Charter revision reveals political divide in Trumbull

TRUMBULL — Considering it was unanimously forwarded by a bi-partisan committee, the charter revision questions have exposed some partisan differences in recent weeks.

Republican leaders have become vocal opponents of the three charter questions on the ballot next Tuesday, with all five town council Republicans signing a statement urging voters to reject the revisions.

In the statement, the GOP members, Carl Massaro, Lori Rosasco-Schwartz, Tony Scinto, Stephen Lemoine and Donna Seidell, called the changes a regression to the days before the 2012 charter revision.

The Charter Revision Committee consisted of six members, three Democrats, two Republicans and one unaffiliated voter. Republican Kate Donahue was the chairwoman of the committee. The group unanimously sent the recommended changes to the town council, which advanced it to a community referendum on a mostly party-line vote.

Question No. 1 contains numerous changes, mostly clarifying language and other minor adjustments. But two items, in particular, stood out to GOP leaders.

The first is a language change specifying that in Chapter 2 where the charter says “days” it means calendar days, not business days. The council Republicans criticized the change, arguing it could result in residents receiving less notice of agenda items on town meetings.

For example, notice of town council meetings must be posted by the town clerk no later than five days before the meeting takes place. The agenda, including all discussion items to be presented at the meeting, must be posted “no less than 48 hours” prior to the start time of the meeting. Since the council traditionally convenes on Mondays, that means the notice could be posted two days later than if the requirement were in business days, which the town defines as days the town clerk’s office is open Monday through Friday.

The posting requirements are a minimum and commissions can post meeting notices earlier.

“This shortens the time between a public or board hearing date and the notice given to the public that precedes it,” they wrote. “This reduces the public’s time and ability to participate in meetings and decision-making of boards, commissions and the Town Council.”

The second GOP criticism with Question 2 is a requirement that future changes to the town’s voting districts be approved by a two-thirds vote of the council. The charter now requires only a simple majority vote to change the number of districts. Earlier this year, the council voted to re-allocate the charter-mandated 21 members into seven districts. The council had operated on a four-district model since 2012, with five members in districts 1, 2, and 3, and six members in District 4.

Republicans said the greater number of voting districts favored Democrats.

“It is intended to cement seven voting districts created by a partisan Democratic redistricting committee and town council, which historically favors election of Democratic majorities to the town council,” they wrote.

The committee had relied on a desire to create equal districts, which essentially meant either three districts or seven.

First Selectman Vicki Tesoro, who supports all three revision questions, said the return to seven districts created more polling places, and reduced travel time to the polls and wait time at the polls.

“Whenever we can we should make it easier for people to vote,” she said.

Changes as significant as the number of council districts deserved to have a higher threshold, she said.

This means there needs to be substantial community support for any change to the number of voting districts,” she said. “I believe that is appropriate for a change of that magnitude.”

Question 2 adds an eighth member to the Board of Education, creates staggered four-year terms, and mandates that no party hold more than four seats. Before the 2012 charter revision, Trumbull had operated with a six-member board, and a maximum of three seats per party.

Tesoro said the lack of a majority or minority party would be a positive.

“Compromise and consensus will be needed for the board to manage its affairs,” she said. “What we have now is, in my opinion, not as good as what we had in the past. Let’s return to what worked better.”

Republicans countered that the change would reduce voters’ voices since the two parties would nominate candidates that would be virtually guaranteed to get elected.

“Currently, the seven-member Board of Education is elected every two years just, like the town council, and voters hold members accountable by having to be reelected, or not, in a truly contested election.,” they wrote.

GOP members rejected Question 3, which adds an annual inflation adjustment to the charter’s $15 million limit on bonding. Any project requiring $15 million or more in bonding now must be approved at referendum.

“The Charter Revision Commission recognized, as I do, that the purchasing power of the dollar declines over time,” Tesoro said. “This mechanism allows us to upgrade the threshold and keep the purchasing power consistent.”

Republicans, though, argued that the built-in escalator could over time allow progressively larger bonding packages to be approved without the support of a majority of residents.

“For these reasons, we recommend a ‘no’ vote on the three questions,” they concluded.