Charter Revision Commission hears some new, and old, ideas

Like bramble-strewn paths that may or may not lead to places worth visiting, four avenues for exploration have been laid out before the Charter Revision Commission.

Speakers at the commission’s public hearing Monday, Jan. 8, suggested that town government might be improved by:

  • Restricting people from running for more than one town office in the same election, so more offices are filled by voters, and not by appointment to refill seats after candidates who won multiple seats resigned. This could avoid a repeat of the confusion that followed the last election, which saw several candidates run for and be elected to more than one office — such as a two-year and a four-year seat on the same board — and then have to resign extra positions and hold only one seat.
  • Separating the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission — the two currently serve different functions but feature the same nine-member elected body.
  • Creating a Housing Opportunity Commission that could pursue, with the heft of a charter-ordained appointed agency, goals the Affordable Housing Committee previously labored to advance.
  • Improving the workings of the town’s Blight Prevention Board — although commission members thought this might be outside the scope of charter revision, since the blight board is created by a town ordinance, not the charter.

About a dozen people attended the Charter Revision Commission hearing. Four addressed the commission, proposing areas of potential charter change.

Other ideas

More ideas may be suggested, as the charter commission still expects to hear from the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education.

The selectmen plan to discuss possible charter changes at their meeting Wednesday, Jan. 31, at 6:30 in town hall — and then report to the commission. The school board is looking for a date to meet.

After the public hearing, First Selectman Rudy Marconi said he might propose increasing the number of signatures needed to petition for a special town meeting. Currently a proposal requiring an expenditure less than $250,000 may be petitioned to town meeting with signatures of 2% of voters. Signatures of 5% of voters are needed to require town meetings on issues costing more than $250,000. With 18,000 registered voters in town, 2% is 360 signatures and 900 is 5%.

“You can get that on a morning at Stop & Shop.” Marconi said of the 2%.

Charter Revision Commissioner Ellen Burns recalled that advocates for the Bennett’s Pond land purchase collected more than 3,000 signatures; she said that “3,000 signatures is hard.”

“Look at the number of signatures necessary, and do we need to adjust that,” Marconi said.

Marconi also said Public Works Director Peter Hill has suggested the commission consider raising the dollar amount at which a purchase is required to go through a formal bidding process — currently $5,000.

One office only

Residents, town officials and commission members showed support for a prohibition on people running for more than one office in one election.

Last November two agencies, the Board of Education and the Zoning Board of Appeals, had candidates who were elected to more than one seat — a partial term, created by a resignation, and a full-year term. The double-winners had to resign from one of the two positions they’d been elected to, leaving the empty seat to be filled by appointment.

“One person, one spot,” said Michael Raduazzo.

A former member of both the Board of Finance and the Board of Education, Raduazzo recommended the charter be amended to prevent people from running for more than one office.

“If they’re elected to both positions, they resign one and that becomes an appointed position,” Raduazzo said. “...You’re appointing a person who was not elected — to me, that doesn’t sit well.”

The concept found sympathetic ears.

“The fiasco that happened last time needs to be corrected,” said former Judge of Probate Joe Egan, who serves on the commission.

Wetlands and zoning

The question of splitting off Inland Wetlands Board duties from those of the Planning and Zoning Commission — creating two separate boards from what is currently one agency with powers in both areas — was considered in the last charter revision, but didn’t make it through the process.

It was raised again.

A letter from the Conservation Commission said only eight of Connecticut’s 169 towns and cities combine inland wetlands and planning and zoning functions.

“In the four years that have passed since the last review, the importance of safeguarding our wetlands and watercourses has become more urgent,” the letter said.

The Conservation Commission hopes to “present more detailed arguments” at a future Charter Revision meeting.

A similar suggestion came in an email from Michael Autuori, a former member of the combined Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board.

Affordable housing

Dave Goldenberg, former chairman of the town Affordable Housing Committee, suggested the creation of a Housing Opportunity Commission to address the high housing costs that make it hard for people to live here.

“I believe housing opportunity rises to the level of importance requiring the establishment of a permanent commission,” Goldenberg said.

The Affordable Housing Committee was created by and reported to the selectmen. Goldenberg felt a commission established by charter would be more independent and could accomplish more — even if it was appointed by the selectmen.

“It separates it from any kind of political consideration, or mood, or slant on the Board of Selectmen — that was an issue,” he said.

The Affordable Housing Committee was established in 1997, but in 2014 its membership resigned en mass and the selectmen haven’t refilled any of the positions. Goldenberg came to the selectman last fall and proposed re-establishing it as a Housing Opportunity Commission, and they’re considering refilling the committee’s seats, but suggested his proposal for a commission go to charter revision.

Blight board

John Metzger of Colonial Lane suggested making the Blight Prevention Board more responsive to neighbors upset with a blighted property — a situation he and his neighbors have been in.

“I believe the ordinance should be reviewed and looked at to be tightened up to make it, in my view, more reasonable and rational,” Metzger said.

Commissioner Burns wasn’t sure the blight board and ordinance were something the commission could address.

“Since it’s an ordinance, I don’t think it’s in the domain of charter to address that,” she said.

Marconi agreed.

“If he wants the ordinance modified, it would be a request to the Board of Selectmen to call a town meeting,” the first selectman said.

“It’s obviously not working for you and your neighbors,” Burns told Metzger. “I think it’s good you came in.”