With contentious change removed, Trumbull council OKs charter revisions

TRUMBULL — Two hours of debate yielded few tangible revisions to the list of proposed changes to the Trumbull Town Charter.

The Town Council, at its July 9 meeting, issued a series of recommendations to the commission, but left the proposed changes mostly intact, with the exception of perhaps the most contentious one.

“The recommendation to change to seven voting districts has been removed from the list, and will not be part of the recommendations,” said Council Chairman Mary Beth Thornton (D-2nd District). “But there will still be a public hearing on the proposal July 25.”

The decision to remove the change to seven districts was due to state statute 9-169, which assigns that authority to a municipality’s “legislative body” which, in Trumbull, is the Town Council. Therefore, Thornton said, the Town Council will take up the issue as part of its regular agenda.

For the rest of the recommended charter revisions, the commission will consider the council’s recommendations, make whatever revisions it sees fit, and then the commission and council will hold a joint meeting to create a final draft of the 2020 charter. Then the proposal will go to the voters in the form of a referendum.

Most of the council’s deliberations on the charter proposals centered on boards and commissions. The council had extended debate on the makeup of the Board of Education, and the length of board terms.

Currently the school board is composed of seven members serving two-year terms. The town’s political parties can nominate up to seven candidates for the board, with the majority party limited to five members.

The proposed change was to add an eighth member, and have members serve staggered four-year terms, with no party holding more than four seats.

Councilman Tony Scinto (R-2nd) recommended scrapping all the proposed changes and sticking with the current system.

“I remember when we made the change (in 2012) to go to seven members,” he said. “Before that we had six members serving two-year terms, and the town committees appointed members to the board.”

The two parties’ habit of nominating as many candidates as there were available seats removed the decision-making from the voters, he said. The pre-2012 six-member board had a built-in 3-3 split.

But the new proposal would be different in that parties would have no limit on the number of nominees, said Kevin Shively (D-2nd).

“I don’t see anything to suggest anywhere that the town committees would choose who is on the Board of Ed,” he said. “That seems to be an assumption.”

Voters would get to have their say through primaries and petition candidates, he said.

The eight-member board also has the advantage of forcing bipartisanship, according to Kate Donahue, who chaired the Charter Revision Commission.

“For decades it operated as a six-member board,” she said. “That forced members to compromise, and worked out in the best interest of the community. We’d like to create that sort of environment again.”

The council ultimately rejected Scinto’s proposal to stick with the status quo on a mostly party-line vote with Bill Mecca (D-1st) and Lisa Valenti (U-4th) joining Republicans Carl Massaro (R-3rd), Donna Seidell (R-1st), Lori Rosasco-Schwartz (R-3rd), Steve Lemoine (R-4th) and Scinto in the minority.

By a similar vote, the council voted to maintain the commission’s recommendation of having school board members serve four-year staggered terms. While Mecca joined the majority, Keith Klain (D-2nd) threw in with Valenti and the Republicans. Klain had urged the council to reject the longer terms.

“I don’t think there’s a really good case for four-year terms,” he said. He added that having board members “regularly held accountable via election is a good thing.”

Donahue said that with the multiple responsibilities board members have, having longer, staggered terms would provide institutional memory and eliminate the possibility of having eight new board members sworn into their seats during the school system’s annual budget sessions.

Among the more minor council recommendations was modifying some language in the charter to make the intent more clear, such as with the succession order should the first selectman become temporarily unavailable or incapacitated, and tying the automatic referendum on capital expenses to the consumer price index, and defining “days” as calendar days rather than business days.