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Many Voices, Many Issues Discussed at Bethel Charter Revision Committee Meeting on May 8th

Report by Paula Antolini, May 9, 2019, 5:07PM EDT

Charter Revision Committee meeting May 8, 2019, Room A, Bethel Municipal Center.

There were numerous Charter revision issues discussed at Tuesday night’s well attended meeting this week. (View Charter sections discussed, at the end of this article.)

The floor was opened to public input and Police Commissioner Michael Duff spoke first about Bethel Town Charter § C11-11, requesting that the section be changed to allow Police Commission meetings to be held at Police headquarters instead of requiring Police Commission meetings at the Bethel Municipal Center. “I’d like to point out that this particular section in our town Charter has been abused since conception,” he said. “As far as I know the Housing Authority has never met in the Municipal Center, nor has the Library Board, and at times the Building and Site Committee has not. It is a section that is simply not enforced. The Police Commission though, has been inconvenienced many times by noise in the hallways, intrusions during executive session, interruptions during interviews, and worst of all having our meetings without the reference material that we must keep at the Police Station.”

Mr. Duff’s recommendation for § C11-11 was, “Do not try to reword it, it was ill-conceived and poorly constructed. Simply delete it and get rid of the problem and let the Boards and Commissions do their responsible thing.”

Anthony Rubino, Chairman of the Police Commission, also spoke about Police Commission meeting issues. He said, “One resident in this town made a complaint. They didn’t like where the Police Commission was having their meetings..” …”The Charter was then changed to make the Police Commission meet in an upstairs room in the Town Hall, which is wrong.” He added that there were delays in meetings for another month, to finish the meeting at times because of lack of access to materials they needed that were stored at Police headquarters. “The Police Commission needs to be in the Police Department,” he said.

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Board of Finance member Cynthia McCorkindale spoke and turning to the Committee, she said in part, “I want to encourage you to take into consideration the voice of the people, and how they’ve enjoyed, for many years, a Town Meeting form of government. And last time there were changes proposed for a 5-person board, or 4-year terms that were bundled together … I might be getting ahead of the game here but I just want to prophylactically say a few things that I think we need to be concerned about. The Town meeting form of government is a very strong sentiment here in town.”

Ms. McCorkindale spoke and said, “I’m thinking there is going to be a move to try and combine the budgets again, and again, maybe there’s not, but I just think we need to be aware of things that may actually affect the voice of the people.”

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Tia Murphy, Chairman of the Bethel Public Library Board of Directors, discussed issues about where the library board meets. She said it was her understanding that the board could meet at the library or the Bethel Municipal Center. She said they have run into conflicts at the Municipal Center because other meetings are taking place at the same time and according to their bylaws they have to meet only on certain days of the week. “As a result a number of times we got bumped,” Murphy said. They always hold their meetings at the library when it is open, or let people in if they run past closing time, she said, “Which is rare.”

“I was under the impression that we were allowed to do that,” Murphy said, “If that is not now a part of the Charter that we are allowed to do that … it would be great to be able to do that just like the Police Commissioner.”

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Planning & Zoning Commission member Kitty Grant discussed meeting locations also. “Having a meeting, knowing what goes on during our meetings, not being able to have the materials available, that are necessary when you are at a meeting, to me, it boggles my mind. How you can make the Police Commission meet in this building when all of their materials are in that building. Or even the library. The library should meet in the library. I don’t know why this rule was made up but I definitely think it should be changed.”

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Pat Rist, Chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission, referred to § C11-11 Meetings. “There is something that just stood out,” she said, and proceeded to read the section. “In addition, this provision as currently written prohibits the Planning & Zoning & Inland Wetlands Commissions from meeting in the fields to perform site walks.” Rist said, “I have been on Planning & Zoning for 18 years. We have been doing site walks for 18 years and they’re treated as a meeting. They’re opened and they’re closed.”

Rist also referred to the wording in the Charter regarding Public Notices, and said, “Change the word ‘newspapers’ to ‘publications’ to allow greater flexibility of legal and public notices.” She said, “The cost to run the notices in the News Times is extraordinarily expensive.” Rist wanted to know if changing the Charter wording would allow placement of notices in other more economical local publications.

