Editorial: Select Chairs? Hartford's Odd Plan

Having been thwarted by the town charter in its attempt to elect co-chairmen, the Hartford Selectboard this week adopted a provisional plan to alternate the chairmanship between Alex DeFelice and Ken Parker, initially every other month.

Perhaps now the Selectboard could undertake to provide an honest explanation for this unorthodox arrangement. Honest, we say, because the arguments advanced so far in support of it neither define a problem that needs to be solved, nor explain how such an arrangement would solve whatever problem it is.

Before Monday’s meeting of the Selectboard, at which the new system was adopted on a 5-1 vote, DeFelice said it would ease the burden that the press of municipal business places on a sole board member as chairman. For instance, he said, it would make it easier for the chairman to attend events such as the opening of new businesses.

We are certainly not aware that the pace of business growth in Hartford is such as to stretch the chairman thin, but if so, one would expect to see a corresponding expansion of the grand list — which, to the contrary, seems to have been dropping steadily since the 2010 fiscal year.

DeFelice, in an interview before the meeting, told staff writer Jordan Cuddemi that he and Parker want to usher in an era of good feelings on the board. “We want to change the board so that really, honestly and truly, everyone feels like they are involved. There won’t be any private meetings on the side,” he said. “We want to include everybody when at all possible and not have a perceived division.”

This certainly could be taken as a slap at Chuck Wooster, the outgoing chairman. He, however, professed willingness at the meeting to give the new arrangement a try — although he also wondered exactly what problem was being solved.

And if DeFelice and Parker are truly interested in getting everybody involved, why not rotate the chairmanship among all seven members of the board during the year, giving everybody a chance?

More telling in DeFelice’s comment was the implication that Selectboard members have been huddling in private — perhaps, as has been long rumored, to settle issues in advance of public meetings. If so, we would be delighted that the practice is being done away with, although we’re bound to say that the suddenness with which the idea of a rotating chairman appeared smacks of something cooked up in a back room without public notice or comment.

Of course, the Selectboard is free to organize its own operations, within the strictures of the town charter and state law. (It is interesting to note that apparently none of the members knew that having co-chairmen was not allowed under the charter when they first tried to adopt that system immediately after the recent election.) And the chairman’s primary official duty is setting the agenda for meetings, so the role is limited. But Simon Dennis, the lone dissenter on the board, pointed out a legitimate concern in suggesting that the rotating arrangement might be confusing both for board members themselves and for town staff. Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg obliquely lent support to Dennis in saying that when it comes to town staff, it would be better for DeFelice and Parker to “rotate less often rather than more often.”

As usual in Hartford, the Selectboard’s intentions have to be divined over time. Maybe the public will eventually be able to figure out what’s really going on here.