No. Branford’s growth may bring changes

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
11/13/2007

NORTH BRANFORD — Democrats are still celebrating their gains in last week’s election, in which the party won a majority on the nine-member Town Council for the first time in 30 years.

At the same time, Democratic Mayor Andrew Esposito lost his post to Republican Michael Doody by four votes. Under North Branford’s electoral system, voters choose from a group of people running for the council and the top vote-getter among them becomes mayor.

With three more votes than Esposito, Joanne Wentworth retained her role as deputy mayor, meaning that both the mayor and deputy mayor will be Republicans. A recount Saturday verified the tallies.

Looking at the election results, Democrats and Republicans said they are hoping to work together to advance a number of town projects in the coming months. But some politicians said they think the town should consider revising its charter and creating a stronger mayoral position sometime in the future.

“We have outgrown the form of government we presently have,” Esposito said. “Back when the population was 7,000, 8,000, 9,000 people, it worked, but with the population we have now (of about 14,500), there’s a lot more people (and) they should be deciding who they want for the true town leader with a mayor or selectmen form of government.”

Esposito said that, as a Democratic mayor with a Republican-majority council, he felt his “hands were tied” in some circumstances. He added that he is “ecstatic” that the Democrats now have a majority, but he thinks both parties will continue to cooperate.

“We’re all friends and neighbors — we have to work together,” he said. “We’ve got a great council now as we did in the past, and I look forward to working with each and every one of them.”

Doody said that he does not think the majority change will have a big effect on the council, and he could not name any recent 5-4 votes on controversial issues.

“I think the council’s been working great over the last two years and we know there’s big projects in front of us that we have to get accomplished,” Doody said. “I think everybody’s going to work together.”

The mayor’s role, he said, is to set the council agendas and conduct meetings. He added that he thinks the current system works well.

“We elect nine people to the Town Council, so I don’t know how you separate it out (and) what criteria you’re going to use for the person running for mayor,” Doody said. “It could get confusing, so I’d rather see it stay (that) we elect nine council people and the winner gets the most votes. Another spin on it is, does the council choose to elect its own representative or mayor?”

North Branford’s form of government is also unique in the shoreline area because it employs a town manager. While some cities in Connecticut and many across the country have a manager, many people in this area are not familiar with the setup.

Town Manager Karl Kilduff, who recently announced his resignation, said his role to conduct is the day-to-day administration of the town’s business, while the council sets large-scale and long-term policies.

Kilduff said that having a paid town administrator provides continuity between political terms. He makes about $104,000 a year, while the Town Council members work part time and are unpaid.

“There’s integrity in the decision-making process that decisions are made based on the best interests of the community rather than short-term advantage,” he said.

“It makes sure that as government becomes more and more complex with mandates and other requirements placed on us at the federal and state level, that we have a professional providing a degree of leadership for the community.”

He added that the city manager system is “the most popular form of government across the U.S.”

“While it’s unique in this region, it’s not unique in this country, and it’s something that North Branford should take pride in because it’s provided stability for 36 years,” Kilduff said.

Democratic Town Committee Chairman Jerry Juliano said he thinks the town’s leader should be an elected official.

He added that his party has been discussing the idea of having a charter revision in a few years to look at North Branford’s election rules.

Juliano said that a structure “where the mayor is the head man and he makes the decisions, not the town manager … has more of a bite.”

But Doody said that, even in places with a strong mayor or board of selectmen system, the town often hires a finance director or similar position. North Branford’s council has a good handle on what is going on in the town, he said.

“Some places … lose focus that the town council answers to the public for the business of the town,” he said.

“Sometimes in different places the town managers take more control and will let the council sit in the background, (while in) some places the town council likes to take control and just have the manager run the day-to-day business, so it varies.”

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