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Councilman Believes Charter Vote Hinged On Misinformation



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Councilman Believes Charter Vote

Hinged On Misinformation

By John Voket

In the first few minutes of a regular meeting March 2, Legislative Council member Kevin Fitzgerald raised the topic of a month-old council vote. That vote recommended a charter revision providing taxpayers with budget questions.

At the same time, the council chose to uphold the Charter Revision Commission’s recommendation against splitting or bifurcating Newtown’s budget ballots. During a February 9 meeting, Mr Fitzgerald cast the only opposing vote against accepting the charter panel’s recommendation for budget questions and against bifurcation, also saying proposed budget questions did not go far enough to clarify the intent of voters who cast No votes.

This week, Mr Fitzgerald questioned whether council members understood that a bifurcated budget could be permitted, and remain binding on one part of a town budget if it passes while giving a legislative body the flexibility to adjust the other part of the budget that fails to gain taxpayer approval.

At the February meeting, Mr Fitzgerald said in a bifurcated budget, if the town side was approved and the school side was not, funds could be shifted from the town side to increase the school side. Council Vice Chair Mary Ann Jacob countered that the only way such a scenario could occur would be in a unified budget, similar to last year when after repetitive failed budget votes, the council agreed to add money back to the school side and the unified budget subsequently passed.

At the time, Mr Fitzgerald said Ms Jacob was mistaken. But Charter Revision Commissioner Joe Golden spoke up from the audience backing Ms Jacob’s interpretation.

During both meetings, Mr Fitzgerald referenced neighboring New Milford, which has a bifurcated budget, and includes a set of budget questions for each side of the proposal.

The New Milford ballot asks taxpayers to vote to fund the town side, and separately, the school side. Then, the New Milford ballot asks if the voter supports adding money to the town side budget request, or the school side request, in the event one or both has failed.

Ms Jacob said this week that she was wrong when she said a split vote in the scenario Mr Fitzgerald described February 9 was not permissible by statute.

New Milford Town Clerk George Buckbee clarified Thursday morning how the New Milford budget process has been implemented under bifurcation and the four related budget questions. He said that while the New Milford charter returns both sides to the local council when one side fails, and the council has permitted flexibility to add or subtract from either side regardless of which was rejected, the New Milford council has, in practice, always reduced the failed budget request.

Mr Buckbee said that every year since the bifurcation the town side has never failed, and when the school side has failed, the council has always cut the school request until the budget passes. The New Milford clerk, who has been in office 16 years, also said his council has never sent the passed side of the budget back with further cuts.

“They have always left the town side untouched, because it has always passed,” Mr Buckbee said. The clerk also said the ballot questions requesting whether the taxpayers wanted the failed side increased were “stupid,” and he has never seen more than ten percent of the New Milford voters requesting funding to be increased to the failed side of the bifurcated budget.

“In the event the school side has failed, the school budget question has never received a Yes vote to add more money,” Mr Buckbee said, adding that in his opinion the bifurcated budget has done nothing but instill animosity between taxpayers and school supporters.

“This system forces the council to act against the schools, and the school budget always gets cut to pass that side of the vote,” he said.

‘A Major Mistake’

While Newtown Council Chairman Jeff Capeci said this week he did not want to change previous minutes to reflect the new information, he would let the discourse during this week’s meeting stand for the record.

After this week’s meeting, Mr Fitzgerald was still convinced the charter vote may have gone differently if the council had the correct details about the New Milford process.

“At that [February] meeting, most council members voted believing it was not legally possible to have a bifurcated referendum without a ‘passed’ budget being binding if the other fails,” Mr Fitzgerald said in a postmeeting e-mail to The Bee. “In fact, other towns in Connecticut have been doing it this way successfully, including our neighbor New Milford. But most council members did not know of this when they voted.”

Mr Fitzgerald said voters in Newtown have been asking for the budgets to be split and for advisory questions to be added, and called the charter commission’s recommendation “a major mistake.” Nonetheless, he said the conversation this week corrects the record. 

“While I don’t know for certain what the outcome of the LC vote would have been if every member of the council knew that such a referendum ballot is legal and has been working well in New Milford for ten years,” Mr Fitzgerald said, “I do believe it would have led to much more discussion and that many more members would have joined me and voted to defeat the motion to accept the CRC’s recommendation, which falls very short of what the public asked for.”

Ms Jacob said despite the clarification, she would still not support the bifurcation of Newtown’s budget. And she insisted that providing the recommended budget questions in Newtown empowered the voter, while giving the council some direction.

If voters approve the Newtown Charter revision, all future budget ballots will ask each voter to: (a) approve the budget, or (b) reject the budget because it is too high, or (c) reject the budget because it is too low. The charter referendum is set for March 29.

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