Charter change still a possibility for town elections

FI-greenwich-town-sealAt a discussion about how Greenwich government works, First Selectman Peter Tesei showed that exploring charter change is not a dead issue yet.

The idea of creating a charter change commission to explore more competition in areas like the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) and Board of Education came up during last year’s Board of Selectmen race, but there had been no actual progress toward it after Mr. Tesei cruised to re-election for a fourth term in office. However, at a special League of Women Voters event on April 1 to discuss the structure of town government and how citizens can get involved, Mr. Tesei brought some fresh life to the thought-to-be-dormant idea.

“There’s very little choice in your election process,” Mr. Tesei told the audience. “I know this is a sexy issue every other year when we talk about who’s running, but I’m going to say it tonight. Essentially you don’t have a lot of choice when you go and vote in Greenwich elections.”

Mr. Tesei noted that the 230-member Representative Town Meeting has “very few” districts that have actual competition, creating a system that he said allows people to “self appoint” by showing up at a district meeting before a new term and “raising their hand” to get on the ballot.

“I think that’s void of accountability,” Mr. Tesei said.

A prior attempt by former First Selectman James Lash to shrink the size of the RTM through charter change in 2006 went very badly, as it was blasted by RTM members and the commission he appointed to examine it ended up recommending it not be pursued. Mr. Tesei did not say he wished to pursue shrinking the body, but he did talk about the need for accountability and also said that was an issue for the BET, of which he was a former chairman. While both Greenwich Republicans and Democrats have had more candidates on the ballot than spots available for the Board of Education last year, creating choice, the town’s political parties have both made a habit of nominating only as many BET candidates as there are spots on the ballot, keeping the choices internal to the town committees.

“The people who run are elected so the way it’s currently constituted you really have no choice,” Mr. Tesei said. “That removes, in my mind, any form of accountability. … It’s left to the political parties. I believe it’s comprised of 75 members on the Democratic Town Committee and 60 on the Republican Town Committee. Those individuals are essentially selecting your government for you. The only choice you really have comes in an odd year for the Board of Selectmen.”

Mr. Tesei said this could be “shocking” for those hearing it and praised the League of Women Voters for “pushing for reform.” He said he hoped that would continue but did not specifically say he would appoint a charter change commission. Any change for BET elections would have to come from within the body, but there has been reluctance to do that from Greenwich Democrats as it could mean the end of the even split between the parties, with each having six members on the 12-person board, and open the door to one-party dominance without minority views being expressed. BET Republicans have, however, been big fans of reform.

“It’s come down to a partisan split,” said Mr. Tesei, who is himself a Republican. “There’s only six votes in favor of it and there’s never been a consensus to do it.”

Mr. Tesei added that he had asked the town attorney’s office to look at ways to bring charter change proposals directly to the voters without violating the town charter or state law.

“It’s the best way to get people involved,” Mr. Tesei said. “You put something before them and tell them, ‘If you come out and vote you can change the way your government is functioning.’”

The League of Women Voters event spotlighted the structure of Greenwich government and the role it plays in policy for taxes, schools and land use as well as the structure of town board and commissions. In addition to Mr. Tesei, Deputy Superintendent of Schools Ellen Flanagan, Town Planner Diane Fox, Larry Simon, a past member of the BET and a current member of the town’s Retirement Board, and Leslie Lee, chairman of the Selectmen’s Nominations and Advisory Committee (SNAC), took part in the panel discussion as well as in the question-and-answer session with the audience.

Beyond the Board of Selectmen and the town employees, much of Greenwich’s government is handled by volunteers. Because of the critical role they play, Mr. Tesei stressed the need for the town’s independent boards and commissions to be made up of people well versed in the subject matter they deal with, people who have a “keen interest in it” and don’t have any conflicts. That’s where SNAC comes in as it finds interested volunteers and brings them to the selectmen to review, and if they pass muster, be nominated or appointed.

Ms. Lee said SNAC finds people to serve on 17 different boards and commissions in town and the goal is to have each year’s boards fully filled by March because that’s when terms expire. She explained that anyone looking to serve in town as a volunteer may go to Greenwichct.org to find a link on the front page that lists all the boards and commissions and provides a description of their work.

“You can really look and see what various opportunities there are and where your skills might be most needed,” Ms. Lee said, calling volunteering “a very rewarding experience” and “a great service to our community.”

There are also nomination forms online that start the process, which includes an interview with all the selectmen.

“The actions of our boards and commissions carry the same weight as actions that I may have over the departments I am elected to oversee,” Mr. Tesei said. “It’s important that they’re well trained and understand all the statutory requirements that relate to the Freedom of Information Act and how one manages professional civil servants.”

The speakers were able to touch on a variety of subjects across town government as Ms. Flanagan covered the town schools and the achievement of Greenwich students as well as the achievement gap across economic groupings in town. Ms. Fox discussed the town’s land use agencies and regulations, and Mr. Simon spoke about volunteering and about the state government as he filled in for state Rep. Stephen Walko (R-150th), who had been scheduled to attend but couldn’t because of a late-running hearing in Hartford.

Mr. Simon said it was important for people to realize that Greenwich contributes about 8% of the income tax for the state, totaling about $270 million, but receives back less than $20 million in state funding for town programs. That money covers expenses for roads, excess cost sharing for schools, Medicaid reimbursement, and municipal permits. Mr. Simon also talked about the BET setting tax policy for the town.

 

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