By Rob Glidden
A public hearing on the current charter revision drew about a dozen speakers, most of them focusing on the proposed changes to the Police and Fire Commissions.
The five-member commission was formed last month after a party line vote on the Town Council. Chairman John Dobbins has directed the group to focus on efficiency in government, particularly in regard to the public safety boards. The commission is weighing the possibility of giving the town manager more authority over the police and fire departments, with the associated commissions reduced to an advisory role.
Those who spoke at the podium were split about this issue. Some, including former Charter Revision Commissioner Joseph Landrie, said this plan would place too much power in the hands of the town manager and the council.
“This is all a power play,” he said. “If the power to hire and fire people in these departments is given to the town manager, who is he beholden to?”
Others felt that the current commissions needed more oversight by someone with executive experience.
“Most of the departments already report to the town manager, except in a few cases,” said resident Dick Fortunato. “In my view, these are two of the most vitally important departments in town.”
Richard Hart, a deputy fire chief in Waterbury, said the problem with the Board of Fire Commissioners was that its membership is not taken seriously by town leaders. He described service on the commission as an “honorarium” given to longtime politicians regardless of their experience with public safety matters.
“The system is broken, not the commission,” he said. “They way people are chosen to serve is flawed.”
Other matters were also discussed during the hearing, including the criteria for a public referendum on major expenditures. Several speakers criticized officials for finding ways to work around a vote, whether involving estimated costs that are slightly under the $1 million required for a referendum or the “lease-buyback” scenario that created the new municipal center.
Board of Education Chairman Brian Goralski urged the commission to consider restoring the four-year terms of his board and the Board of Finance. He said the learning curve for a new BOE member was so steep that as soon as someone gets their bearings, they already have to run for re-election.
“Two-year terms bring politics into the board,” he said. “It’s my opinion that four year terms create a more efficient school system.”
Sandra Feld, a member of the Board of Finance and a past member of multiple charter revision commissions, had a similar point of view.
“I was on the commission that changed it to two terms but now I think that may have been a mistake,” she said.