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Preston selectmen discuss concept of town manager government

October 12, 2018

Preston — The Board of Selectmen heard a crash course in the concept of having a town manager form of government Thursday in an hourlong workshop with retired former Groton Town Manager Mark Oefinger.

First Selectman Robert Congdon asked Oefinger to discuss the issue during a “long-range planning” workshop as town officials consider future challenges with the proposed major development of the former Norwich Hospital property and the continuing difficulty finding candidates to run for local office.

Republican Congdon had planned to retire in 2017 after 22 years in office but stayed for another term after no candidates from either party stepped forward. In 2016, Selectman Lynwood Crary led a study that concluded the town should keep its Board of Selectmen form of government.

But on Thursday, Crary said he is growing more and more concerned at the difficulty in finding candidates for first selectman and the increased complexity of government issues and would consider switching to a professional town manager to run daily town government.

Oefinger, who served as Groton town manager for 15 years, said town managers are increasingly in high demand across the country, as well as in Connecticut. Oefinger said he would not advocate one way or the other and discussed pros and cons of both forms of government. He said many towns like Preston are now considering hiring a manager or administrator to become the equivalent of a CEO for the town, while the Board of Selectmen would serve as the policy-setting board of directors.

Oefinger said if a town manager is hired, selectmen and other elected officials should not interact directly with town employees on town business or ask them to respond to issues directly.

Oefinger said most town managers are “generalists” but most also have specialties such as finance, economic development or even bringing a town out of tough times. He said Preston could consider what attributes would best fit the town and steer the advertisement to cover those needs.

But the salesmanship works both ways, he said. With town managers in high demand, with salaries likely ranging from 200,000 — Preston likely on the lower end of the range — managers need to find the town attractive to them. Most towns require residency, he said.

The first selectman, now paid 15,000 to $30,000.

“I would think that Preston has the chance to offer an interesting opportunity,” Congdon said, “when we transfer the (Norwich Hospital) property.”

The town then would have to consider utilities issues, increased police coverage and other town government functions.

Crary questioned how the transition would work, both financially in the budget and in government. He said it would be a hard sell if both positions were fully budgeted in the first year. Oefinger discouraged consideration of a part-time town manager, because it would be difficult to attract a good candidate but if the town is dissatisfied with an initial field of candidates, the town should re-advertise the position.

“You need to pick a date, when things are going to happen,” Oefinger said.

Selectmen took no votes on the issue Thursday.

c.bessette@theday.com

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