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Council Briefed On Charter Changes Taking Effect

Published: December 9, 2016


This report was updated at 8:30pm, December 10 to correct the number of days the Legislative Council has to begin initiating a new ordinance.

Following the endorsement of a sweeping overhaul to Newtown’s constitutional document by voters on Election Day, former Charter Revision Commissioners Robert Hall and Deborra Zukowski appeared before the Legislative Council December 7 to brief the elected officials on some of the high point changes that will directly or indirectly involve that panel.

The pair of commissioners also circulated and projected a report encapsulating those changes for council members to review on their own.

While Ms Zukowski offered interpretations of a couple changes based on discussion the full commission had over more than a year of meetings to craft the newest — and likely the most logically formatted, user-friendly — version of the charter, council Chair Mary Ann Jacob reminded her that any further explanations or directives based on the new document should come directly from the town attorney.

Ms Zukowski pointed out the newly formatted charter’s “process-oriented flow,” adding that similar to the town and school district budget books, the new charter format “carries the reader through process steps.”

She explained that for the council, the elimination of town meetings to authorize public spending on large capital projects means that now members of the community will have no place in the authorization process as a legislative body — only at the voting booth during annual budget referendums when various authorizations to bond or spend taxpayer funds for projects costing $1.5 million or more will appear on the ballot along with annual town and school budget requests.

One of the other key provisions involves the Board of Finance’s role in initiating financial regulations before passing them on to the council for deliberation and potential approval. The new provision increases the amount of time the finance board is permitted for reviewing those regulations from 30 to up to 90 days, with the option of extending that review period up to another 90 days, if requested.

The updated charter also codifies that proposed financial regulations should be presented to the town finance director for review, as well.

Another best practice that has long been observed locally, but that is now codified in the new charter, is the annual review of the town’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan or CIP, which was previously required to be reviewed every two years, but is now required to be reviewed by various town boards and the council annually.

Since the revision increased the amount of public spending the council could authorize from $500,000 to $1.5 million, the council will seek a legal opinion on whether controversial expenditures under $1.5 million could be sent to the public for endorsement or rejection on the annual budget ballot, along with projects requiring spending above that benchmark.

Ms Zukowski said going forward, the council will need to review and place approved year one CIP appropriations that exceed the $1.5 million for placement on the annual budget referendum ballot. At the same time, the council must review all other spending/bonding requests to ensure the sum total of spending for those combined lower appropriations do not exceed 1 mill in any given fiscal cycle.

In regard to the budget process, the former commissioner said the revised charter codifies other existing practices, including mandating the finance director’s support of the council in its work to modify failed budget requests for subsequent public referendums, and giving the council an option to receive Board of Education and/or Board of Finance input before making those modifications.

One of the final points covered involves the council’s need to craft an ordinance coinciding with newly initiated directives for accepting or disposing of public property. Ms Zukowski reminded the council of its responsibility for ensuring an ordinance consistent with Chapter 8 of the charter is created.

The council will likely fast-track that initiative because it only has 60 days from new charter changes taking effect to initiate the process to begin crafting such an ordinance.

Upon completion of the presentation, the council unanimously voted to have its Administrative and Finance Committee develop a process by which new capital projects are prioritized for referendum or council approval if over the annual 1 mill approval limit. A mill represents one dollar for every $1,000 in taxable property.

After the meeting, Finance Director Robert Tait clarified that the annual amount of those appropriations total around $3 million.

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