‘In the best interest of the community,’ Trumbull council approves change to 7 districts

TRUMBULL — A unanimous committee vote led to partisan bickering during the town council’s debate over returning to seven voting districts from four.

And that wasn’t even the strangest part of the meeting.

By a 13-7 vote, the council approved a recommendation from the 2020 Redistricting Committee to split the 21-member council into seven equal districts, with no party able to hold more than 14 seats.

Since 2012, the council has consisted of four districts, with District 4 having six representatives and the other three districts with five each. The council currently has a 16-5 Democratic majority; Republicans held a 17-4 edge from 2015 to 2017. The change will go into effect for the 2021 municipal election.

“The seven-district configuration served the town well for three decades,” said First Selectman Vicki Tesoro during a public hearing on the topic. “We have had Democratic and Republican first selectmen, and Democratic and Republican council majorities.”

Tesoro said making the switch means that her party is essentially voting to reduce its own majority in the interest of better town government.

“We are willingly giving up two seats,” she said. “This is in the best interest of the community and that is why it should be done.”

The change passed by a mostly party-line vote, with Democrat Keith Klain, D-2nd District, and unaffiliated member Lisa Valenti, U-4th, joining all five council Republicans in voting against the change.

Klain had argued against the timing of the change, which he said added to the town’s elections costs while also demanding austerity measures in the town departments and school system.

“Having read all the minutes, we are missing any compelling reason to do it now,” he said. “The data presented hasn’t really swayed me in either direction.”

Republican Tony Scinto, R-2nd, led the unanimous GOP opposition, citing, among other things, a scarcity of potential polling locations in the newly formed District 7.

“It’s just my opinion, but I think the polling place for District 7 will be outside the district,” he said.

Scinto, the lone Republican on the four-person Redistricting Committee after Republican Registrar William Holden declined to serve, issued a minority report laying out his reasons for opposing the seven-district plan. Other committee members, though, pointed out that the plan had been unanimously approved by the members — including Scinto.

Democrat Kevin Shively, D-2nd, who had served on the committee with Scinto, pointed out that the committee had been formed with a charge to divide the 21-member council into equal districts. The committee, in forwarding its report to the council, had unanimously backed seven districts.

“Going to 7, 3, or 1 we really agreed were the only options,” he said. “We all agreed seven was the best choice based on our charge.”

Shively was also among several council members to comment that under state statute, selecting polling locations was the responsibility of the registrars of voters and thus the committee could not have selected polling locations.

In his report, which was read into the record by Lori Schwartz, R-3rd, Scinto also questioned the validity of the proposed districts, pointing out that the seven districts averaged 5,145 residents per district.

“No proposed district has that average number,” Scinto wrote. “Three proposed districts have less, and four proposed districts have more. The spread of 99 from the largest to the smallest creates unequal districts.”

Laurel Anderson, a former Democratic registrar who chaired the committee, criticized Scinto’s counting method, pointing out that none of the districts deviated more than 50 from the 5,145 average.

“If you use the average per district, it is not off, ever, more than 50 voters, which is then under a 1 percent difference per district,” she said. “So I think the ‘one person, one vote’ rule absolutely stands up when you’re talking about less than a 1 percent change.”

Several council members also questioned why the council held a simple majority vote to change districts. Earlier in the meeting, the council had accepted the report from the Charter Revision Commission that, among other things, recommended a mandatory two-thirds council vote to change districts.

Republican Minority Leader Carl Massaro, R-3rd, and Klain, among others, wondered why the council would adopt redistricting under a simple majority just minutes after accepting a recommendation to require a two-thirds vote.

“I just don’t think (calling for a two-thirds majority) is necessary,” Massaro said.

Democrat Jason Marsh, D-3rd, the council’s majority leader, in response, pointed out that numerous attempts at redistricting, including a 2017 petition for a referendum, had been opposed by Republicans, with the party going to court to block the petition efforts. The council therefore had no choice but to hold the vote under the rules currently in place, he said.

“The rules have been laid out for us on this matter, and we’re playing out the rules as they stand,” Marsh said.

Following the 13-7 vote to approve the district change, criticism of the simple majority vote grew louder since the vote had fallen one vote short of the two-thirds majority that the charter change recommended.

The only one of the 21-member council not to vote on redistricting, Council Chairman Mary Beth Thornton, D-2nd, is a supporter of the change. After the meeting, Thornton said she had heard from some fellow Democrats about her decision to refrain from voting.

“They said, ‘Mary Beth, why didn’t you just vote for it to make it a two-thirds majority, and end all of this?’” she said.

As council chairman, Thornton has the right to vote on any topic but has only voted to break ties. She said she had been prepared to cast a vote in favor of redistricting, but chose not to once it became clear the motion would pass.

“My basic philosophy is to remain as neutral as possible,” she said. “I’m there to conduct the meeting in proper procedure. I’ve maybe voted one time on one issue since I’ve been chairman.”