Lessons from a Small Town Political Controversy

If the “best and the brightest” were watching what recently happened in Simsbury, they likely said, “no thanks.” If we wonder why good, qualified and effective people don’t run for public office, we need only to look to the recent controversy in which partisan politics prompted the well-respected first selectman to resign. One political party’s personal and partisan action resulted in a big loss for the town.

Last month, four Republican members of the six-member board of selectman voted to cut the salary of the first selectman by 36 percent and make changes to the chief executive’s pension plan. The move was the result of recommendations from a consultant hired by the town at the request of First Selectman Mary Glassman. Many people may not know that Glassman had decided some time ago that she wasn’t going to seek reelection and was looking for ways for the town to be run more efficiently and professionally.

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The consultant called for a number of changes including farming out some of the first selectman’s duties to other positions enabling the salary cut. But the expert also said the changes should be made at the end of the current first selectman’s term so as not to change the rules in the middle of game.

The problem is Glassman is a Democrat. Republicans Cheryl Cook, Deputy First Selectman Nancy Haase and Mike Paine voted to cut Glassman’s salary and make changes to her pension starting in July—midterm. (Republican Sean Askham and Democrat Lisa Heavner voted against the move.)

Further insulting to townspeople was the cabal’s insistence that the move wasn’t partisan or personal. No one is town was buying it. In fact, a petition drive was launched to reverse the vote and retain Glassman. Simsburians got the former but not the latter.

The Republicans held a news conference and gave the usual political blather about working together, listening to residents and moving forward. They said they would reconsider the salary-cutting vote but looked right past Glassman, the people’s choice for the top office in town. Haase, the candidate Glassman defeated for first selectman, went out of her way to say, “…I know I speak for the four [Republicans]…as we all offer our support today for our next First Selectman, Lisa Heavner.”

The board did in fact reverse the vote but recognized Glassman’s resignation as well. Perhaps that was the plan all along. It wasn’t about saving money, it was about eliminating a very popular first selectman who was virtually unbeatable at the polls. If so, mission accomplished.

Glassman was understandably hurt. The other board members never advised her of their plan to cut her salary and change her pension, never discussed it with her before or after and never talked to her about their plan to reconsider their coup.

Glassman’s resignation is not about the money. She doesn’t need it. One wonders what would have happened if Simsbury’s first selectman relied on the salary and factored it into a decision to seek the office. That’s where the question of the legality of the move comes in. But Glassman is too classy to challenge the bush league move in court (she’s an attorney and former reporter).

Glassman has served as Simsbury’s first selectman for nearly 16 years. She is widely respected and unquestionably competent. She has been recruited by companies and organizations all during her tenure for far more lucrative positions than first selectman of Simsbury. She turned them down because she loves the town.

There are lessons to be learned from the Simsbury mess. For instance, one political party can’t thwart the will of the people and not face a backlash. Simsbury voters elected Glassman for that position at that salary and with that pension plan. When the other party disregarded the people’s choice and showed its contempt for Glassman, the people got angry.

The effort to find the best and brightest is always tough in this day and age. The Republicans on the Simsbury Board of Selectmen have made it all that more difficult.