A panel charged with studying New Canaan’s governing document is weighing whether to recommend a change that could see some duties removed from the town’s highest elected official with respect to one of its major funding bodies.
New Canaan is unique in that members of its Board of Finance are appointed by a group led by the first selectman, who then serves as chairman of that same finance board and, as an ex-officio member, casts tie-breaking votes (and no others), as per the Town Charter.
Though no problem has emerged or is expected to develop now, with First Selectman Rob Mallozzi in place, it may pose a problem of “down the road,” Kate Hurlock, a member of the Charter Revision Commission, said at the group’s regular meeting.
“It is not an issue now, it’s down the road creating checks and balances so that if there is an appointed board, that there is then a balance on the other side,” Hurlock said during the meeting, held at Town Hall. “If the first selectman is appointing the board then there is a balance on the other side in terms of setting the agenda and voting.”
Members of the commission are charged with studying the Town Charter, with an eye on recommending updates for a town-wide vote on Election Day. The group is expected to draft a proposal for the Town Council next month, and to then hold public hearings in October, as required by state law, prior to the appearance of its recommendations on the ballot for November’s general elections.
Hurlock and Kit Devereaux—a pair that commission Chairman Dave Hunt in a light moment referred to as the “candy bar team” (Kit and Kat)—led a subcommittee of the group to meet with the heads of town departments and municipal boards and commissions regarding the Board of Finance.
Based on those conversations, they prepared to recommend changes at Wednesday’s meeting.
“The reason that we ended up with this position was from the input from so many people,” Devereaux said. “And basically it came down to the town is becoming more and more complicated and layered in how it deals with finance—so we have an Audit Committee, we are looking for an internal auditor, we are looking for a controller—and this is sort of the next step in financial sophistication, if you will, that it was upsetting in terms of balance of power to have it like it was.”
Ultimately the commission voted 8-0 in favor of recommending that the Board of Finance remain an appointed (rather than elected) body, and 7-1 (with Russ Kimes dissenting) that the chairman of the finance board be elected annually by its members.
Three other questions remain open—whether the first selectman should remain as an ex officio member of the board who casts tie-breaking votes, how many members the finance board should have and whether its members should be required to be local property taxpayers as well as residents.
The commission will take up the matter during a special meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall.
The bipartisan group appeared divided over the question of just how the first selectman’s role on the finance board should change, if at all.
Commissioner Kathleen Corbet wondered aloud what would be the first selectman’s role on the finance board if that individual cannot vote in case of a tie. Corbet also noted that the first selectman, by Charter, casts tie-breaking votes on the Town Council, in the rare cases that the 12-member legislative body is deadlocked.
“The first selectman does not appoint the Board [of Finance], it’s the Board of Selectmen that makes the recommendation and the Town Council approves the members of the board, so we do have that check-and-balance,” Corbet said. “Whether or not that process is working properly, that’s something for us to work on, but the Charter has eight people [on the finance board], just as the Town Council has 12, and the first selectman breaks the tie vote. I don’t see why that’s not a good thing.”
As they discussed the prospect of doing away with the first selectman’s ability to cast tie-breaking votes, members of the commission also broached the idea of changing the total number of people on the finance board to an odd number (seven or nine, say) so as to avert ties, or else viewing ties as failed votes (as some other towns do).
Commissioner Mike Franco said the first selectman’s position on the finance board should be preserved since he or she is the only person on it who has been voted into office by the electorate, and as such gives a voice to citizens of the town. If the first selectman is doing a poor job of chairing the Board of Finance, it’s up to voters to make a change, which they can do every other year on Election Day, Hunt said.
Ira Bloom, counsel to the town and a guest at the meeting, said that if the commission wants to “make this significant change with the first selectman’s role on the Board of Finance,” then “it may be a fair compromise to let him or her serve ex officio so there is at least a participatory role.” As an ex officio member, the first selectman could participate actively in discussions before the board and sit in on executive sessions by right.
Devereaux put in: “I would beg him to come ex officio because he is the one with the knowledge and the day-to-day interaction.”
Corbet said instances where a tie-breaking vote is needed occur only “rarely.”
“I am in favor of somebody casting the tie [breaking] vote, and in this case it is the first selectman,” Corbet said. “And I am in favor of not changing that. It’s the same that happens with the Town Council. The first selectman does not influence how the Town Council thinks or votes. It’s a benefit that the first selectman can come in on the rare occasion and break the tie and I think that the eight members of the Board of Finance should also have an individual that comes in to break the tie. The CEO of the town, I think, is certainly qualified to weigh in on their judgment as to which way the vote should go.”