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Bethel Board of Selectman Push Back Against Referendum Budget Vote at Online Realtime BOS Meeting Based on CT Gov. Lamont’s Executive Orders, Residents Object with Words of Fire

Report by Paula Antolini, April 22, 2020, 7:56AM EDT

OPINION / LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

Early in the Board of Selectman (BOS) meeting last night the viewpoint of First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker was very clear about whether or not the he would allow a referendum vote to take place regarding the budget vote. He referred to Governor Ned Lamont’s Executive order number 7i and 7s and read through parts at length.

Knickerbocker said, “Since last weekend I have been made aware of a certain amount of confusion with a couple of Governor Lamont’s executive orders. Specifically Executive order number 7i (like India) paragraph 13, which was issued on March 21st. This is the executive order that contains the mandate that requires towns with a town meeting form of government, to have their Board of Selectmen vote to empower the Board of Finance, which is categorized in the order and the budget making authority, so by vote of the Board of Selectmen to empower the Board of Finance to craft and approval of the budget and set a mill rate without holding a town meeting or referendum. Now the language in this is very clear that it says ‘shall’ which means it is not negotiable, it’s not an option, it says that this will happen.”

He continued, “But then on April 1st a subsequent executive order was issued, this was 7s, chapter 7, and it contains some very vague and poorly crafted language, and I’m sorry if I am throwing somebody in the governor’s office under the bus, but a lot of people spent a lot of time trying to figure it out.”

Knickerbocker said, “The language appears to overrule 7i with the phrase, I am not going to read the whole thing but the key words are, at the last part of this order it says, ‘Nothing in this order may prohibit a municipality from conducting any in-person meeting, approval process or referendum, providing such municipality consult with local or state health officials and conducts such meeting that significantly reduces the risk of transmission of COVID-19.”

“So here are the problems with that order, and I can tell you that every elected official in the state that has town meeting form of government is begging the governor’s office to try and clarify this,” Knickerbocker stated.

Knickerbocker went on to say, “Number 1, the paragraph that contains the sentence specifically refers to approvals to borrow money and appropriations for certain expenditures, but it contains no reference to the municipal budget process. We’re not included in it. “

“Number 2, the language in 7S does not specifically overrule any previous executive order, which it should if it is going to vacate the conditions of the previous order. It’s supposed to say that and it doesn’t. It doesn’t even mention it. If the intent of 7S is to overrule 7i it should have been stated in the preamble.”

“Number 3, the provisions of 7n (like Nancy) which was issued on March 25th, ‘Limiting public gatherings to no more than 5 people’ still remains in effect, it was not canceled, and it calls into question the ability to run a safe referendum under any condition.”

“Number 3 [4], the office of the Department of Health, not ours but at the state level, has no guidance on what would be considered a legally safe referendum. Aside from the legal problems with the order, the safety of poll workers and volunteers has to be considered. And anyone who voted no said a significant number of our volunteers and retirees over the age of 65, and that’s an age group that’s highly vulnerable to this disease.”

“Number 5, the town could be exposed to significant liability. If a poll worker or volunteer contracted the disease as a result of working on close proximity with others.”

“Number 6, the election results could be challenged if people chose not to vote if not feeling safe and felt that the referendum shouldn’t have been held.”

Knickerbocker summarized, “So again, the mayors and the first selectmen and virtually every town that has town meeting form of government have been asking for days, directly through the governor’s office and through CCM (Connecticut Conference of Municipalities) and Counsel of Small Towns for clarity on this and we have yet to receive it. So until we get some clarity on that I’m not recommending a referendum.”

Selectman Paul Szatkowski asked to clarify where the wording came from that Knickerbocker was referring to. Knickerbocker answered, “What I just read was the text of the orders.” … “The first part of what I just read was from the executive orders. The second part of it, like the language, I distilled those from several conversations I’ve had with one of the governor’s staff members, as well as some of the attorneys who are helping the governor draft those orders.”

Selectman Szatkowski said, “I am getting several calls saying, ‘We really should consider a referendum’ and I keep on telling them about the COVID virus. Is there a safe way? Maybe I’ll put this under ‘New Business’ today and we’ll discuss it.” He later suggested ways to have a safe vote such as via drive-up.

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So it’s a done deal? No referendum and an approve vote with higher taxes, mill rate and budget? Time will tell.

To add insult to injury, in this time of quarantine the last thing citizens need is to have their right to vote taken away from them under the guise of only referring to certain parts of the governor’s executive orders and not clearly interpreting the orders, at that.

There were a few people who attended the online realtime BOS meeting last night, which began at 7:00 p.m. on Zoom, who spoke out about the rights of the residents to have a vote, and also argued against higher taxes in these desperate times, and that was Billy Michael and Bill Hillman and a few others.

