Southington’s government is like night and day compared to other municipalities.
Our growing community has relied on to the town manager form of governing since 1966.
This form of governing includes nine elected councilors that serve two-year terms without compensation. They rule the roost.
The town manager may drive the car but all the councilors tell him how fast to go and where to go.
Since 1966 only three men have been town managers of Southington.
Mark Sciota is still considered a rookie despite years as the right-hand man for the late John Weichsel and the recent departure of Garry Brumback.
Democrats won control of the council at election time last year after several terms of victory by Republicans.
When the GOP reigned, Brumback was allowed to sweep out long-time department heads and shift government power from one department to another.
Out-of-towners have replaced others at heads of departments.
Few in town know what those departments do or what their authority may be.
For example, once a strong and influential commission, the Park Board is virtually a group of enthusiastic, nice guys whose authority has been greatly diminished.
The Park Board maintenance garage at the entrance of Panthorn Park now sits vacant and the Park Board cannot even cut the grass at athletic fields unless the Public Works agrees.
Additionally, zoning brass have now been pushed into the limelight by continuing a woeful tradition of not making business people feel wanted.
Of course, zoning officials believe they are helpful.
Yet, complaints are alive and well although most get wilted down to a bunch of excuses.
Some town officials under this form of government get away with rudeness to citizens.
Mayors don’t tolerate government workers being hostile to taxpayers.
Town jobs are hard to get, and those who have them often don’t realize if they resigned hundreds would be applying the next day.
A mayor realizes their name is aligned with public trust. Everyone knows a mayor.
Governments with mayors often make it mandatory for government employees to attend seminars on how to talk and treat customers – the taxpayers.
With Southington’s government structure, complaints are filtered to the town manager or department head.
Councilors seldom hear the final analysis.
Boards and Commissions in this community are not subject to heavy press coverage.
That’s why the late Art Cyr was revered as a true taxpayer’s “watchdog” by verbalizing and applying pressure to town leaders at council meetings.
Cyr, by virtue of appearing before the video cameras at every council meeting, would publicly taunt the council members with accusations of neglect or suggestions that bad things were happening without anything being done.
The local town manager, who is paid a decent salary, doesn’t have to cut ribbons, send out press releases or make public statements.
His bosses are the nine councilors who meet only twice a month and, unless are devoted to government affairs, endure meetings listening to the symbolic opinions of the town attorney or complaining citizens who approach the microphone with little training on the physiological method to getting nine people to truly listen.
Were it not for the media that does its best to cover municipal decisions, the public would know nothing about town hall, who makes department decisions and who needs to be reminded that employees can be fired.
The public didn’t understand why the late Weichsel was being paid $117,000 after 44 years of service and Brumback moved into the office with a $33,000 instant salary increase or why a former fire chief was recently paid $150,000 to leave prematurely.
Citizens have complained, privately over the years and during my 10 years on the council, that they did not appreciate the tone of inspectors from the health and zoning departments, or the abruptness of some employees at town hall offices.
Most complaints died quickly due to individual concerns about the potential publicity.
Should every town employee attend a series of seminars over a period of weeks about public professionalism?
Should town leaders, especially the nine unpaid councilors, express publicly to the employees the importance of not only being cordial, but helpful?
It’s always easy to find things wrong, but how many times do employees extend a word of good advice to a confused taxpayer or frustrated businessman.
I recently viewed a Planning and Zoning meeting that had officials flirting with this idea of pushing an ordinance that would limit business vans from parking in a spot that would appear to make the vehicle look like a mobile billboard.
Supposedly those vans appeared on Queen Street and Meriden-Waterbury Road.
I traveled both roads several times and counted one van that was parked legally in a public lot but had the name of the company printed on the side of the truck.
Terrible offense? Zoning officials may be extending their authority a bit too far.
Months ago a report circulated that some people serving on a town youth committee suggested the town pass an ordinance to ban candy cigarettes from being sold in town.
Candy cigarettes? Try to find them.
Over 12 years ago the town believed Silly String was a detriment to the public and banned the product.
Some chuckled, others applauded after public damage during parades.
That was an ordinance that did little to excite citizens similar to banning motorbikes and dogs at public events downtown.
Southington has a new town manager.
Southington is wrestling with the division of power that under Brumback was instituted.
The town need not change so dramatically.
Citizens need to know who department heads and if they are held accountable.
Citizens should insist that the powerful nine councilors use their authority to balance and limit government authority when unwarranted.
Southington citizens, who did not hire the town manager, should insist that his legacy be his own.
The future of a growing Southington rightfully sits on the shoulders of nine councilors this coming year and those who will serve the next two, four and future years.
It will not and should not, depend on paid department heads who seldom get fired or publicly reprimanded except when an out-of-town manager stays here as briefly as a high school education and spins the bottle of authority that few citizens were aware of.
Truth is, like it or not, voters cannot hire or fire a town manager.
Councilors need to encourage citizens to vent their frustrations and complaints in initial private discussions.
There’s a hotline for, “See Something, Say Something.” Southington needs the same.