Commission backs nearly 40 changes to Trumbull Town Charter

TRUMBULL — A mandated seven-district Town Council, staggered four-year Board of Education terms and a revised succession plan in the event a first selectman is unable to perform his or her duties are among the highlights of proposed changes to the town charter.

The Charter Revision Commission, which consists of J.C. Cinelli, Kate Donahue, Nancy Gardiner, Susan Gilson, Martin McCann, and Tom Tesoro, has been meeting since April. The members submitted a list of recommendations to the Town Council June 29. The council is scheduled to discuss the report at its July 9 meeting.

Among the most notable of nearly 40 recommended changes is a return to seven voting districts. Currently, the Town Council consists of 21 members from four districts, with District 4 having five council members and the other three having four.

“The Town Charter requires that the Town Council be composed of 21 members,” the commission wrote in its transmission letter to the council. “In order to create voting districts of substantially equal populations with equal representation, there are four possible district configurations: 1, 3, 7 or 21 districts. Commission members feel that the seven district option is the best of those configurations.”

Among the reasons the commission cited for recommending seven districts are equal representation per district, more polling places closer to more people’s homes, greater representation by the minority party — at least seven representatives — and more compact voting districts. The smaller districts, the commission reasoned, would make it easier for council candidates to run traditional “door-knocking” campaigns.

The commission also recommended an eight-member board of education, with members serving staggered four-year terms, and no party holding more than four seats.

The current school board has seven members. Democrats currently hold a 4-2-1 majority with one unaffiliated member, Kathy Fearon, who ran on the Democratic ticket. Fearon recently resigned from the board.

“Prior to charter revision in 2003, the town had a six-member board of education, with not more than three members from any political party,” the commission wrote. “This change is recommended in order to return to a less political board of education.”

By moving to an eight-member board, the workload among members could be reduced, the commission wrote. The staggered four-year terms will provide greater continuity, which will benefit education in town, commissioners said.

Commissioners also recommended the creation of standing commissions on aging and youth, reducing the size of the police commission from six members to five, and mandating one Republican and one Democratic alternate member to the Board of Finance. Members also endorsed adding a provision that the “appointing authority” can remove an appointed member of any commission if that member misses more than half the commission’s meetings in a fiscal year or misses three consecutive meetings.

Finally, the commission recommended changing the language regarding succession in the event a first selectman is unable to perform his or her duties. Currently, the charter states that if a first selectman requires a temporary absence of up to 30 days, he or she may “appoint the town treasurer or the chairman of the town council” to serve as the acting first selectman.

The revised language removes the ambiguity in succession, stating that the first selectman may “appoint the town treasurer as acting first selectman. In the event the town treasurer is unable or unwilling to serve, the first selectman may...appoint the chairman of the town council as acting first selectman.”

Should the first selectman die, retire, move from town or in any way vacate the office, the acting first selectman will serve until the town can hold a special election. Should the vacancy occur less than six months before a municipal election, the acting first selectman would serve the remainder of the term.

In addition to the recommended changes, the commission made note of one change it considered, but ultimately chose not to recommend after hearing from the public.

“The Commission discussed and seriously considered the issue of changing to four-year terms for the first selectman, treasurer and town clerk,” the commission wrote. “That recommendation was included in the draft report posted prior to the public hearing on June 24, 2020. However, based on feedback ... provided during the public hearing, the commission decided to remove that change from its recommendations.”

A number of residents had spoken out against the extended terms during the commission’s June 24 hearing, including Richard Deecken.

“What public outcry does this address?” he asked.

Deecken argued that extending the terms in office for the executive positions would have the effect of driving down voter turnout in off-year elections in the same way that Congressional races historically have lower turnout in years without a presidential race.

“Will the exciting constable races drive turnout?” he asked.

Even now, with the first selectman and town council members serving two-year terms, voters commonly vote for a first selectman candidate but do not bother casting a vote in the other races on the ballot, records show.

“In years without a first selectman race, those voters probably won’t turn out at all,” he said.

Town Councilman Keith Klain, D-2nd District, agreed, saying that the longer terms could shield officials from the consequences of their actions if they don’t have to face the voters for years at a time.

Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Fred Garrity, a Democrat, supported the four-year term. He cited his own experience running for office and the thousands of hours candidates must invest in their campaigns. Campaigning for first selectman is essentially a full-time job that begins midway through the second year in office.

“That means you really only have a year to accomplish anything,” he said.

His position, he pointed out, would remain true regardless of which party the first selectman belonged to.

“The thing that’s good about Trumbull is that the pendulum swings,” he said.