Petitioners for seven council districts shot down

Voters cast their ballots at Madison Middle School, which is where District 3 votes.
Voters cast their ballots at Madison Middle School, which is where District 3 votes.

Petitioners seeking a vote on returning the town to seven Town Council districts will press on despite having their motion denied by Council President Carl Massaro. As a result, the group Trumbull Citizens for 7 Districts has hired legal counsel, according to spokesman Regina Haley.

Haley, who said she was “stunned that Carl Massaro would deliberately violate the [town] charter and ignore the will of the voters,” has vowed to take the town to court.

“In an effort to obstruct the rights of citizens to place initiatives on the ballot, the Town of Trumbull is willing to spend taxpayer money on legal fees,” Haley said.

The Town Charter mandates a 21-member Town Council and allows for the town be divided into districts, with each council member representing a proportional number of voters. The number of districts, though, is not specified, and in 2012 the council voted to reduce the number of districts from seven to four. This required making one district 20% larger than the other three and also reduced the mandatory minority party representation from seven members to four. This is especially important since some council actions, like increasing budget items or overriding first selectman’s vetoes, require a ⅔ vote.

But reducing the number of polling places also had the result of making voting less convenient, according to Citizens for 7 Districts, which cited complaints from residents about longer drives to polling places, and longer lines once they arrived.

The group collected petition signatures seeking to force a vote on returning to seven districts, and on July 13 was notified by Town Clerk Suzanne Monaco that the 2,560 certified signatures exceeded the number needed and that she was forwarding the request to Massaro.

“From there the Town Charter is very straightforward,” said group member Jack Kingston. “Once the petition is validated by the town clerk and forwarded to chairman, there is no option, he [Massaro] calls a special session or takes it up at next meeting — those are the options. If the petition is validated, it goes on the agenda.”

When the August 7 Town Council agenda was posted to the town website last week, the motion was not included. Massaro explained his reasons for rejecting the petition drive in an August 1 statement posted on the town website. Read full statement here.

“I am aware of the provisions of Chapter VIII, Section 6 of the Trumbull Town Charter under which the petition was initiated,” Massaro wrote. “Those provisions have not been met. Although the petition signatures were certified by the Town Clerk, the petition was not formally sent to me as required by Chapter VII, Section 6. In addition, the Town Attorneys have opined that the petition cannot be utilized to reapportion voting districts as it is a power reserved exclusively to the Town Council by State Statute 9-169, which power cannot be delegated to the voters of the Town of Trumbull.”

Massaro also attached a legal opinion supporting his decision from Town Attorney Robert Nicola, who stated that “the power to establish voting districts rests with the Trumbull Town Council. The provisions in [state statutes] establishing said power prevail over any charter language to the contrary. As such, the Trumbull Town Council is without the requisite statutory authority to act upon the petition.

Despite Nicola’s opinion, Citizens for 7 Districts is prepared to take the matter to court, and has hired Bridgeport attorney Joel Green to represent them. Kingston said the group was preparing to begin fundraising to cover the legal fees.

“Petitioning the government in the First Amendment, and it’s on the Town Charter,” Kingston said. “It is fundamental right of democracy and they’re trying to deny it.”