Charter ballot questions approved by selectmen

Substantial charter changes, administrative adjustments, clarifications of debated language — nine ballot questions that would enact a wide range of proposals put forward by the Charter Revision Commission were approved Monday, Aug. 13, by the Board of Selectmen.

The selectmen’s final approval means the ballot questions will be put before town voters at the November election.

Aside from the extensively debated charter proposal to separate the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission, most questions were approved by the selectmen with relatively little discussion.

The charter ballot questions are designed to reduce the Charter Revision Commission’s sometime complex proposed changes to the relatively short proposals that can be put before voters for in a “yes or no” format. The ballot questions have been approved by the selectmen and the town attorney.

The charter proposals are expected to be questions 2 through 10 on the ballot, with question 1 a state constitutional issue. The town also plans a question 11, asking voters to approve spending up to $48 million on a state-required renovation of the town sewer plant.

Here are the charter questions, 2 through 10, with brief explanations.

  1. “Shall the Town Charter be amended to make certain technical and administrative changes?”

This section includes “non-substantive” tweeks to the charter, such changing the names of the Economic Development Commission and the Board of Assessment Appeals.

  1. “Shall Section 4-5 of the Town Charter be amended to provide that no person shall be eligible to run for more than one elective office of the Town of Ridgefield at the same election where the terms of such offices overlap?”

This change seeks to avoid the confusion that followed the last election, when some people were elected to more than one office. The language specifying “where the terms of such offices overlap” includes virtually every elected office in the town. But it does allow an exception for people to run for two offices that don’t overlap  — as can happen for the Zoning Board of Appeals, which has had members elected to a term that doesn’t begin until a year after the election. If there was a ZBA vacancy that ends in a year, someone might run to fill out the last year of a vacancy, and also run for a new term that begins after the vacancy term is over — since the terms don’t “overlap.”

  1. “Shall the Town Charter Sections 4-1, 4-9 and 9-1 be amended and Section 9-17 be added to the Town Charter to provide that the Town Treasurer become an appointed position?”

The treasurer has long been elected office. Making the position appointed would broaden the pool of potential applicants, advocates say, since they wouldn’t have to be Ridgefield voters — a requirement for all town elected officials.

  1. “Shall the Town Charter Sections 4-1, 4-9 and 9-1 be amended and Section 9-17 be added to the Town Charter to provide that the Tax Collector become an appointed position?”

The tax collector, also, has been elected, and like treasurer is considered an “administrative” rather than a policy-making position — which advocates of the proposed change say makes it appropriate for appointment.

  1. “Shall Section 10-1 (a.), (b.) and (c.) be amended to adopt a ‘master budget’ schedule specifying the timing and process of the Budget Cycle?”

The charter commission believes this change will “identify key activities and define the date that is expected from the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education” for finance board’s review, and help make the budget process more accessible to the public.

  1. “Shall Section 10-1 (c.) be amended to allow the Town Meeting to decrease or delete a line item from the Board of Selectmen’s budget, on the whole budget of the Board of Education, so long as there are at least 2% of the qualified voters present at the start of the meeting.”

The current charter allows the Annual Town Meeting to “decrease or delete” budget line items before the budget is sent to referendum. Setting a minimum size, this proposed change is meant to prevent a small group of people from using the town meeting to reduce budgets before they get to the majority of voters at referendum. With 18,000 voters in town today, the 2% means 360 are needed to be at the town meeting for a majority there to alter budgets going to referendum.

  1. “Shall the Town Charter be amended to add new Section 10-2(d) to define the process for dealing with appropriations or transfers of unexpended capital project balances?”

There are “unexpended capital project balances” when, for instance, voters approve $50,000 for a new truck, and the town buys it for $47,000. Who decides what to do with the leftover $3,000? The selectmen and finance board have haggled over this in the past. The charter commission’s proposed solution is to have the decision made “by the selectmen in collaboration with the Board of Finance.”

9. “Shall the Town Charter be amended to separate the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission and provide that members of the Inland Wetlands Board be elected?”

Currently nine people are elected to serve on a combined Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board. The proposal — the most extensively debated of the recommended charter changes — would make the Inland Wetland Board a separate seven-member agency, also elected.

10. “Shall Article XI be deleted in its entirety upon the approval and adoption of a Standard of Conduct Ordinance at a Special Town Meeting?”

This section envisions the selectmen overseeing the writing of a new section of ethics standards for town officials and putting it before a town meeting for approval as a town ordinance. Once the ethics ordinance is approved, the existing ethics code would be deleted.

This proposal was devised after the Charter Revision Commission felt the existing ethics code was too “aspirational” and vague, and proposed a lengthy new ethics section. The selectmen felt a total rewrite of the ethics code was too big a change to be done as one question on a long list of charter revisions.

So, the selectmen will work on ethics standards, probably in collaboration with Charter Revision Commission, and put the new ethics section to a town meeting as an ordinance.

Voters on this current charter question are being asked to agree to the elimination of the existing ethics rules, after a new ethics code is adopted.

The selectmen agreed there should be an explanatory text for each of the questions, which would be printed on a “tri-fold” pamphlet that would be distributed, and could also be up on wall posters at polling places — as was done with 2014 charter changes.