Blurred lines

FI-EditorialRight after the conclusion of a long, drawn out and ultimately meaningless dispute between the Board of Selectmen and the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) over authority, is it really the right time for there to be a new one with the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET)?

It seems the town could be headed in that direction, and residents can only hope that this is a quick one.

At the heart of the issue is the idea of forgiving a loan between the town and the Housing Authority that was made 15 years ago for Parsonage Cottage, which provides town housing to seniors in town. The members of the finance board say that there’s too much that’s unclear about this loan, which was made before any of them were on the board.

They have questions that need to be answered, they claim, before they vote to send this to the RTM. By not acting on this at the September meeting and instead deferring it to October, the BET said it’s merely acting in its role as an oversight board for financial transactions.

Of course, just as the dispute between the selectmen and the RTM over leases wasn’t really about the North Mianus Boat and Yacht Club, this is not really about Parsonage Cottage. It’s about the structure of town government, where authority lies and, essentially, the chain of command. Now First Selectman Peter Tesei and BET Chairman Michael Mason are on opposite sides.

Mr. Tesei says that actions like this blur the lines of authority, and while it might not, as he claimed, lead to chaos, it is certainly going to lead to slower government. But, at the same time, Mr. Mason and his colleagues are right to ask questions and clear up confusion, especially when Community Development Administrator Princess Erfe says that there’s new information from the federal government showing that forgiveness might not be the best strategy.

Putting aside questions of who should have told what to whom and when (that’s best left for the town to handle internally, and it’s a shame that a town employee as capable and dedicated as Ms. Erfe got dragged into this), this is all about who has the authority. And this is not the time for the selectmen and the BET to be butting heads, since the budget process will soon be kicking into gear. Mr. Tesei and Mr. Mason need to get back on the same page and not drag this out.

Recently we have seen the BET take more of a role outside normal oversight, particularly on budget matters. This has come at the expense of the authority of the first selectman, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the town. The buck has to stop with the selectmen because, whoever they may be, they are the ones most accountable to the voters. Greenwich needs a strong executive branch because that’s the only way voters can have a say.

If voters are displeased about the way Mr. Tesei and his colleagues are running the town, they will have a chance to do something about that next month. But if the voters disagree with Mr. Mason and the BET? Unless they join the RTC or DTC en masse, there’s really no recourse. The best direction for Greenwich is with the authority resting with the first selectman’s office to oversee the day-to-day operations and the RTM and BET doing their needed oversight as best they can. There’s no need for rubber stamps, nor is there need for interference. The town just went through this dispute with the RTM and it helped no one.

If the lines of authority are being blurred, they need to get unblurred, because there’s too much to be done here and Greenwich can’t have two of its most powerful figures at odds.

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