Charter Panel Examining Majority Rule, School Board Political Makeup
Along with its charge of streamlining Newtown’s charter and making it more user-friendly for residents and taxpayers, the current Charter Revision Commission is deliberating a matter outside its charge that some members believe strays from editing and housekeeping and into decidedly political waters.
During an April 21 meeting at Town Hall South, Chairman Jeff Capeci told The Newtown Bee that commissioners discussed and took a consensus vote on whether the constitutional document should mandate a political party makeup of 4-3 on the seven-member board of education, or whether the charter should maintain a 5-2 political majority, which is consistent with state statute.
Mr Capeci said he was planning to bring the issue up for formal discussion and a vote when the commission met Thursday, April 30, after this week’s print edition of the newspaper went to press. A few days after its straw vote, and ahead of the April 30 meeting, The Bee polled charter commissioners to solicit their thoughts on the issue.
Ironically, Mr Capeci said, the straw vote split with Democratic and unaffiliated commissioners favoring a 4-3 party makeup, and Republicans opting to leave the current 5-2 split as is.
“Some of the commissioners came to the conclusion that requiring a 4-3 split further overrides the intent of voters by putting someone into a position they didn’t win by majority vote,” Mr Capeci explained.
At issue is the definition of “bare majority.”
In 2008, voters approved a charter change to expand the school board makeup from six to seven members. Explanatory text distributed to the media and voters at the time said the change would allow “up to four members from any one political party.”
That number became a point of contention in the run-up to the 2013 election, when Republicans won five seats on the school board. Prior to that election, Town Attorney David Grogins reviewed the bare majority stipulation in the charter and sanctioned a 5-2 split on the board.
Clarify The Language
Commissioner Eric Paradis, a Democrat, said one of the critical tasks for the current Charter Review Commission is to look at the way the Board of Education is seated.
“There was a great deal of confusion in the last election that resulted in the town attorney deciding that a bare majority was a 5-2 board since there were multiple elections on the last ballot,” Mr Paradis said. “In reviewing the documents from the last Charter Revision Commission and talking with members of that group, the intent was clear; a seven-member Board of Education should not have one party holding more than four seats.”
Mr Paradis noted that it is the wording of that section of the charter that comes into question, and he believes it can be clarified rather simply by using similar language from other boards that have a bare majority of one seat.
“When the subcommittee on the various boards and commissions looked into this issue, it was decided that eliminating that language clarified the problem of confusing language. While it does do that, it also ignores the idea that a bare majority is what was intended and therefore I cast the dissenting vote on the subcommittee,” he said.
“I do not believe that any one party should hold a super-majority on the Board of Education,” Mr Paradis added. “This board should be as apolitical as possible and by ensuring a bare majority of one seat for the majority party, collaboration becomes more important than ideas and beliefs espoused by a political agenda.”
Commissioner and attorney Kevin Burns admitted that the issue seems to be causing some confusion.
“Whereas some people think it should be 4-3, [or interpret current language] to mean 4-3, it seems to me to say it’s 5-2,” Mr Burns said.
While the charter clearly says it should be 5-2, Mr Burns said he would like to see it changed to require a 4-3 makeup on the school board.
“I think that I favor more generous representation from minority parties as a general proposition because it just provides more opportunities for people to be involved regardless of the major fundamental differences on how they view the issues,” Mr Burns said.
Commissioner George Guidera said the school board’s political makeup was not even on his radar when he volunteered for the post, and as far as he can see, it is the only “political” issue that has come up since the panel began meeting in late 2014.
“According to what I’ve been told, the town attorney ruled it’s a 5-2 split, and that complies with the state’s minority representation law,” Mr Guidera said. “I fully understand the need for minority representation — it’s just not good to have full party rule.”
Mr Guidera added that he finds it ironic that state lawmakers mandate such rules for municipalities when they are not bound to similar rules in the statehouse.
“I think it disenfranchises people,” he said. “I’m for some minority representation, but it doesn’t have to be 4-3.”
Mr Guidera was among a number of charter commissioners who said they had received a flurry of e-mails on the issue, and wondered why there was sudden interest in the issue when there was no discussion about it until recently, and virtually no citizen call for a revision of the school board party makeup.
“It’s not our job to change things” to suit a political agenda, he added. “And I’m not sure we’re supposed to get into politics when we were not specifically charged to — when it comes to minority representation, you have to be careful what you ask for. As I have seen many times, most if not all majority parties [on local boards] eventually will become the minority.”
Produce Best Document
Mr Guidera said he also sides with people who believe elected officials should be seated based on voter intent, not because they were the highest vote getter from the minority party when a panel’s makeup is mandated by law, or in this case by local charter.
“It’s a drawback because it doesn’t allow direct democracy,” Mr Guidera said. “On a seven-person board, [voters] should be able to elect the seven that they want. If the legislative council wanted us to take up the 4-3 issue, they will direct us to do that. The charter says it’s 5-2, so I’m voting for 5-2.”
Commission Vice Chair Robert Hall, who was largely responsible for drafting Newtown’s original charter, said that while the panel received a robust, six-page list of charges, it is completely within the law for a Charter Commission to take up and recommend changes outside its charge.
“Our goal should ultimately be to produce the best document,” he said. Mr Hall also said he has not seen any suggested language put forth toward changing the current language permitting a 5-2 makeup on the Board of Education.
“The 5-2 split came as a result of a town attorney opinion, and a 5-2 minority representation is called for under state statutes,” Mr Hall said. “If it’s going to happen, language in the charter should mandate a 4-3 preference. My personal opinion — it should remain 5-2.”
Votes Should Count
Commissioner Dan Wiedemann said he ultimately wants to see people’s votes count.
“I’m a Republican, but neither party should have a means to place people on such a powerful elected board if they didn’t receive a corresponding number of votes,” he said. “If I want to vote for five people on a five-person board, I don’t want to be told someone else has to get placed if they didn’t earn it by their number of votes.”
Drawing direct correlation to the current school board, Mr Wiedemann pointed out that their recommendation of a 2015-16 district budget came down to a 6-1 vote in favor, with a Republican dissenting.
“That vote came on a 5-2 board with a Republican majority,” he added. “And if 5-2 is good enough [to be stipulated by] state statute, it should be good enough for Newtown.”
As a former educator and school superintendent, Commissioner James Ritchie said a school board should strive to be devoid of politics.
“When any one party is in control it gets political,” he said. “So I’m on the side of making it 4-3 — it forces a less political makeup. And so far, I haven’t heard any good rationale for keeping it a 5-2 split.”
Mr Ritchie said he is also concerned when a large majority on a board caucuses in private, and has the potential of predetermining both deliberation and outcomes of matters before that board.
Head, Heart Conflict
Commissioner Deborra Zukowski said as an engineer by profession, her analytical mind has determined that Newtown’s Charter language does indeed direct a 5-2 party split. But in her heart, she feels voters endorsed the applicable charter change several years ago under the impression it would direct a 4-3 school board makeup.
She also admitted to needing more information, and that discussion on the issue was “still in progress.”
“The current charter is pretty darned good — with only one or two spots that don’t make sense,” she said. “So if we’re going to change it, there better be a damned good reason for it.”
Ms Zukowski said in a perfect world, she would poll 1,000 residents on whether they thought they were voting on a 4-3 or 5-2 school board makeup when they endorsed the last charter revision.
“To me it’s clear what the charter is saying, but the people who endorsed it — the representative electorate, I believe, thought it would [deliver] a 4-3 split,” she said. “That leaves me conflicted between my head and my heart — and I always like my head and heart to agree.”