Charter Revision Chairman Nicholas Hoffman responded to Rist, “That’s been part of the conversation to make the verbiage flexible, seeing that it’s five years between us, communication isn’t moving towards printed newspapers, paywalls are going up every day, how do we make it accessible? And whether its other printed media or digital media, we don’t want the town to be prohibited from utilizing that resource and having to pay a fee because we didn’t set up the Charter appropriately.”

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Billy Michael, founder of the Bethel Action Committee, said, “It’s a double edged sword. You can alter the soul of the town, and it’s scary because this is our Constitution. The soul of Bethel is our Charter.” He said there was a “Populous Movement” that went through the state of Connecticut in the 80’s that no one talks about anymore. “The automatic referendum was part of a state-wide move, in 1986 there were only two towns who had automatic referendum, Weston and Granby, and one was doing away with it, and then all of a sudden this idea took hold, that we should maximize the amount of people voting on tax increases and spending,” Michael said. “The town meeting at that time was drawing about 2% of the people and a bad referendum would still draw 15%. Yesterday I believe was 19%. We had 24% a month earlier.”

Michael continued, “So this idea of maximizing the participation in a referendum, where a populous citizen-driven event with Town meeting form of government, were able to enact it.” … “I think when we look at the soul of our town there’s a steady move of currents though. The currents of thought are not towards retaining the Town Meeting form of government. People find it annoying, the votes, the budget, people speaking at town meetings, people that have opposing views … there’s all that human element that some people don’t like and they want it clean, and done, and you pay people to do it, you don’t participate. Everybody in this room knows how few people participate in the actual governance of our town but it’s open to all and that’s the beauty of the Town Meeting form of government. We are all citizen legislators. And when you look at the flow chart of power it’s the people. The people of Bethel are the first thing you go to, our elected officials and various boards and commissions.’

Michael said, “The whole point of my little input is I would hope that you don’t alter the political soul of the town because the Town Meeting form of government allowed us to thwart the sale of our water supply. That was the Town Meeting form of government and all of the mechanisms that allow citizens, little nobodies, unelected people, to stand up against bureaucracies.” … “The Town meeting allows so much for the least of us, in order to enact change, to have an impact on things.”

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The next item on the agenda was input from Board of Finance Chairman Bob Manfreda. “What you do is very important,” he said to the Charter Revision Committee, “I don’t think of it very much as managing souls, but I do think of it as, it’s the contract between the Town and its citizens. So what you all are doing is setting the rules, setting the code of conduct, so thank you for that.”

Manfreda referred to § C10-2D and commented, “That is the provision that divides the budget into a Board of Ed budget and a Town budget. That came into effect I guess it was 2007, just about 12 years ago, a little shorter. Back then I think I was on record as saying that provision was kind of going to be a little divisive for the town when they had people rooting for one side of the budget and not the other.” … “I do think that divisiveness can be eliminated by dropping the two budgets and having a single budget.”

Manfreda said, “Almost as importantly, and it does echo Mr. Michael’s comment … the second referendum tends to have even fewer people attending than the first referendum. So if a budget does fail we end up with even fewer people addressing that second budget. So to me it seems it would be best to have as most participating as we can on the entire budget through one referendum, which would be a combined Town and Board of Education budget.”

“My next comment just has to do with the process of the budget, § C10-2E,”§ C6-3A, § C6-3B, Manfreda said, “That’s the public hearing, the Town meeting, and the budget referendum.” … “Again echoing Mr. Michael’s comments I think we’re all frustrated by the numbers that participate in those meetings. Again, the contract nature of this document that you all are working on. I’m just curious as to whether or not we can build something into that document that helps with notice and awareness of the process … this being the contract for how people operate, if there’s some way that you all who are thinking about this more than anybody else, can think about how we can use those sections in a way to draw greater participation.”

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Next were comments from Beth Cavagna, Town Planner of Planning & Zoning, Inland Wetlands Land Use Department. She said, “A lot of people in this room were people that were on Charter Revision Commissions with me. I was on four, I think I started a fifth but I left to come to work for the Town of Bethel. But anyways, dealing with Planning & Zoning as far as the publication, I’ve been a supporter of that for years and I think it’s important to discuss it with Town Council or at least our present Town Council to ensure if we make that change we’re accomplishing what we want to do, which is, publish in the Pennysaver, at least a quarter of the price of what it’s costing the Town to do our publications. Something like the Pennysaver which reaches 7,000, 8,000 households in the Town of Bethel, serves the people much better than the News Times. I don’t know, very few of us that even read the legal notices in the News Times.”

