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Brief Public Hearing Airs Two Suggested Charter Revisions

The first of at least two public hearings being conducted by Newtown’s newly seated Charter Revision Commission (CRC) only took about 12 minutes, but it provided two residents an opportunity to air ideas on changes they would like to see to the community’s constitutional document.

Commissioners Kevin Burns, Eric Paradis, Dan Wiedemann, Deborra Zukowski, Tom Long, James Ritchie, Chairman Jeff Capeci, and Vice Chair Robert Hall were in attendance for the July 28 hearing, which subsequently adjourned into a brief planning meeting.

Commissioner George Guidera was called away on a family matter and did not attend Monday’s meeting, Mr Capeci said.

The first resident who approached the commission was former CRC chairman and member Al Cramer, who spoke about the political party makeup of the Board of Education, and his desire to see party affiliation leveled to a more fair playing field for potential minority party members.

He gave a brief history of his involvement with the issue dating back to his service on a 2008 commission. Mr Cramer explained that the charter revision his panel recommended increased the number of school board members from six to seven, a recommendation which carried through to voter approval.

“Prior to 2008, we had a six member Board of Ed with one [political] party having no more than three members,” he recounted. But he noted that a change was being suggested when several key votes among that board kept deadlocking along party lines.

“The public sentiment was to make an odd number, so the commission reviewed [the proposal] and decided on seven by unanimous vote,” he said.

At the same time, the way school board members would be elected changed, creating a situation that by state statute, permitted as many as five members from any single party to make up a super majority on the board.

His suggestion was for the current CRC to review the guidelines between the staggered election process for the seven members, and how those member’s political parties might make up the overall board.

“I hope the Charter Revision Commission will consider [creating] a 4 to 3 party stipulation,” he said, which would limit any political party from holding a super majority in the future.

The second citizen to come before the commissioners was Michael Scolaris, who asked that the panelists consider changing the annual split or bifurcated budget to a nonbinding vote.

His concern was that if a voter endorses one side of the budget that passes, and the other side does not, citizens cannot reconsider their original endorsement when weighing in during a second or subsequent referendum.

When asked by Mr Paradis whether he wanted the commission to consider eliminating the split budget vote, Mr Scolaris said no. But he added he would like an opportunity to revisit and possibly change the original approved budget if reductions to the unapproved budget were too draconian.

“I may not want to put $1 million into a contingency fund [on an approved municipal side of the budget] if later, the council decision is to cut the Board of Education to a bare bones budget,” he said. “You don’t vote first on one set of facts, and then three weeks later on a different budget with a different set of facts.”

Mr Hall reminded the resident that in its current state, the charter stipulates that residents vote on two separate budgets, but Mr Scolaris said that despite its bifurcation, the spending plan still represents a single townwide commitment of taxpayer funding.

Mr Capeci then asked for the dialog to cease and told Mr Scolaris the commission would take his concerns under consideration.

Following the hearing, Mr Capeci briefly polled commissioners in attempts to plan the commission’s meeting schedule for the remainder of 2014. The chairman also briefly discussed how he was planning to break down areas of suggested revisions so the panel could more effectively research, review, and recommend possible changes. He also asked the commissioners to choose areas they might like to work on specifically for future committee assignments.

The next meeting of the commission is tentatively set for Tuesday, August 12, with plans to meet every two weeks until their deadline to complete a recommendation to the Legislative Council.

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