Charter Revision Commission changes go before public, then selectmen will offer thoughts

Split the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission? Make the elected treasurer and tax collector into appointed positions?

Require that 2% of registered voters be present for the Annual Town Meeting to amend the budgets put forward by town officials?

Prohibit town officials from appearing before other town boards or commissions for compensation? Or should the Board of Ethics be able to grant waivers if, say, a lawyer serving on one board wants to represent clients before another?

A tart and tasty melange of charter revision recommendations will be laid out for public consumption and comment next week.

The Board of Selectmen’s public hearing on the Charter Revision Commission’s draft report is Wednesday, July 18, at 7:30 in town hall.

“First of all, I want to thank the people who served the community in this capacity, as members of Charter Revision Commission,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said Tuesday.

“They were diligent. And their research is unquestionable. The recommendations they have made were tough decisions for some questions, yet administrative in others.”

The Charter Revision Commission has worked for months, and next Wednesday’s public hearing kicks off the closing phase of its process — review and approval of proposals by the selectmen — before town voters judge final charter change proposals in November.

“The specific purpose of a hearing is to get the public’s comments on recommended changes, as well as comment from various boards and commissions,” Marconi said.

“Once that public hearing has concluded, we will begin discussions and potentially vote on each of the recommended changes,” he said. “State statute allows the Board of Selectmen to vote specifically on each question posed by the Charter Revision Commission, and to make recommendations back to the CRC.”

The selectmen’s discussion and vote could come July 18, or carry over to July 25.

The reactions then go back to the Charter Revision Commission, which would consider changes in response to the selectmen’s concerns and send a final report back to the selectmen.

“It goes back to them, they review everything we’ve stated, and then return a final report to the Board of Selectmen,” Marconi said.

Final report

The Charter Revision Commission’s response to the selectmen’s recommendations — the commission’s final report — is expected back before the Board of Selectmen by Aug. 8.

The selectmen at that point have exhausted their ability to recommend revisions, but do get a last chance to vote up or down on whether each final charter change gets passed along to voters.

This last step was clarified by the town’s lawyers at Cohen & Wolf, who wrote: “...while the Board of Selectmen may not make any changes or additions to the final report, the board may reject ‘separate provisions’ of the final report.”

“We can vote yes or no, we cannot modify or add,” Marconi said. “The Board of Selectmen has last say before going to voters.”

The goal is to get the charter questions before voters in the November election — when a sizable turnout is fairly certain.

“Ultimately, we hope the Board of Selectmen will consider sending our proposed changes to the voters on Nov. 6,” said Charter Revision Commission Chairman Jonathan Seem. “That said, the Board of Selectmen may remove any of our proposals from the ballot.”

Wetlands board

The most heated of this year’s charter revision debates concerns the recommendation to separate the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission — currently a dual-purpose agency with nine elected members performing two distinct statutory functions overseeing different aspects of land use in town.

The separation of the functions was proposed by the Conservation Commission, and actively opposed by the currently sitting Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board.

Both agencies “presented detailed information on their respective positions” and there was also “a large volume of correspondence” from citizens, the charter commission’s draft report says.

Marconi said this week that he’s told both of the interested commissions that their comments at the July 18 hearing would be limited to 15 minutes each.

The new separate Inland Wetlands Board would be elected — not appointed — with seven members serving for staggered four-year terms, under the the charter commission’s recommendations.

“Questions of concentration of power and the proper balance between development and conservation within the current structure” underlie the recommendation to split the wetlands and planning functions, the Charter Revision Commission’s draft report says.

Reasons the commission’s draft cites for the changes are:

  • “The protection of inland wetlands and watercourses is of critical importance to the environment … Conflicts between inland wetland regulations and the goals of a particular development application under the zoning regulations are inevitable, and a combined commission/board must resolve this conflict, often to the detriment of wetlands protection.”
  • “A separate board would attract candidates with specific skills, knowledge and interest in wetlands protection.”
  • “The current combined structure creates an over-concentration of land use authority” and separate agencies “would help establish checks and balances…”
  • Given all the debate “the Ridgefield electorate should have the opportunity to make the final decision in November.”

Budget powers

A fairly substantial proposed change — which drew some objections at the previous charter public hearing — concerns voters’ power to amend budgets at the Annual Town Meeting, before it goes to referendum.

“We added the requirement that at least 2% of the town’s registered electors (approximately 365) must be present for the meeting to have the power to decrease or delete any line item of the Board of Selectmen’s budget and decrease as a whole the Board of Education’s budget,” the draft report states.

“...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.”

At the Charter Revision Commission public hearing in June, Ed Tyrrell had questioned the 2% threshold as a limit on voters authority. He also noted that the proposal didn’t set a 2% requirement for approval of capital spending items — a duty often given to the annual meeting.  

The commission responded by expanding the 2% requirement to limit the annual meeting’s actions on capital spending, as well.

“We were glad to have Ed’s feedback,” Seem said. “We didn’t dismiss it. We thought it was worthwhile feedback, and we tired to incorporate his insight into our changes.”

Appointed positions

Two currently elected town hall jobs — town treasurer and tax collector — are recommended to become appointed positions by the charter commission.

“Treasurer and tax collector are purely administrative positions (positions that discharge a policy set by others or follow existing guidelines), rather than policy-making positions,” the draft report says. “Appointment also allows the town to set ‘professional and experiential qualifications’ and consider candidates who aren’t town residents — not an option when the officials must run for office in town elections.”

Election rules

The charter changes also try to address issues raised by the last town election.

The commission received “several requests” that the charter say a candidate “cannot run for more than one office” in a given election.

In November 2017, several candidates appeared on the ballot for two or more positions on boards or commissions.

“After election results were tabulated, there was some lack of clarity for several days on how to determine who won which seats,” the draft said.

An exception would allow people to run for “consecutive” terms that don’t overlap in time.

Ethics standards

The commission proposes strengthening current ethics standards in the charter.

One aspect of this drew criticism — again, from Ed Tyrrell.

The commission proposed prohibiting town employees or officials — including board or commission members — from appearing before town agencies for compensation. Tyrrell noted that for years lawyers had served on town boards, while appearing before other unrelated town agencies, without apparent ethical malfeasance. The change would reduce the number of people willing to serve on towan boards, he said.

The commission dealt with this problem by adding language that would allow town officials, who wished to represent clients before a board or commission, to approach the Board of Ethics seeking a waiver of the requirement.

Marconi said the selectmen and charter revision commission must complete their back-and-forth deliberations by early fall.

“Our drop-dead date for a vote is Sept. 5, at which time the Board of Selectmen’s final vote is due to the town clerk,” he said. “The town clerk must then forward the questions to the secretary of the state for approval to be added to the ballot.”