We didn’t know what to expect when Southington’s Committee of Chairs first met last December. The town was scrambling to address a $5 million hole in the budget. The finger pointing was already in full swing between boards. We were already beginning to see soapboxing, positioning, and lines being drawn between town leaders.
In retrospect, the pilot program couldn’t have come at a better time. In the months leading up to the first meeting, there was already a fight between the Board of Education and the Town Council, and at the core of the argument was a lack of communication. Town Councilors were trying to force school officials to fall in line with their plan by a letter to the superintendent. BOE members were calling for a meeting between the council, the BOE, and the Board of Finance. Buckle up, we thought, here comes a political battle royale.
But that isn’t what happened, and we credit the Council of Chairs for playing a big part in the debate. It’s essentially a group with no power, but it serves as a public link between the government’s major sectors. Each month, the group talks about the main challenges of the town. Chris Palmieri (D) represents the Town Council. Brian Goralski (R) represents the BOE. John Leary (R) represents the BOF, and Michael DelSanto (R) represents the Planning and Zoning Commission. They are joined by Town Manager Mark Sciota and Superintendent of Schools Timothy Connellan.
It’s an open meeting, and even a few town residents have attended to weigh in. Paul Chaplinsky (R) from the PZC and Victoria Triano (R) from the council have both attended at least one meeting to join the discussion. The latest discussion on May 2 even included Southington Public Schools’ director of business and finance Sherri DiNello who clarified the finances to see what was left to accomplish.
As for the $5 million hole, it had been cut to just $261,510 at the start of the meeting and trimmed to $74,510 by the time Leary finally drew the line in the sand, saying, “That’s got to be the end-game.” We really wanted to stand and cheer. We see no way that the town could have handled this mess (doled out by a lame duck governor) without the calm discussions on the Committee of Chairs.
So where do we go from here? It seems pretty clear that these public discussions can be a useful component as the town tries to deal with bigger problems and town-wide solutions, but it can also be a useful tool for proactive talks about town growth, big projects, and bureaucratic obstacles.
The only problem that we can foresee is a potential that all voices won’t be heard in future discussions. For those keeping score of all the Rs and Ds above, it’s easy to see that a party could easily lose its voice if Republicans or Democrats hold majorities on all the Southington boards. Republicans currently hold a 3-1 advantage in the forum, but if they began meeting before the previous election, there would have been no Democrats in the discussion at all.
Of course, anybody is able to attend and comment at a Committee of Chairs meeting, but we’d like to see it go even further. We’d like to see the minority leaders invited to the table to guarantee a bipartisan discussion. We think that the best way to promote a democratic process is to ensure that all people have a right to participate, make decisions, and lodge appeals regardless of party affiliation.
The current chairs have done a great job of keeping politics out of the discussion, but who knows what will happen over time or after the next election? A simple tweak could fix it before any problems arise. The more voices, the better.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.
Current Town Budget proposals for FY 2018-2019
For the General Government proposed budget click here:
For the Board of Education budget, including the Superintendent’s proposed budget and the BOE’s proposed budget, click here: SouthingtonSchoolsbudget
For the Board of Finance proposed budget, click here:
Observer coverage for this year’s budget talks