called Land of Steady Habits, one tradition so many Connecticut residents still hold dear is the town meeting form of government. Some say town meetings, gatherings at which all voters and most taxpayers have equal voice and hold sway over municipal policy and spending, are the truest forms of democracy.

The reality is that even in Colonial times, these bastions of democracy were not completely democratic. Huge segments of the population, including women and slaves, were excluded from participation. And at contemporary town meetings, advocates of particular special interests often rally their members and pack town meetings in an effort to skew the outcome of votes.

Even the best-attended town meetings locally now attract only some 1 percent of the overall population. Because of this, along with the fact that the complexities of running a municipality are escalating, with budgets increasing, demand for public services broadening and state and federal mandates growing, it makes sense that more Connecticut towns have recognized a need for professional administration and moved away from the selectmen-town meeting form of government.

In Stonington, some are advocating that town join the list of 28 other Connecticut municipalities that now have a selectmen/council-manager form of government. Just after the New Year, the Board of Selectmen will interview candidates to serve on a charter revision commission there, the first step in the process of studying and recommending a possible government change.

We agree it’s high time Stonington consider changing its form of government. It is a complex town with multiple villages, ZIP codes, fire districts and commercial areas and among the state’s prime tourist destinations. The tax collector and town clerk offices also are long overdue for changes that recognize the need to remove elective politics from the process of choosing qualified professionals for those positions.

More than 30 years ago, former Stonington First Selectman Jim Spellman said the town manager form of government was worthy of local consideration.

While there is no doubt the positions of tax collector and town clerk should be removed from the electoral process, there are several possible solutions to the question of what overall form of government is best for Stonington. Other municipalities in the region have arrived at different conclusions. East Lyme, for example, has an expanded Board of Selectmen, but the first selectman remains the top executive, managing day-to-day affairs. Ledyard has a 9-member Town Council and strong elected mayor. Groton and Waterford have elected Representative Town Meetings.

Stonington’s soon-to-be-seated charter commission should be allowed to do its due diligence and study a variety of forms of alternative governments. Only a free rein and thorough research will allow it to determine precisely what type of government could be the best fit for Stonington.

Stonington’s voters, who will ultimately decide whether or not to accept any change of government, are no stranger to proposed charter changes. Some, such as the proposal three years ago to ensure that Board of Finance elections are contested, readily won favor. Others, such as a 2005 proposal that would have added a town manager and expanded the Board of Selectmen, but also retained the Town Meeting, have been emphatically rejected.

The more research and study the new commission is allowed the do, the more likely the group will land on a solution that is both the most appropriate choice for Stonington, and one that is ultimately endorsed by the town’s voters.

 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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