Every so many years, the question of more competitive elections for the school board, and especially the finance board, surfaces. During this fall’s election campaign, First Selectman Peter Tesei expressed his intention to establish a Charter revision commission. This means there will be serious discussion regarding possible changes to the method of election to both the BET and the BOE.
Republicans, with the voter registration numbers in their favor, have long called for partisan majority-minority boards. And typically the Republican BOE and BET candidates receive considerably more votes than the Democratic candidates in their election to these bi-partisan boards, witness last Tuesday’s vote totals.
Democrats, on the other hand, have favored the current bi-partisan structure. However, from some of the conversation I’ve been hearing, some Democrats may now be looking at this question in a different way. In any case, we can expect much discussion in coming months.
As a matter of historical interest, I am reproducing here an op-ed piece written by BET Democrats in March 2004, on the eve of a BET vote to change the method of election to the BET to create a majority-minority board. The vote failed, with Democrats opposed, Republicans in favor.
The proposal to change the method of election to the BET didn’t surface again until November 2010, when BET chairman Stephen Walko brought it forward. Again, it went nowhere.
As I re-read this op-ed piece, now nearly ten years old, reproduced below, one thing jumps out at me. There’s much emphasis on the bi-partisan, collegial functioning of the BET. And indeed, during the twelve years I served on this board, it did function this way. I don’t think there were more than five or six party line votes in all these twelve years, and those were mostly not on budget matters, but on such things as changing the method of election to the BET, or on changing the tax collector position from an elected one to an appointed one (Democrats in favor, Republicans opposed).
By contrast, this past year has seen an incredible number of party line votes on the BET, to the point that the board seems dysfunctional, at least by comparison to the way it has historically functioned. And the Republican chairman’s tie-breaking vote – almost never used in the past – has made this much more of a partisan board dominated by one party.
I reproduce this op-ed piece as a matter of historical interest, as the subject of charter revision comes to the forefront. With the call for more competitive elections, we might bear in mind the benefits of bi-partisan board structure as opposed to a majority-minority structure. Granted, this may seem to some a self-serving Democratic argument. However,we should also consider the potential negative consequences of one-party rule on the school and finance boards.
The six BET Democrats who wrote this op-ed piece and signed onto it in 2004 were Peter Berg, Jara Burnett, Kathryn Guimard, Ed Krumeich, Larry Simon and myself.
Here it is:
On March 15th (2004) as members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation we will vote on whether or not to change the way in which we are elected.
Since 1939 the Greenwich Town Charter has provided that no political party may nominate more than one half of the members of the BET. In practice this has led to a bipartisan twelve member finance board made up of six Republicans and six Democrats. This bipartisan board was established at a time when the town was steeped in debt and financially corrupt. The board was created to steer the town on a sound financial course and to keep the town’s fiscal policy above politics. For over sixty years the Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation has succeeded in this mission.
The BET’s fiscally responsible oversight of town finances has never been called into question. Rather there has been criticism in recent years that this powerful board is not really elected because its members usually run unopposed, leaving the choice of candidates to the party town committees.
The options before us when we vote in March are 1) maintain the status quo, 2) give voter choice by changing to a partisan board of majority and minority representation or 3) give voter choice by keeping a bipartisan board using a model in which each party may put up more candidates than can actually be seated but only one half of those elected may be members of the same political party.
We, the Democratic members of the BET, believe that the town has been well served by this balanced finance board and feel it would be very imprudent to make radical changes to an institution that has presented the town with responsible budgets for well over half a century, kept the mill rate increases low and removed politics from the budgetary process.
At the same time we acknowledge the concern voiced by some members of the community that, if we are to be an elected board – and indeed many Connecticut municipalities do not have elected finance boards but rather officially appointed ones – then there should be greater voter choice in the general election.
We oppose the creation of a partisan board because the checks and balances that currently exist would be eliminated and party cooperation on budgetary matters undermined. While theoretically giving voter choice, a partisan board could acutally narrow representation by opening the way to one party rule. Important fiscal decisions would no longer be made in public in a bipartisan, collegial manner, but rather in the majority party caucuses that are closed to the public. Past voting patterns indicate the most likely result would be a board of eight Republicans and four Democrats with the only meaningful candidate choices made by the Republican Town Committee. Ironically, the choice of candidates would be concentrated in the hands of fewer people. In short, a partisan board would provide only a semblance of voter choice at the expense of public discourse and a focus on fiscal matters. It would make fundamental changes to an institution that has worked well since the 1930′s, one which everyone seems to agree does not need fixing.
A bipartisan board elected in a way similar to the Board of Education, on the other hand, would give voter choice without making any fundamental changes to the current structure and functioning of the board. The political parties would have the ability to nominate more candidates than can be seated, but no more than half of the board could be elected from the same party. This model is really a primary in the general election.
In order to give voters more choice without making any fundamental changes to the current structure and functioning of the board the Democrats are considering a proposal to allow each party to nominate not less than six and not more than eight candidates for a two year term to the BET.
The shortcomings of this model are exemplified by past Board of Education elections. In most elections for the Board of Education the political parties have chosen not to offer the voters more candidates than can be seated, and when they have, usually only one of the political parties has chosen to do so. When only one party offers voter choice the effect is to allow the other party to use the extra votes of its members to manipulate the choice of candidates from the party providing choice. To some extent these shortcomings can be addresssed by devising ways to exert pressure on both parties to offer more candidates than can actually be elected.
The partisan model for BET elections will not be adopted on March 15 because the architects of the Charter provisions governing the BET, in their wisdom, were careful to guard against any one party prevailing. Any Charter change initiative requires seven affirmative votes (the chairman’s tie-breaking vote does not come into play). We, the Democrats, will not vote for this option.
The vote then will be on whether or not to forward a bipartisan model for voter choice to the RTM for debate. At this point in time we cannot predict what that vote will be. But in the very act of voting on this item at our March meeting the BET is doing its best to respond seriously and sincerely to calls for voter choice.
It is a serious thing to tamper with an institution that has kept the town on a sound fiscal course and provided responsible financial oversight for over sixty years. When all is said and done we may conclude that the status quo is the best choice. In the words of well-known Republican local columnist Bernie Yudain, in his February 8th editorial: “I see no claims of flaws or failure in the performance of the cavalcade of BET’s over the past 70 years or so. I reluctantly employ the obvious cliche: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”