Listening, tinkering, but not backing off, the Charter Revision Commission decided to make a couple of changes based on townspeople’s comments at its public hearing June 18.
“The whole idea of the Annual Town Meeting is that you can vote,” Ed Tyrrell told the hearing, attended by fewer than a dozen people. “We have a town meeting form of government.”
Tyrrell, a veteran spending critic, was skeptical of the Charter Revision Commission’s proposal to add language requiring attendance of at least 2% of the town electorate — about 365 voters these days — for the Annual Town Meeting to consider motions to decrease or delete spending lines in the town and school budgets proposed by the Board of Finance, altering the numbers before they get to referendum voters.
Charter commission members declined to reduce or eliminate the 2% requirement, saying they’d started out thinking of a 4% requirement before budgets could be tinkered with.
“There are two rationales for this change,” the charter commission’s draft report says, “(1) Encourage greater attendance at the meeting, and (2) recognize that these budgets have been developed over many months with considerable input and analysis and should not be susceptible to modification by a small group that might not be representative of the town’s electors.”
The commission did act on a related inconsistency pointed out by Tyrrell — a member of a previous charter revision commission. Capital spending proposals, under $100,000 each, can be voted on at the Annual Town Meeting but, he noted, there was no minimum attendance requirement to “decrease or delete” any spending lines coming before the meeting.
“If 12 people show up, they can still vote on capital items,” Tyrrell said.
So the charter commission extended the 2% requirement so it must be reached for the annual meeting to consider motions to decrease of delete capital items.
Based on another suggestion from Tyrrell the commission created a subcommittee to redraft language prohibiting town officials — including volunteer board members — from appearing before various other town agencies in a professional capacity on behalf of clients.
“No town official or employee shall represent another person or entity before the town or any of its constituent entities,” the charter commission’s draft said in a “standards of conduct” section.
Tyrrell said local professionals, such as attorneys, sometimes volunteer on local boards and commissions. They would have to resign, or see their livelihoods affected, under that language.
“That’s a big mistake. You’re going to have the unintended consequence of having fewer volunteers,” he said.
Tyrrell noted that Charter Revision Commission member Patrick Walsh is an attorney with a local practice.
“Mr. Walsh would not be able to serve on a committee such as this,” under the proposed language, he said.
Could anyone come up with a single example, he asked, an instance where a Ridgefield official represented private interests in a way that abused the trust given to them as a public official?
“You’re fixing something that’s not broke,” Tyrrell said, “and you haven’t gone through the unintended consequences.”
Three other people spoke at the public hearing. Macklin Reid supported the concept of a threshold attendance for the Annual Town Meeting to reduce lines in the budget, but thought 2% might be too high a number.
Michael Autuori, a former Planning and Zoning and Inland Wetlands Board member, asked what the commission’s rationale was in choosing to make the new independent Inland Wetland Board elected, rather than appointed.
“All of that is in the minutes,” said Commission Chairman Jonathan Seem.
The commission added another meeting to its schedule, Monday, June 25, and will postpone delivery of its report to the selectmen, so a subcommittee of three — Les Steinman, Patrick Walsh and Joe Egan, all attorneys — can craft language giving the Board of Ethics authority to grant “waivers” so professionals could represent people before town agencies, while also serving on other unrelated town agencies.
“Less is more,” commission member Chuck Hancock advised the subcommittee. “The more you try to describe it, the more you get tangled up in your shorts.”