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    Wednesday, June 19, 2024

    Dawn of a new day in Stonington

    Contemporary life in Connecticut has little in common with the day-to-day existence experienced by 18th century Nutmeggers. Despite this, most Connecticut communities continue to cling to forms of local government that are no longer particularly effective for the complexities of modern life.

    Stonington now has the opportunity to change this. The town has begun a process that could lead to some much needed updates in its governance. A Charter Revision Commission will work over the next year to study and recommend changes to the town’s legal document that oversees how the town is governed.

    The Board of Selectmen gave the commission some specific areas to consider. The commission was asked to mull whether to recommend changing the positions of town clerk and tax collector from elective to appointive jobs, for example. In addition, it was asked to consider lengthening the terms for the Board of Selectmen from two to four years, adding two alternate positions to the Water Pollution Control Authority and making the language in the charter gender neutral.

    The case is strong for changing the tax collector and town clerk positions to appointed ones. Both current and former town clerks and tax collectors supported such a move when they addressed the charter commission at a public hearing earlier this month. Town Clerk Sally Duplice, for example, noted that the job requires much experience and education to comply with all the statutory and regulatory requirements of the position. The town clerk has some oversight to elections operations, for example, and has responsibility over all land and vital records.

    A person running for office need not have any special training or education to hold these offices, however. Even more concerning is the possibility that these decidedly non-partisan positions could become targets of political and culture wars now so common in the country.

    Thank goodness, the town’s political parties have at least seemed to recognize that these jobs are more professional than political and frequently cross-endorse the same candidates for these offices. That could change, however, if more radically minded individuals gain control of the local party organizations.

    Another change the commission was asked to consider— lengthening the terms of members of the Board of Selectmen —might achieve some much-needed continuity to those offices and allow selectmen to garner more professional training and knowledge in the job before their terms expire.

    Such a step would be a small one, however, in helping protect against any problems with an elected first selectman or with the challenge so many towns face in finding interested and qualified candidates willing to run for elective offices that require a tremendous amount of time and very little financial compensation. Given that Stonington has experienced issues with two former first selectmen in the not-so-distant past, the Charter Revision Commission should take this opportunity to move beyond the confines of the charges it was given and recommend more drastic changes.

    We urge the commission to seriously consider recommending Stonington move to hire a professional town manager or a town administrator who would provide continuity and a steady level of professionalism to day-to-day governmental operations in town. A town manager could work with an expanded Board of Selectmen that also could be recommended by the charter commission.

    The reluctance of New England towns to alter their local governments is shown in a survey completed by the International City/County Management Association. Although the council-manager form of government is the most popular form of local government in the country, the survey found that less than 10% of some 11,000 towns with populations of 2,500 or more used the selectmen/town meeting format. Tellingly, all of these were in New England.

    Stonington debated for years whether to form a Charter Revision Commission and now that it has, the commission holds the promise of recommending changes that will recognize the realities and complexities of local governance. We urge the commission to recommend changes that will position Stonington well for the foreseeable future.

    The Day editorial board meets with political, business and community leaders to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larraneta, Owen Poole, copy editor, and Lisa McGinley, retired deputy managing editor. The board operates independently from The Day newsroom.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.