Trumbull Democrats seek to reduce their power

Minutes after learning that her party would hold a commanding 16-5 majority on the Town Council, Council Chairman Mary Beth Thornton, a Democrat, was already thinking about the council’s next term.

Among her top priorities — reducing her party’s grip on power.

“It’s just not good government for one party to go into every meeting knowing that the other party can nullify any proposal they make,” she said. “It’s not fair. It’s not balanced. And it’s not in the best interest of Trumbull.”

Thornton’s comments reinforced what First Selectman Vicki Tesoro said on election night, when she told supporters — including 16 Democrats who had just won Town Council seats — that she intended to proceed with her plan to return the town to seven voting districts from the current four districts.

The Town Charter mandates that Trumbull have a 21-member Town Council, and that a single party could not hold all the seats in any district.

For decades, Trumbull operated with seven districts, each with three members. This had the effect of limiting either party’s majority to a maximum of 14-7. The ratio is important because some council functions, such as increasing the municipal budget, require a 2/3 majority.

In 2012, the Town Council, then controlled by Republicans, reduced the number of districts to four, a move the GOP said would reduce expenses and also mostly align the council districts with the town’s state House of Representatives districts.

But the four-district plan also meant that one district, District 4, had to be 20 percent larger than the other three. Districts 1, 2, and 3 currently have five council seats. District 4, the so-called super district, has six seats. Also, the four-district split means that one party can control as many as 17 of the 21 council seats, a power imbalance Tesoro has long criticized.

“In 2012, I sat on the redistricting committee, which was split 3-2, and I was advocating to keep the seven districts,” she said. “I said then that the possibility of one side having a super majority was not good for either party, and I still believe that.”

The change did save some money, Tesoro said, but the downsides of longer drives to the polls, longer lines at the polls and reduced minority representation more than outweighed the positives, she said.

“It changes from year to year, depending on if there is a primary or whether it’s a presidential election year, but on average it works out to about $8,000” in savings, she said. “In a $170 million budget, it’s a miniscule savings, how small a percentage is that?” (Editor’s note - 0.0047 percent.)

The proposed district changes could be done by a simple council resolution, although the newly elected council members would retain their seats until the 2021 municipal election, when they would run in the new districts, Tesoro said.

State Rep. David Rutigliano (R-123rd), a vice chairman of the Trumbull Republican Town Committee, said his party was willing to listen to proposals regarding the change.

“We are ready, willing and able,” Rutigliano said. “If they’ll include us, they might be surprised.”

Rutigliano said he believed there was support among the council Republicans to boost minority representation on the council, but that he, at least, did not see the need to return to seven districts. The four-district plan more closely adheres to the town’s neighborhoods and reduces the number of split-ballot districts - districts where residents were in the same council district but different districts for the state House of Representatives.

“Plus we’re currently conducting a census, so the state will be redistricting the [General Assembly] seats,” he said. “A year from now the borders of the state House districts could be changed.”

Tesoro’s other goal, returning the school board to six seats from the current seven, is more complicated. In 2012, Trumbull added a seventh seat to the Board of Education and moved board members to two-year terms. Previously the board was made up of six members, with members serving staggered four-year terms and neither party holding a majority.

“When you have six people, you must compromise to do anything,” Tesoro said. “An even split tends to remove politics from the equation. I don’t know whether that will happen here, I don’t have a crystal ball. But it seemed less political when we had six.”

The staggered terms, where three seats were up for election every two years, also has its advantages, she said.

“Now with seven seats, and each member serving two years, you could have seven brand new members on the board, if that’s what the electorate decides,” she said. “Considering the first thing the board does is approve a school budget — that’s a lot to ask of new members.”

But changing the makeup of the school board would take more than a simple council vote. The Town Council would need to vote to conduct a charter revision, then appoint a revision committee. The committee would then require the council to approve its recommendations, before being approved at a referendum.

While the school board changes will take time to accomplish, if they happen at all, Thornton said the change to a seven-district Town Council was one of the top priorities in the new term.

With heavy turnout expected for the 2020 election, having more polling locations would be key to keeping the lines at the polls short. That’s why passing a redistricting resolution in the next year was a priority, she said.

“We’ve researched the map and the potential problems, and we’re ready to go,” she said. “I’m excited and glad we’ve been put in this position, and it’s going to be one of our first orders of business in the new term.”