Cavagna continued, “Also along the same lines dealing with the department, in your definition of Public Works Director I think it’s important to include training. You’re talking about roads and fleet maintenance and things of that nature, I think it’s very important to expound on the definition and his roll.”

“In regards to state statutes dealing with town employees serving on Land Use Commissions, I don’t know if your Council is familiar with that, I believe that there was a change in the statutes over the last year or two, that makes some kind of an allowance for that to occur,” Cavagna stated. “It’s not something I’m looking for a change for because again, just reviewing different positions that are in Town Hall, the Assessor’s office, the Tax Collector’s office, that maybe have some sort of communication or influence, or could possibly have influence on whether a development takes place or doesn’t take place. I like the way it works now where Town employees cannot be on Land Use Commissions. I think it works well.”

Now I’m going to talk a little bit about the Charter things,” Cavagna said, “and it’s interesting how the world changes in 20 years … 30 years ago, ” Cavagna said. “In my time serving on the charter Revision Commission, I always said from day one, it’s to try and keep our Town Meeting form of government ansd take it as far as we could go with it to make it more accessible to the general public. In conversations with even the present First Selectman, I’ve always said to him, ‘When you’re ready to change the form of government give me a call.’ “

Cavagna said, “I feel the last two Charter Revision Commissions, all you’re doing is tweaking and fixing. If you choose to stay with the present form of government I ask you to look at two things that were instituted by Charter Commissions where I was a member of.

“The first one being, I agree with Mr. Manfreda with regards to the budget. I think Bilky would attest to the fact that when we changed the Charter and we instituted the referendum I had severe reservations with that. I said we were one town one budget,” Cavagna stated. “I see we’re going to have problems going into the future.”

Cavagna said, after naming many of the lastest town and school projects under way, the Police Station, two school additions, and expensive repairs needed in other areas, a high school addition, “And I think you can see the results of doing that with poor planning,” she said. “So we’re doing all these good things in town, we’re doing it by the people telling us we need to do it, but we’re not maintaining what we have. We’re not planning for the future maintenance of those things.” … “There’s an imbalance there.” … “All we’ve been doing is creating imbalances.”

“You can only tweak this Charter so much … personally I don’t think it is working anymore,” Cavagna said. “I think it’s time to look and move to the next level.”

A member of the Charter Revision Commission asked Cavagna how exactly she would “streamline” Town government, which she mentioned doing earlier, “because of the bureaucracy” she said. Cavagna answered, “I would use a Town manager, as an example. A Town manager is truly a day-to-day operational person. It’s not someone who has to be concerned about being elected every two years or however they’re elected.” … “He looks at the town from a less political point of view.”

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First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker gave comments on the local government, also using a slide presentation. He said, “This doesn’t take a stand on any particular form of government it is just informational so that you know what the different forms are.”

Knickerbocker said. “The basic form of government is a triangle … the Executive Branch, Judicial Branch, Legislative Branch, and they share power, they counter-balance each other. Most forms of government in the United States follow this pattern, ” he said, “Not perfectly, some very greatly, some are messy, but this is the basis of what the founding fathers put together in the Constitution. Powers of our land come from the Constitution and they derive from the people themselves. As Billy said, you know, this is the grassroots part of democracy. Powers not specified in the Constitution automatically fall to the states.”

Knickerbocker said, “The other thing that’s not mentioned on the Constitution is local governments … so again that was delegated to the states. Local governments are only in power according to state law. The most important part of the power structure is the Legislative body. The Legislative body is whatever group can take money out of your pocket, put you in jail, establish laws, establish taxation, establish foreign policies, establish zoning laws, that’s the Legislative body that can do those things, and the Legislative body is not the same in every form of local government.”

Knickerbocker continued, “Obviously at the federal level the Legislative body is U.S. Congress, at the state level is our erstwhile General Assembly which is meeting right now … and at the municipal level the basic forms are either City Council in some form … or a Town meeting.”

“In Connecticut we have what’s called whole rule … the other side of the coin is called General Rule,” Knickerbocker said. “In Connecticut, the State Legislature, many hundreds of years ago, basically said, as long as you’re not breaking the law you can have any form of government you like. You get to choose, and run your Town or your borough any way that suits you.” … “The other form is General Rule … and in that form they dictate exactly not only what form of local government but what powers they have.”

