The October meeting of the Board of Selectmen (BOS) featured confusion among the First Selectman, the Town Attorney, and the chairman of the Board of Finance over how to interpret the Town Charter’s provisions on Special Town Meetings. This discussion reinforces my view, expressed in my last column, that Woodbridge needs to revise its charter.
The New England Town Meeting form of government can be considered the purest form of democracy. In addition to the abovementioned ambiguous instructions on Special Town Meetings, the Woodbridge Charter contains some unusual provisions that break down this cherished democracy. In my last column I suggested that we change our Charter to elect rather than appoint our Board of Finance, and to approve our annual budget by referendum rather than by show of hands at the Annual Town Meeting. In this column I propose several additional revisions to our Charter. I believe these changes will increase participation, fairness, and accountability and strengthen our local democracy by returning more direct control over town affairs to the citizens of Woodbridge.
On our six-member Board of Selectmen, the First Selectman has either a 4-2 majority or an evenly divided board. If a First Selectman presides over a split board, as is the case in Woodbridge right now, that indicates a lack of mandate for her agenda. This is a necessary “check” on a First Selectman who did not have the coat-tails to achieve a majority board. In Woodbridge, the Charter removes that check by allowing the First Selectman to break a tie vote (Section 5-3b).
In other towns (such as neighboring Orange) that share the same six-person BOS structure, a First Selectman who presides over an evenly divided board must build consensus across party lines and win the support of at least one member of the opposing party for any initiative. In contrast, our First Selectman can simply ignore serious differences about the best direction for our town by double voting. To promote consensus, we should eliminate the Woodbridge First Selectman’s ability to break tie votes. Such a change would better reflect the divided desires of the community that elected an evenly divided Board of Selectmen.
Another unusual aspect of Woodbridge’s charter that degrades our democracy is that in Woodbridge, running for First Selectman is an all-or-nothing proposition. The losing candidate has no role in the next administration. In most other Connecticut towns with a Board of Selectmen (including our neighbors Bethany and Orange), the losing candidate for First Selectman will be seated as one of the five Selectmen if he or she receives more votes than other Board of Selectmen candidates. Woodbridge’s unusual rules (Charter Section 8-12c) act as a barrier to entry, discouraging candidates from running for First Selectman. Incumbency is already a powerful advantage: in Woodbridge an incumbent receives an extra, unfair advantage. The power of this advantage in Woodbridge is proven by the fact that an incumbent has never lost a Woodbridge election for First Selectman.
Woodbridge has experienced single party rule for over a decade. The several anomalies in the town charter enumerated above effectively enhance the stranglehold that a single party can exert – concentrating too much power in too few individuals. My proposals for charter revision are all aimed at encouraging broader participation, increasing fairness, promoting more direct accountability of town officials to those they serve, and enhancing the direct impact that individual citizens can have on their town’s governance. If these charter revisions are adopted, the principles underlying the Town Meeting form of government that we New Englanders hold so dear will be well served.
By Maria Cruz Kayne