Cynthia McCorkindale, a member of the Board of Finance, did just the opposite and did not take the opportunity to fight for the rights of citizens when she had the floor, as she promised to do when campaigning to be elected to the Board of Finance. In fact, she flat out said the referendum could not happen, when speaking publicly at the meeting last night, after Bethel resident Billy Michael spoke.

Billy Michael stated, “People have been out of work a month now, their jobs may never come back! And now you’re going to put a situation where you’re going to put a tax increase and because we are going to comply to obey the governor? That’s so convenient, all of this emergency decree is leveraged and exploited to avoid giving unemployed people a vote on tax increases, that have salary increases for people with guaranteed jobs! Talk about turning everything that’s America on its head. I want to see our Selectmen raise hell in Hartford, defend us and protect us and say our fiscal year goes all the way to July, let’s wait.”

Michael made suggestions on how tents could be used where people could drive up and place a vote, like other towns had.

“Not only does this deny the people a vote on over 2 million dollars of tax increase but now you have meetings where the people, most of the participants on the Board of Finance on the public portion of the budget are town employees or teachers, making arguments for higher taxes for people who don’t have jobs,” Michael said.

Michael continued, “If this goes the way it has been proposed by the Board of Finance deciding it, you’ve got a split Board. Four people of one party will decide the mill rate and over 2 million dollars in new spending, and all the time the narrative goes on.” … “It is sickening to me the way this is being handled.” … “I am so against what you are doing and being so complacent and obedient and not opening up to protect us.”

Cynthia called Billy “animated” and “entertaining” …. and although she said, “He has a lot of truth in what he said” she also said “For right now I’m just going to let go of the referendum because I THINK THAT’S A FIGHT THAT CAN’T BE WON, and that’s just because nobody is pushing back on it.”

Obviously Ms. McCorkindale is not in touch with the people who are presently struggling greatly and are opposed to the idea of NOT allowing a citizen their right to vote against a raise in the budget, mill rate and taxes.

McCorkindale asked for “more time” to have “more data” before the budget is approved, saying that the labor department doesn’t have the figures for unemployment yet, “which they are not going to have for 1 or 2 months.” She said, “Here’s what I want. I want, like an extension, because if we have another extension that’s something that could be pushed back on, then we have more time, we have more data, we will have more data.”

Does Ms. McCorkindale really think things will change that drastically in a few months to justify taking away the American vote?

However, then a change in her tune, so who is Ms. McCorkindale really? Seems to be playing both sides.

She said, “I have seen Knickerbocker when he wants to get something done. He just gets out his laser sword and starts hacking through the brush. It’s not because of lack of ability to push back.” … “Anybody in this country, or on this screen right now, who doesn’t have any level of concern about what’s happening and what a governor can do, and stop the votes of the people, doesn’t understand what this country was founded on, and I mean that sincerely.” But I thought Ms. McCorkindale just said, “I’m just going to let go of the referendum because I THINK THAT’S A FIGHT THAT CAN’T BE WON.” So which is it?

Whatever she is doing behind the scenes does not matter if she does not step forward when she has her chance to speak in public to officials to protect the rights of residents. Actions say all.

Bethel resident Bill Hillman summarized it well when he said, “The type of representation, the ONLY representation we have in this town, to approve taxes is ‘We the People.’ Now I am not going to repeat the governor’s order 7s, ‘Nothing in this order should be construed so far…’ and whatever Mr. Knickerbocker said, but I will say that we did not elect the Board of Selectmen to impose taxes, nor did we elect the Board of Finance to impose taxes. I want to vote NO on a one point seven seven million increase with a .33 mill rate increase. One point seven million dollars IS A LOT. It’s being dictated, as Billy Michael mentioned, by 4 members of the Board of Finance, Dalene Foster, Robert Manfreda, Robert Palmer and Wendy Smith.”

Hillman continued, “Today we learned of the closure of Bethel Cinema. That’s a symbol of bad times and much worse times to come for so many of the people in Bethel,” said Hillman, “In fact you can increase the spending one point one million dollars year to year and have no increase in the mill rate. Are the special interests so greedy that they insist on getting more than a million dollar increase year to year? I want to vote NO! I’ve got the right to vote NO. And I expect my town to fight like hell to retain my Constitutional right. We fought a revolution over tis. It is wrong not to find some safe way.”

Hillman referred to the curbside pick-ups of free lunches at the schools and suggested a similar drive-up method could be used for the vote, as well as mail-in.