“We are a Charter Town, as was discussed,” Knickerbocker stated. “Not every town in Connecticut has a Charter. You could have one or not … then state law takes over and says you must have a Town Meeting form of government. Town Meeting form of government is the basis and default form of government unless you choose to do something else.”

Knickerbocker said, “The three basic types are Mayor, City Council … there’s a new one called Council, City manager, and then the one that we like is Selectmen, Town Meeting.” … “Mayor, City Council is exactly what it appears to be, in most cases it conforms to the triangle, yopu know, the separation of powers. You can have an elected Mayor, you have a City Council, and then you have like a Court structure. In some forms of City Council the Mayor is a voting member of the Council, although usually not. In some forms they have a veto power over the Council.” Knickerbocker went on to describe the voting processes for different types of government, and explained differences between “Strong Mayor” vs. “Weak Mayor” in Mayor, City Council types of governments, and a new ones, “Council, Manager, and RTF (Representative, Town Meeting).”

“Right now in Connecticut there are 103 towns that operate under a Town Meeting type of government, 28 have switched to Council, Manager, 29 still maintain Mayor, Council,” Knickerbocker said.

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The Charter Revision Commission considered many proposals and decided which ones should be discussed, such as allowing the Police Commission to meet in the Police Station instead of the previous mandatory Municipal Center, and also the Library Board meeting in the Library, and the Planning & Zoning Commission having site walks that are also considered meetings, and other proposals.

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VIEW CHARTER SECTIONS MENTIONED, BELOW:

§ C11-11. Meetings. All regularly scheduled and/or special meetings of elected and appointed boards and commissions shall take place at the Clifford J. Hurgin Municipal Center. School facilities may be used when size and capacity of the meeting rooms are an issue. Additionally, the Bethel Public Library meeting rooms may be used for convenience and overflow purposes.  Additionally, the Bethel Public Library meeting rooms may be used for convenience and overflow purposes.

§ C4-4. Power to Enact Ordinances. A. The Board of Selectmen shall have the legislative power to enact ordinances consistent with the Connecticut General Statutes and the Charter on any matter which the Connecticut General Statutes or this Charter direct to be legislated by ordinance and in general for the preservation of the good order, health, welfare and safety of the town and its inhabitants. “Enact” or “enactment,” as used in this Article, includes the adoption, amendment or repeal of an ordinance passed by the Board of Selectmen. B. At least one (1) public hearing shall be held by the Board of Selectmen before the enactment of any proposed ordinance. Notice of a hearing shall be given by publication of the full text of the proposed ordinance in the form of a legal advertisement appearing in a newspaper having a general circulation in the town, not less than ten (10) days before the date of such hearing. C. The Board of Selectmen shall take action on the proposed ordinance within thirty (30) days after the public hearing. D. The synopsis of an ordinance as enacted and its effective date shall be published in the form of a legal advertisement appearing in a newspaper having a general circulation in the town. Notice shall be given within ten (10) days after enactment by the Board of Selectmen. Every ordinance, after enactment, shall be recorded by the Town Clerk in a book to be kept for that purpose. When substantial changes are made in an ordinance following the public hearing, the full text of such ordinance may be published at the discretion of the Board of Selectmen. [Amended 11-7-1978; 11-6-1984] E. Every ordinance shall become effective on the 31st day after publication, unless procedure to overrule such ordinance is initiated in accordance with § C6-5 or C6-7 of this Charter. [Amended 11-7-1978; 11-6-1984] F. Upon affirmative vote of at least two three (32) members, the Board of Selectmen may correct technical errors in ordinances. For purposes of this section, a technical error occurs wherever in the language of the ordinance or resolution, as adopted, material was included or omitted when obviously not intended, or material was Formatted: Indent: Left: 0.19″ included in a form obviously not intended. Such correction shall in no event alter the substance of such ordinance or resolution. The correction as made by the Board of Selectmen shall forthwith be published, and fifteen (15) days thereafter, the corrected ordinance or resolution shall go into full force and effect.

