Wetlands, elections, ethics: Should charter change?
Separating the Inland Wetland Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission may be the most hotly debated change the Charter Revision Commission will present to townspeople at a public hearing next week. But the commission is offering some other ways to improve town government.
The tax collector and town treasurer are proposed to be appointed rather than elected jobs.
And the Annual Town Meeting could, as now, amend school and town budget amounts — but only if the meeting attendance equals 2% of the town’s registered voters, currently about 365 people, under another proposed change.
The charter commission also wants to clean up some of the quirks that led to confusion after the last election — candidates could run for only one office each election, for instance.
Revised and more specific “ethical standards” for town officials are also being put forward.
The Charter Revision Commission’s public hearing is Monday, June 18, at 7 p.m. in town hall’s large lower level conference room.
The commission’s draft report details the process of listening and research behind the recommendations.
“Every proposal and comment received was documented, considered and Discussed,” the draft report says.
The commission voted 5-4 to separate the inland wetlands from the planning and zoning functions, as proposed by the Conservation Commission.
“Both the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Conservation Commission ... presented detailed information on their respective positions,” the draft report says, adding to “a large volume of correspondence” from citizens.
“Underlying the discussion and vote by the commission were the questions of concentration of power and the proper balance between development and conservation within the current structure,” the report says.
The Charter Commission offers reasons for the change:
- “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.”
- Wetlands protection is different from zoning, and “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.”
Less controversial was the proposal that the separate Inland Wetlands Board be elective — not appointed — with seven members serving for four-year staggered terms.
Changing the town treasurer and tax collector from elective to appointive positions was supported by Charter Commission members 5-4, with input mostly from town officials.
“...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 report says. “...Appointment also allows the town to set “professional and experiential qualifications” and consider candidates who aren’t town residents — as elected officials must be.
Changes proposed to town budget procedures include “the concept of a ‘Master Budget Schedule’ produced by Board of Finance to provide a calendar for the entire budget cycle.”
Anther change concerns voters’ power to amend budgets at the Annual Town Meeting, before it goes to referendum.
The commission “clarifies that the meeting can reduce/delete line items in the Board of Selectmen’s budget but can reduce only the total amount of the Board of Education budget,” the report says.
“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 report says.
“...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.”
Charter Revision Commission Chairman Jon Seem explained with a question:
“Does the current Annual Town Meeting turnout really give a broad and fair representation of the town, such that people can be suggesting things to be changed?”
Other proposals address issues that came up in the last town election.
The commission says it got “several requests” for a charter provision saying a candidate “cannot run for more than one office” in an election.
“The background for these requests was the November 2017 municipal election,” the report says. “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.”
An exception allows people can run for “consecutive” terms that don’t overlap — as happens sometimes on the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The Charter Revision Commission describes the current ethics standards “aspirational” rather than definitive, and proposes a new section providing more specific conduct rules on subjects ranging from “gifts and favors” to “use of positions” to “confidential information.”