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Charter Panel Charts Its CourseFollowing Critical Council Review



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Charter Panel Charts Its Course

Following Critical Council Review

By Steve Bigham

After facing a highly critical Legislative Council two weeks ago, the Charter Revision Commission appears to be back on course this week. Its members say they remain committed to preparing a set of recommendations for charter changes that are in the best interest of the people of Newtown.

At its meeting last week, the board began discussing how best it could improve its communications with the public, particularly its reasoning behind some of the bigger changes it has proposed. To date, the board has proposed creating a stronger first selectman (with veto power) and a board of finance that would be responsible for keeping tabs on the town’s finances year round. Meanwhile, the council, which would still have final say over the annual town budget, would be freed up to handle some of the larger issues facing the town.

“What we are trying to do is create a Legislative Council that is able to focus more on the strategic and visionary issues of the town. These are things like Fairfield Hills, the 5/6 school, demographic factors, land usage and the other major issues this growing town will face,” noted board member Jane Sharpe. “Meanwhile, the Board of Finance will work very closely with the finance director and meet constantly and know the issues well to free up the council.”

But current members of the council do not look at the plan as a mechanism for freeing up the council. Instead, many of them believe the Charter Revision Commission is trying to reinvent the wheel. Two weeks ago, some council members shot down the commission’s proposal point-by-point, suggesting that the board was somewhat out of touch with the day-to-day work currently going on in town government.

“I’m surprised at how dramatic their proposals are, and it disturbs me that they’re looking at things that didn’t work before,” noted Legislative Council Chairman Pierre Rochman. “They’re not looking at the past. They’re proposing something that has already been tried and they are trying to do it again.”

The Charter Revision Commission admits it was surprised and somewhat taken aback by the vehement opposition to its proposals. Nevertheless, commission members plan to go forward with their plans, pointing out that the feedback they receive is not just from the council.

“We got strong feedback from the council, but we’re getting feedback from other people in town, too,” Mrs Sharpe said.

Chairman Bill Sheluck agreed.

“At the public hearing at the outset of our work, people called for dramatic changes in the structure of government and said we should start from ground zero. We didn’t realize how prophetic those comments might be,” he said.

Last week, the charter panel did discuss items that it may want to reconsider and there appeared to be some feeling that a four-year term for the first selectman may need to be looked at closer. But members are standing by most of their recommended changes.

 “We came back to the same viewpoint that we were comfortable with the decisions we’ve made so far, but we will continue to revisit them,” Mrs Sharpe said.

The commission is formulating a communications plan which includes speaking engagements at the meetings of various clubs and organizations. It is hoped that the community at large will gain a better understanding of its plans. All recommendations must first get by the Legislative Council, which will not likely be an easy task.

“Our only hope is that the Legislative Council will keep an open mind and consider our recommendations carefully,” Mr Sheluck said.


Eliminating The Town Meeting

Last week, the board took up the issue of the town meeting form of government and whether it should be retained, modified, or eliminated altogether. Several members of the Legislative Council have suggested that the town meeting be eliminated.

“We have not reached any consensus on this. We’ve tossed around several alternatives with respect to the town meeting concept, ranging from keeping it the way it is to eliminating it entirely,” Mr Sheluck said. “We did discuss some middle ground possibilities, such as utilizing the town meeting for smaller appropriations and going to a referendum for larger matters. Some felt that it might be better to give the Legislative Council greater authority for these smaller appropriations. Some felt it might be better to give the council greater authority and eliminate the town meeting.”

There are some concerns that the town might face several referendums on the budget each year if the town meeting is eliminated.

The board last week also tied up some loose ends with respect to finance issues, agreeing to allow negotiated bond issues for refinancing purposes. Finance Director Ben Spragg had indicated the need to be able to go to competitive bidding for refinancing. The current system takes away his flexibility to take advantage of attractive interest rates.

This week, the Charter Revision Commission will begin discussion on the “elective boards and commissions” section of the charter. Its primary issue here is related to splitting the Planning & Zoning Commission (P&Z), which some town officials and residents favor and others do not.

In less than a month, the Charter Revision Commission is scheduled to begin preparation of its draft report. Once its report has been submitted to the town, it is required to hold a public hearing to discuss its recommendations. Following the hearing, the board will meet again before submitting a final report to the Legislative Council. The council can approve or reject the plan. The charter panel has the right to petition any proposed changes onto the ballot at next November’s referendum should the council reject its plan.

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