§ C10-2. Preparation of Budget. D. The Board of Finance shall then revise review the Board of Selectmen’s the estimates and may revise said estimates by increasing or reducing an individual department’s budget as a whole as it deems desirable. The Board of Finance shall not eliminate, reduce or increase line item amounts. After its revisions, the Board of Finance and shall prepare a general town budget report. The general town budget report shall separately set forth the Town Operating Budget and the Board of Education Budget.

§ C10-2. Preparation of Budget. E. The Board of Finance shall hold one (1) or more public hearings on the general town budget report not less than fourteen (14) days before the Annual Town Budget Meeting. At the hearings, any person qualified to vote at the Annual Town Budget Meeting shall be heard. 

§ C6-3. Annual Town Budget Meeting. [Amended 11-6-1984, 11-7-1989]

A. Annual Town Budget Meeting. (1) The Annual Town Budget Meeting shall be held on one (1) of the first seven (7) days of MayApril, at the discretion of the Board of Selectmen, with publications and notices required by law. The date for such meeting shall be scheduled by said Board by January 15 of each year. [Amended xx-xx-20xx] (2) Said Budget Meeting shall have the power to reduce, or approve any portion of the proposed budget recommended by the Board of Finance pursuant to C10-2.F. for final approval by the Budget Referendum as hereinafter set forth. [Amended 11-6-2007] (3) Said Budget Meeting shall not have the power to increase the proposed budget or any portion thereof, as approved, or deemed to have been approved by the Board of Finance. (4) In the event that the Budget Meeting shall fail to approve the proposed budget for submission to the Budget Referendum at its first session, any portions so approved shall be deemed approved for any future sessions of the Budget Meeting prior to the Budget Referendum. In the event and to the extent that the Budget Meeting does not approve the proposed budget as submitted or revised, said Budget Meeting shall be recessed and reconvened the next business day, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays, until the proposed budget is approved by the Budget Meeting. [Amended 11-6-2007] (5) When the proposed budget has been approved, as submitted or revised, the Budget Meeting shall automatically be adjourned for final vote and approval by the Budget Referendum.

B. Budget Referendum. [Amended 11-4-2003; 11-6-2007] (1) The Budget Referendum shall be by machine vote not less than seven (7) nor more than fifteen (15) days, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays, from the date of approval by the Budget Meeting. The Budget Meeting shall set the date of the Budget Referendum and the Board of Selectmen shall set the hours and designate the place for the Budget Referendum. Notice of the same shall be given in the manner provided by law. (2) There shall be two (2) questions presented at the Budget Referendum, one on the acceptance or rejection of the Town Operating Budget and one on the acceptance or rejection of the Board of Education Budget. The proposed Town Operating Budget shall be approved as a whole by a majority of those voting who are lawfully entitled to vote or rejected as a whole by a majority of those voting who are lawfully entitled to vote. The Board of Education Budget shall be approved as a whole by a majority of those voting who are lawfully entitled to vote or rejected as a whole by a majority of those voting who are lawfully entitled to vote. (3) In addition to the vote on the proposed budget, the Budget Referendum shall also contain non-binding advisory questions as to whether or not each of the proposed Town Operating Budget and Board of Education Budget is too high or too low. C. Failure to Adopt. [Amended 11-6-2007] (1) In the event that the majority of those voting who are entitled to vote in the Budget Referendum reject either the proposed Town Operating Budget, the Board of Education Budget, or both, the Board of Finance shall revise the rejected portion(s) of the budget and submit proposed revisions thereof to the Budget Meeting on the date and time as set by the Board of Finance within seven (7) days after said Budget Referendum. The Budget Meeting and any subsequent Budget Meetings as to such proposed revision(s) will be conducted in the same manner as set forth in § C6-3A herein until such time that the previously rejected portion(s) of the budget as revised shall be approved by the Budget Referendum. The Budget Referendum and any subsequent Budget Referendums will be conducted in the same manner as set forth in Section C6-3B herein until such time that the proposed budget shall be approved by the Budget Referendum. (2) If either the Town Operating Budget or the Board of Education Budget or both are not approved by Budget Referendum by the start of the next fiscal year, the previously approved town budget, including both the Town Operating Budget and Board of Education Budget, for the prior fiscal year shall be deemed to be the temporary budget for the new fiscal year, with expenditures being made thereunder on a month-to-month basis, until such time that each the Town Operating Budget and the Board of Education Budget has been approved by Budget Referendum.