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School Board Member Questions The Legality Of The Budget Process



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School Board Member Questions

The Legality Of The Budget Process

By Eliza Hallabeck

& John Voket

A failed motion made by member David Nanavaty during the Board of Education’s March 16 meeting questioned the legality of the Board of Finance’s ability to make recommendations to the Legislative Council by a majority when the Legislative Council would need a supermajority vote to override the recommendation.

“I’m not moving forward on it,” said Mr Nanavaty on Wednesday, March 31, adding, “but I think it is an issue that needs to be settled.”

While he said he does not know if it is the appropriate time to look into the matter, Mr Nanavaty announced at the March 16 meeting that he would like the constitutionality of the Board of Finance’s role in town matters looked into by the school board’s attorney.

“I would like this board to have our attorney make a request to the attorney general to determine whether or not our present charter system, where our advisory board, which is the Board of Finance, ties the hand of our fiscal authority, the Legislative Council, as to whether our charter is in violation of our state constitution,” Mr Nanavaty said.

The motion failed five to two at the meeting, with Mr Nanavaty and school board member Richard Gaines voting in favor.

“I think we have to solve this issue,” said Ms Nanavaty, “and this is an issue that needs to be addressed once and for all.”

For years he thought of the Board of Finance as an advisory board, but, he said, “with what our charter has done, we’ve created an advisory board that, with a majority vote, can cut budgets. The Legislative Council needs a two-thirds vote to put cuts back. To me, I think that is unconstitutional.”

This year, of all years, he said, the school board should consider having its attorney look into whether the charter violates the Connecticut Constitution.

Mr Gaines said it has always seemed odd to him the Legislative Council needs a supermajority to override a recommendation.

“It is a recommendation, and yet it is being treated as something other than a recommendation,” said Mr Gaines at the meeting. “It has always been a puzzlement, shall we say?”

School board Vice Chair Kathryn Fetchick said last year the Legislative Council added money back after the finance board had reduced the budget.

“I’m not sure why you are saying the Board of Finance is tying the hands of the Legislative Council,” Ms Fetchick said. “I don’t understand that leap.”

Explaining his motion, Mr Nanavaty said when the Board of Finance makes a cut, it is not seen as a recommendation.

“When the Board of Finance makes a cut,” he said, “they are now saying to the Legislative Council, ‘In order for you to override us, you have to override us by a supermajority.’ I think that is constitutionally wrong.”

Having the attorney general look into matter, he continued, would be a service to the town.

“I don’t think you can have an advisory board dictate to a fiscal authority,” Mr Nanavaty said, adding that throughout his seven years on the school board, the model bothered him.

During the last charter revision, its members in cooperation with the town attorney did extensive research as a result of a proposed revision to rename the Board of Finance because of some confusing overlap between that board and the council’s finance committee. That overlap occurred when only parts of a previous charter revision were passed creating a Board of Finance by title, while retaining certain duties and responsibilities of a finance committee of the council.

It was determined at the time of the last charter panel in 2007 that state statutes empower municipal boards of finance to compel other town organizations, including the Board of Education and school district, to open their books for full review. And according to an official opinion by the town attorney, and corroborating views by three attorneys who were elected members of the Legislative Council at the time, changing the name of the Board of Finance to reflect its advisory nature would summarily remove its authority to demand to examine financial accounting of other town entities, boards, and agencies.

In the official legal opinion, Town Attorney David Grogins wrote: “The Board of Finance in Newtown is a hybrid board in that some of the normal functions as a board of finance are vested in the Legislative Council and some in the Board of Finance. The present Board of Finance has advisory as well as actual functions under the existing charter.”

Following a request for comment on Mr Nanavaty’s continuing insistence to seek a legal opinion from the attorney general, finance board Chairman John Kortze told The Bee that his board “will endeavor to pursue the best interests of the entire town under the current charter, which the voters installed.”

Otherwise he offered no further comment for the record.

First Selectman Pat Llodra said that she was aware of the constitutional question, and agreed that at some point that question should be resolved.

During the Board of Education’s March 16 meeting, Chair Lillian Bittman said she voted No to the motion because she did not want to hinder working with other boards in town. She also said the school board is not the only town entity that could bring the issue forward; anyone could.

On Wednesday, Mr Nanavaty agreed anyone could look into the matter, and noted that the process deprives voters from voting on a higher budget.

“My concern is, and I want to be very clear here, is I think the voters should decide on the budget,” he said, noting that some people may feel compelled to vote in favor of a budget they believe is too low.

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