Thetford Discusses Town Management Options
The discussion of if and when to hire an employee to help run the town takes place in many mid-sized towns around the state. Recently, that conversation has been happening in Thetford. The Thetford Select Board meets weekly and, according to meeting minutes, the board chair puts in about 20 hours per week between meetings.
Most of Vermont's small towns are governed by an elected select board. Select board members are sometimes paid a stipend, but the job is still widely viewed as a volunteer position. Volunteer board members often put in hundreds of hours over the course of a year. The most time-consuming and burdensome position is typically the select board chair.
When the job of running a town becomes too big for the select board alone, the board is faced with a choice. The first step is often to hire a Select Board Assistant to help with clerical duties. Some towns, however, choose to make the leap to hiring a Town Administrator. Town Administrators are often full-time positions, and their authority is granted by the select board. The board has leeway in deciding how much decision-making autonomy is granted to the Town Administrator.
Some towns choose to make the change to a Town Manager form of government. In that case, much of the decision-making authority is transferred from the elected select board to the Town Manager, who is an employee of the town.
Thetford has discussed hiring a Town Manager in the past, but that notion didn't garner much support when options were discussed at an August 12 meeting. Thetford currently employs a Select Board Assistant, and much of the discussion supported either retaining that model while improving select board efficiency, or considering hiring a Town Administrator.
Current Select Board Assistant Scott Hesser explained his role:
Hesser noted that Thetford uses a Selectboard Assistant with limited powers. Hesser's support role to the Selectboard is limited research, document preparation and other clerical assistance, and the occasional piece of advice or suggestion. As a Selectboard assistant he cannot sign contracts, draft ordinances, or supervise other Town personnel.
Hesser contrasted his job to that of a Town Administrator:
The Selectboard can vest different levels of authority to a town administrator as it so chooses. Different towns may have town administrators with drastically different levels of responsibility. Hesser noted that while this may be an advantage for a town as it retains a level of control it deems fitting, it is also a disadvantage when problems arise or a town administrator wants to seek help or advice from outside. The "do it yourself" town administrator government makes it difficult to look beyond the town for problem solving examples as every administrator is its own unique unicorn of a position.
Hesser also explained the Town Manager form of government:
The town manager model solves that issue, though, in the opposite of the town administrator model, there is a significant relinquishment of control by the Selectboard. A town manager is a creature of statute. Once a town shifts into town manager structure it falls under a set of laws that specifically set out the duties and powers of the town manager and the Selectboard. In this model, every town manager in Vermont has the same job description. This makes it easier to confer with other selectboards and managers for advice, though again at the cost of certain controls.
The Thetford Select Board concluded its discussion by agreeing to investigate the efficiency of the Select Board's operations, identifying ways to improve efficiency, and investigating the option of employing a town administrator.