The recent resignation of Thetford’s town manager has left some residents scratching their heads and wondering if town manager governance is what we really need in Thetford.
lTo answer this, let’s take a look back in time at what it was like under selectboard governance. By statute, the selectboard could only conduct town business in a duly warned public meeting, traditionally held once a week. This limitation meant that a week’s worth of business had to be covered in 3-4 hours on a Monday night, often by people who had already worked a day job. The selectboard’s responsibilities included:
- Preparing the annual town budget
- Purchasing of major items
- Borrowing money
- Directing, hiring, and firing town employees
- Working with Town Treasurer and Town Clerk as needed
- Setting salaries
- Purchasing all town insurance (employee life and health insurance, town liability insurance etc.)
- Annual employee evaluations
- Contract negotiation with the Union of Public Employees
- Appointing police officers, supervising the police department
- Contract negotiation with the police union (New England Police Benevolent Association)
- Maintenance of all town-owned properties, including Town Hall, Town Garage, Treasure Island, covered bridges, etc.
- Keeping roads in good repair; overseeing the maintenance of roads and supervising the foreman of the Department of Public Works (DPW)
- Animal control
- Licensing of operations in town, e.g. junkyards, liquor licenses, etc.
- Appointing members of town commissions and town committees
- Town Meeting: Specifying the business to be conducted, preparing the agenda and warning.
- Overseeing town cemeteries
- Writing and updating town policies
- Filling town vacancies for elected positions until an election is held
- Responding to concerns and complaints of residents
- Conducting quasi-judicial hearings
- Enacting ordinances
- Planning for the future of the town
- Serving as members of the Board of Civil Authority and the Board of Tax Abatement
- Attending meetings of the other town commissions and committees and the TriTown Commission that oversees the Lake Fairlee Dam
- Keeping abreast of changing state rules and statutes that affect towns.
In practice, this workload presented a disincentive for volunteers who might have considered running for office. And volunteers with the best of intentions may not necessarily have the knowledge, experience, or skill-set for this multifaceted job. Or the time to do the necessary “homework” between meetings. And few, if any, citizens are adequately equipped when it comes to bargaining with the professional representative of a labor union in a contract negotiation.
The inability to conduct business outside of the weekly public meeting, plus the time taken for five selectboard members to discuss one topic during the course of a meeting, let alone three or four, had the effect of dragging issues out over multiple weeks. Sometimes things were not fully resolved before a new set of concerns took precedence on the agenda. The selectboard style of governance was for the most part reactive.
Under Town Manager governance the selectboard’s load is considerably lighter. Their duties are:
- Plan for the future of the town
- Appoint members of town commission and town committees, and the zoning administrator
- Fill town vacancies for elected positions until an election is held
- License operations in town, e.g. junkyards, liquor licenses
- Amend and approve the annual town budget prepared by the Town Manager
- Specify the business to be conducted at Town Meeting, prepare the agenda and the warning.
- Enact policies and ordinances, including zoning bylaws
- Conduct quasi-judicial hearings
- Serve as members of the Board of Civil Authority and the Board of Tax Abatement
- Attend meetings of the other town commissions and town committees and the TriTown Commission that oversees the Lake Fairlee Dam
- Keep abreast of changing state rules and statutes that affect towns
- Respond to concerns and complaints of residents.
By statute, the rest of the long list of Selectboard duties are transferred to the town manager “except that he or she shall not prepare tax bills, sign orders on the general fund of the town, call special or annual town meetings, lay out highways, establish and lay out public parks, make assessments, award damages, act as member of the board of civil authority, nor make appointments to fill vacancies which the selectboard is now authorized by law to fill;” (24 VSA Chapter 37, §1236).
Having a town manager ensures that there is someone dedicated to handling the business of the town on a day-to-day basis. That means things on the big list get done in a timely fashion. The town manager has hiring and firing authority and oversees and coordinates the activities of all town departments. In Thetford, the town manager directly supervises some employees whose department is too small to have a department head. The manager also serves as a central point for collecting information and disseminating it to the appropriate town departments. The overall goal is a more unified and efficient governance.
The manager is responsible for tax collecting and all the accounting of the town. The manager prepares the town budget, applies for grant monies, and oversees and tracks spending to make sure funds are being used correctly and budget categories are not overspent. In this regard, two major road projects, the reconstruction of Route 132 and the refurbishing of Latham Road, were completed on time and under budget. A previous manager was able to replace the failing shingles on the Town Hall with a new metal roof without noticeable strain on the budget.
Managers are trained in contract negotiating, which proved to be important in the contentious and drawn-out negotiation with the police union, that lasted at least a year. And it is the role of the manager to advocate for the town in dealings with state agencies like VTrans. Managers also consult with other managers to see how different towns deal with various issues.
While selectboards are charged with “planning for the future” they can, as residents, focus on a near view of their town and its workings, rather than envisioning the broader context of where the town may be heading. A good manager would assist in planning by offering a long-term and proactive view of how the town and its facilities might develop — for instance, how to plan for the fact that the Thetford town offices are running out of space. The expense of running a town increases all the time due to the rising cost of wages and benefits, road supplies, equipment for the offices, the DPW, police, etc. How can we expand our Grand List, to keep individual property taxes from spiraling out of control? Will developing centralized water systems in villages help to address the housing shortage through smart growth rather than rural sprawl or be a drag on taxpayers? Is there a cost-effective way of keeping up with road repairs without large-scale borrowing in the form of bonds?
Our outgoing manager, Bryan Gazda, has started to tackle these questions and bring them to the selectboard. We hope that his successor will learn all about Thetford in short order, so they can solidify Thetford’s town manager form of governance, then look to the future. The ability to use resources wisely in a reactive mode is important, as seen in last year’s record mud season, but a proactive vision is also necessary for good town governance.
Photo credit: Li Shen