Tim Beeble, one of the Town of Bethel Registrars, said, “On March 10th as the COVID public health crisis was starting to hit Connecticut, the Bethel Registrars of Voters administered a referendum for a capital budget item, without any state mandates forcing us to do so, we instituted a number of modifications to our polling place and the process in order to protect the voters and the poll workers. This included cleaning the voting equipment periodically throughout the day, a no-touch inspection of voter ID, offering privacy folders as an option, not simply handing it to them, and then cleaning throughout the day the voting booths, privacy booths, and then the tabulator tenders directed the voters to place their privacy folders into a box and the folders were not reused during the day.”

Beeble continued, “On March 14th then, Executive order 7b suspended the in-person meeting requirements permitting video meetings where the public can access the meeting by audio or video in real time. And then on the 15th, Executive Order 7c, gave towns a 30-day extension of their charter-defined deadlines for adopting a budget. And this is unfair to Bethel, rather than having the governor say you have until June 15th to pass your budget, they gave a 30-day extension and attributed towns differently based on what their charter says. We go with an early town date in April, other towns go with May, s that those later towns have an additional 30 days beyond what we have through this executive order.”

Beeble said, “But beyond that, on March 25th, Vernon conducted a special town meeting using the video option, and then immediately upon moving the question for a vote, the electors n town jumped in their cars and drove down to their town hall for a drive-through vote. And having seen that news coverage, Nancy Ruyan and I egan formulating a way that we could do the same thing for a budget referendum. Clearly the town meeting vote did not involve ballots. Som we came up with a way of how we would have people check in, drive to another station, get a ballot, drive to the next station, and fill out the ballot with your own pen, turn it over to a poll worker, and within the voters view the poll worker would put it into the tabulator. And of course the poll workers would be gloved and masked, and be protected in that way, ad they’d be out on fresh air as well.”

“We looked at the three polling places and they were going to be adequate, we could set up a loop so that the cars could cue up and go through the system,” said Beeble, “So that wasn’t going to be a problem.

“It wasn’t until the following week that we learned about Executive Order 7i, which was issued on march 21st, and that’s the one that mandated that towns go through the process of authorizing their Board of Finances to pass a budget and set a mill rate,” Beeble said.

“I don’t know how you reconcile Executive order 7i and 7s,” Beeble stated, “However I think you have to assume that each executive order expands upon and modifies the previous one. Whether we hold the budget referendum within the confines of the executive order is up to the Board of Selectmen. If the decision is to hold a referendum vote, it’s up to the Registrars of Voters to come up with a process that is safe in the eyes of the State Health Department.”

Longtime Bethel Resident Phil Gallagher said, “I’ve been around here a long time and I’ve never seen anything quite like this situation. The only previous time was in 2009 when I was Chairman of the Board of Finance and we were at the depths of the long recession, and there was a great deal of pressure to zero out the budget, the Board of Selectmen recommended to the Bard of Finance … and I like to wait for additional information as long as possible, and that year we did get additional information because the Board of Ed was able to save about 700,000 in their medical account that allowed us to zero out painlessly that particular year. This is a different set of circumstances.”

Gallagher said, “I think it’s a good thing that the vote is delayed as long as possible … hopefully the Board of Selectmen will advise them, if they give them permission to empower a vote without a referendum, that they give them as long as possible.” … “I would hope there could be a referendum if at all possible. Listening to Mr. Beeble it sounds like a possibility, I think it should be pursued.”

Ann Scacco, Certified Connecticut Municipal Collector (CCMC Tax Collector) for the Town of Bethel, stated, “I wrote a letter to the Board of Finance for their lat meeting, I don’t know if anyone received it with all their many emails that they did get.”

Scacco said, “One of the things I wanted to point out about delaying the budget. Obviously I’ve long been a proponent for not delaying the budget so that we could get the bills out on time. But this year it is very critical that the bills go out by the 1st of July. And the reason for that is part of 7s and 7w, is the state has mandated that the town peg a program, either the low interest program or the deferment program, or the people that are out of work, or landlords that don’t have tenants, and the businesses that are closed, their deadline to file is July 1st. t has to be billed by July 1st. Due by July 1st in order for this program to go through.”

Scacco continued, “So as much as I understand everyone wanting extra money and caring about extra money, you will be taking the benefit away from the most neediest people, people that can apply for this benefit program. And I’m getting a lot of business owners calling about the program, a lot of home owners calling about the program. I’ve told them that tonight’s the meeting where the Board of Selectmen makes a decision on which program they’re going to go with. They’re waiting on pins and needles to know what’s going to happen.”

“I recommend strongly that the budget goes through so that we can give the deferral or the lower interest program to those people,” said Scacco.

Apparently no one is looking out for the residents deep in debt with high taxes, lower value on their homes, mortgages to pay!

Please consider contacting your town or state officials and local legislators.

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