At meeting, town debates creating town manager post

LITCHFIELD – A fraction of the town’s 5,945 voters turned up for the town Deliberative Session held Saturday afternoon at Campbell High School. But the low turnout – roughly 50 voters – didn’t affect the length of discussions, particularly a debate asking voters to change the town’s form of government by creating a town manager position.

If passed, the article would dramatically alter the way the town operates: Instead of vesting the day-to-day operations in the hands of the selectmen, a professional manager would be responsible for everything from personnel and building maintenance to welfare, public safety and care of cemeteries.

The warrant article, as amended Saturday during the Deliberative Session, would, if approved, allow the town to hire a town manager for an annual salary of up to $85,000, plus benefits.

The article was recommended by the five-member Board of Selectmen, which said it’s unable to provide the oversight and management needed to run the town efficiently on a daily basis.

“Town government has grown too large, too complex to be handled by the Board of Selectmen,” Selectman Andrew Santom told voters. “The Board of Selectmen was set up during colonial days.”

Voters had plenty of questions, however.

>>Town Meeting ‘09<< William Spencer wanted to know how many other New Hampshire communities of comparable size have town managers, while Susan Seabrook, a local school nurse, wondered if the town treasurer and clerk would report to a town manager. Some selectmen said the town needs a manager to make decisions on a daily basis: The way the system now works, a small matter, such as dealing with an ant problem in Town Hall or replacing a printer, are routinely delayed. "On a day-to-day basis, decisions need to be made that aren't being made," Selectman George Lambert said. Others questioned the timing of the change, saying the board should do more research and seek out more economical ways to improve efficiency. Selectman Pat Jewett, for example, told voters she took an informal poll of neighboring communities and found that not all small towns have town managers, or town administrators, a position, that unlike the manager's post, is subject to oversight by the selectmen. Litchfield has a population of roughly 8,500. Voters, moreover, were concerned about the cost to the taxpayer, given the deepening economic recession. Indeed, layoffs and foreclosures have hit close to home. "You're talking about $85,000 when people are losing their jobs and there are foreclosures," said Ann Moody, of Garden Drive. "People are moving out in the middle of the night on my street." Other voters said the town should proceed conservatively: Instead of asking voters to approve an $85,000 town manager's position, officials should study their options, including reviewing the daily operation after the administrative assistant's job is filled. The board has been operating without an administrative assistant for several months. The employee hired to fill the job after longtime administrative assistant Cecile Durocher retired last year was let go. Eventually, voters agreed to amend the article seeking a town administrator, directing the town, by a voice vote, to change the language of the article. When voters go to the polls March 10, they'll be asked to decide whether the town should spend "no more than" $85,000 for a town manager for one year, with the same qualification of "no more than" for a half-year's salary and benefits. Including the budget, voters at the Deliberative Session discussed 15 warrant articles, amending four of them: The town manager question. The $4.18 million budget, with an addition for highway funds. A petition article that was changed by majority vote from a request to authorize the selectmen to change the road agent's job from an elected post to one appointed by the selectmen, to a request that officials study the issue further. An article that, as amended, asks officials to do more research before proposing a tax break for farm property. There were few, if any, articles that didn't spark discussion during the session, which ran for close to four hours, starting promptly at 2 p.m. Voters wanted to know why the planning board is supporting an article that would ban development of 55-plus housing communities. Only half of the roughly 300 approved units have been built and officials said they want to see the existing projects completed and filled before approving additional ones. When they go to Town Meeting next month, voters will also be asked to approve spending more than $1 million for road work in the areas of Page Road, Cranberry Lane, Albuquerque Avenue and Chase Brook. In addition, they'll be deciding if the town should hire a full-time police officer, pay for design and construction of a drainage system at Winter Circle and commit $13,000 in taxpayer funds to pay for paramedic training for a firefighter who currently holds two lower-level emergency medical certifications. Paramedic is the highest emergency qualification and would allow the firefighter to do more for patients during an emergency. Voters will also be asked to approve spending for collective bargaining agreements for police and firefighters and to create a special detail revolving fund for the fire department.