Support for a town manager mounting

NAUGATUCK — As the Charter Revision Commission continues its scrutiny of possible changes to the Town Charter, momentum is building among commission members for a radical shift in the make up of Naugatuck’s government.

The prevailing feeling among the commission was that going to a town manager style of government would be a more efficient way to run Naugatuck over the current mayoral government form.

“This is the direction we believe modern government is going in,” said commission member Christian Herb, during the commission’s March 31 meeting.

A subcommittee of the commission, comprised of Herb and Brian Gregorio, spent the past month researching various forms of government and reported its findings to the full commission. After researching the issue, a town manager form of government rose to the top.

The town manager style would mimic the government make up of nearly 30 other Connecticut municipalities, including Cheshire and Watertown. Under this form, the full-time mayor position would be eliminated. The Board of Burgesses would remain as the legislative body of Naugatuck and be responsible for setting policy. However, the town manager would run the day-to-day operations of the borough and all departments head would report to the town manager. The town manager would answer to the burgesses.

Gregorio said the opinion of the subcommittee is not an indictment of any past or present mayor. He felt that Mayor Bob Mezzo is doing a good job.

However, Gregorio contended that the mayoral form limits the candidacy pool because candidates might not want to walk away from their jobs to take a two-year position where reelection isn’t a guarantee.

Gregorio felt a town manager would bring continuity and stability to Town Hall, be someone with the skill set and experience to run a town and wouldn’t be worried about running for reelection every two years.

“It’s a professional. It’s not someone who’s running for reelection,” Gregorio said.

Herb said it’s clear Naugatuck needs to grow its Grand List and argued that stability is necessary for that growth.

“Political instability is not conducive to economic development,” Herb said.

With the current system, Herb said, mayoral campaigns can come down to a popularity contest or a random selection of two candidates who just happened to be available to run.

“The most popular person shouldn’t run a $110 million corporation,” Herb said. “The most qualified person should.”

The consensus among the commission leaned in favor of the change.

“The bottom line is this is a complicated world and you can’t just have anybody driving the bus,” said Andrew Bottinick, chair of the commission.

Although a town manager drew the favor of the commission, some concerns were raised—specifically over how difficult it would be to remove a town manager and whether making the change would take power away from the voters.

The details would have to be ironed out, and advocates of the switch admitted that no system is perfect.

However, Gregorio felt the pros of having a town manager are greater than the cons.

“There are issues. But, the benefits far outweigh them,” Gregorio said.

A change in the form of government is one major Charter revision the commission is exploring. The commission is also looking at instituting an automatic budget referendum and moving the elections to November along with extending the mayor’s term to four years.

Currently, to force a referendum on the budget, residents need to get a petition signed by at least 8 percent of borough voters. If the budget fails twice at referendum, it must be cut by $1, according to the Town Charter.

Commission member David Cronin advocated for implementing an automatic budget referendum.

“I believe it’s a real important issue because you’re paying taxes, I’m paying taxes,” said Cronin, who is part of subcommittee researching the idea.

Cronin laid out a proposal in which the budget would automatically go to a referendum and if it fails, the budget would go back to referendum until it passes or it’s defeated five times. After the fifth time, Cronin said, the budget would automatically have to be cut by 2 percent.

There wasn’t much support voiced for this proposal as commission members questioned how a mandated 2 percent cut would impact negotiated union contracts for town employees.

Commission member Sarah Poynton said such a cut could be the town in a “nasty position” with set contracts.

The issue of extending the mayor’s term and moving the elections was not discussed. The commission tentatively scheduled its next meeting for May 19.