Town may change form of government

LITCHFIELD – Discussions begun this week by Litchfield selectmen could lead to a new form of town government being adopted at Town Meeting.

The selectmen met with an attorney Monday to learn about the difference between the duties and responsibilities of a town manager and town administrator.

If the board agrees that a change is needed, voters could be asked in March to approve the hiring of a town administrator or to adopt a town manager form of government, according to Selectmen Chairman Frank Byron.

The selectmen are inundated by work, Byron said, and have an assistant who helps runs the selectmen’s office during the day. An administrator or manager would be able to take over many of the duties that bog down the board’s meetings and take up much of its members’ free time.

“It was a consideration for budget season,” he said. “I believe it’s something that has to be considered.”

For now, the board will spend time talking with officials in other similarly sized New Hampshire towns with each form of government about the advantages and disadvantages to each, Byron said, and resume discussions in the coming weeks.

In February, Municipal Resources Inc., an independent consulting firm, issued a report that listed more than 100 recommendations to improve relations and communication between the board and Police Chief Joseph O’Brion.

One of those recommendations was to move to a town manager form of government or “at the very least” hire and empower a town administrator to handle the day-to-day operations of the town, according to the report.

Town administrators and managers are largely the same, Byron said, except a town manager requires a change in the town’s form of government, and he or she has extra authorities such as negotiating and signing contracts on behalf of the board and hiring and firing employees.

Selectman George Lambert said the town needs an experienced executive to run day-to-day operations so the board can focus on bigger-picture topics.

“The board of selectmen should be setting direction and dealing with oversight, not dealing with day-to-day operations,” he said. “The town doesn’t need to be micro-managed. It needs to be properly managed.”

Lambert said another of MRI’s recommendations, switching from elected to appointed leadership for the fire and highway departments, would make the administrator or manager position more effective – even if the people hired are those that have already been elected.

“I don’t have a problem with the person. I have a problem with the selection process,” he said.

That change also could be made at Town Meeting, he said.

Byron was chairman of the board of selectmen in 2003-04 and left town politics until he was elected again in March. As the town continues to grow, there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of work the volunteer leaders of the town are faced with.

“As chairman now, I know there’s a big difference in the amount of work and the complexity that the town is dealing with,” he said. “With the town gaining in size like it is, something like this has to be considered.”

In addition to his job and family duties, Byron said he spends four to five hours a day on town business to make sure things are running smoothly. He said he hasn’t yet decided whether the change is a good idea.

“It’s a full-time job,” he said. “The ability of someone to spend 100 percent of their time working on behalf of the town would be valuable tremendously.”