Meriden, CT Monday, March 2, 2015
Wallingford’s Town Charter has been the subject of a couple of recent Record-Journal articles in recent days. One concerned a Councilor’s interpretation that administration of the “Dog Pound Trust” belongs to the Council and the other concerned supervision of the office of the Fire Marshal.
The question concerning the Dog Pound Trust turns on the language in the Charter that states: “ The Council shall have the power … and to provide for the proper administration of such.” Has the Council thus provided for the “proper administration” by ceding decision making to the Mayor? To us municipal government junkies, this is red meat, but to most people, it seems an argument about nothing.
Not so the other question concerning supervision of the Fire Marshal’s office. It is an important department, and the expertise required of the people employed is considerable. The primary argument was whether day-to-day supervision of the office should be transferred to the Fire Chief. A second argument raised was whether, by doing so, the Council was doing an end run around the Town Charter. Let’s examine both.
As for transferring supervision, this has essentially been in effect for years. In fairness, it must be noted that in his tenure as Town Council Chairman, Bob Parisi did devote time to the task of meeting with the Fire Marshal and familiarizing himself with the details of the department. He did cede managerial supervision to Fire Chief Struble, but kept himself quite informed about issues concerning the department. It would seem that Chairman Cervoni’s effort is primarily to formalize the arrangement already in place.
The answer to the second argument questioning the validity of making such a move has two parts: whether this is an unprecedented change contrary to our Charter and whether this is contrary to the wishes of the voters in light of the rejection of changes in 2009 formulated by the Charter Revision Commission.
First of all, transferring day-to-day oversight from the Council to the administration is hardly unprecedented. A prime example of such is in the acquisition of real estate by the town. The Charter specifically grants such authority to the Council, but in reality, it is the Mayor’s office and the Law Department that handle such negotiations. The Council ultimately rules on such acquisitions, but the heavy lifting is done by the administration. And that is as it should be. Can you imagine the chaos, confusion and gridlock if nine part-time legislators were intimately involved in every such complex real estate transaction? It would be a circus.
The other question concerns the 2009 Charter Revision. It has been suggested that the voters rejected the idea of transferring authority of the Fire Marshal’s office as was suggested by the Charter Revision Commission. The answer to that is: no, they didn’t. If you recall, there were seven questions on the ballot. Several of the revisions were rejected because they significantly reduced the authority of the Mayor’s office, and were seen clearly by the voters as an attempt to limit the authority of Mayor Dickinson by the party unable to unseat him.
The revision question in which the transfer of Fire Marshal authority was placed was rejected because the Commission very unwisely coupled its adoption with a controversial one in which the PUC would have been increased from three to five members, a move the voters again properly saw as merely political.
The history of the 2009 Charter Revision needs to be seen for what it was: an effort awash in party politics aimed at diminishing the authority of one individual. Had the Commission separated the several common-sense changes to the Charter from the overtly political ones, the vote that took place last Tuesday concerning the Fire Marshal would have been unnecessary. Maybe the next Charter Revision Commission will do just that. Maybe now is the time to give honest revision a try.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.