Charter changes going to referendum

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NAUGATUCK — Nearly all of the proposed Charter changes recommended in the Charter Revision Commission’s final draft report will go before the voters at a November referendum.

The Board of Mayor and Burgesses met in a special meeting Wednesday night to review the report and either accept or reject its recommendations. While minor recommended changes, such as eliminating outdated Charter language and borough offices, were approved with little controversy, two of the suggestions came down to a tie-breaking vote from Mayor Robert Mezzo.

The only change rejected by the board was a recommendation to remove the language in the Charter that governs the borough’s bidding process. The thought behind the recommendation was to remove the language from the Charter in order to write the bidding policy as an ordinance instead to give the board more flexibility in the process and potentially include a preference for local bidders.

Those who opposed the change argued that if the bidding process was governed by an ordinance it would give the borough board too much power to change it on a whim. Changing an ordinance requires only a simple majority vote of the board, compared to the lengthy revision process of changing the Charter.

Mezzo argued that with the policy as an ordinance there would be a greater possibility for the board to circumvent the process intentionally or unintentionally.

“You’re basically giving this board carte blanche,” Mezzo said.

Mezzo was joined by Deputy Mayor Tamath Rossi, and burgesses Robert Burns, Ronald San Angelo and Patrick Scully in rejecting the recommendation, leaving the vote in a stalemate at 5-5. Mezzo then cast the deciding vote to reject it.

Even though the board rejected the recommendation it can still be forced on the ballot come November if 10 percent of the electorate petition to do so by Feb. 10.

The board also found itself in a deadlock over a recommendation to change the town clerk position from an elected post to one that is hired through the normal hiring process.

Originally, the revision commission was looking at changing the town clerk and tax collector positions to hired ones. However, when it came down to it, the commission voted against changing the tax collector position and only sent the recommendation concerning the town clerk to the board.

Burgess Robert Neth, who sat on the revision commission, said changing the position to a hired one would ensure the borough would get the most qualified candidate in office rather than running the risk of an unqualified candidate winning in an election.

“We want the best possible person,” Neth said.

No one on the board argued with Neth regarding his sentiment on ensuring the most qualified person receives the job. However, the sticking point for some on the board was the fact that only the town clerk position was in the final report while the tax collector position was left out.

“I just find it so odd that it was split the way it was,” Rossi said.

Rossi said she didn’t agree with partially addressing the issue and both positions should be addressed equitably.

Mezzo said it was “absolutely ridiculous” the positions were separated and felt there was political reason for doing so.

“There was a political component of this and it stinks,” Mezzo said.

Ultimately, the vote was 5-5 on the matter, with Rossi, Burns, San Angelo, Scully and Burgess Laurie Taf Jackson rejecting it. Mezzo broke the tie by “reluctantly” voting in favor of approval.

The remaining recommendations were approved with more ease but still some debate.

The board unanimously backed a slight change to the borough’s budget referendum process. The proposed revision would require the same 8 percent of voters to sign a petition in order to force the first referendum on the budget, and a 15 percent voter turnout for the referendum to count. The change comes in the number of signatures required to force a second and third referendum.

Currently, 8 percent of voters need to sign a petition to force a budget vote for a second and third time. Under the proposal, that number needed to force a second and third referendum would be cut in half to 4 percent.

Scully agreed with lowering the number of signatures needed, but felt the revision did nothing to speed up the process of budget referendums, which can drag on.

“I don’t think it’s going to help at all,” Scully said.

The board also unanimously approved a recommendation to change the date of municipal elections from May to November. However, some on the board raised the issue of whether approving the change was a conflict of interest.

The change, if approved by the voters, would go into effect for the 2013 municipal elections and the current board’s term would be extended six months.

Attorney Pete Hess there is no other way to make the change.

Scully added that it was the commission’s recommendation to change the date.

“It’s their recommendation that we’re following through on,” Scully said. “We didn’t create it.”

The board also approved a proposal to extend the mayor’s term from two years to four years. If approved, the change would too go into effect in 2013.

The change drew contrasting opinions from some on the board.

“I think that four years is too long,” Burns said.

Scully also felt the change was not needed.

“It’s been working all right for the past 150 years,” Scully said about the two-year term.

San Angelo, a former mayor, argued that a four-year term would give mayors more time to do the job before having to work on running for reelection. He also felt that the four-year term would attract more qualified candidates to run for mayor.

Ultimately, the board approved the recommendation 7-2 with Scully and Burns voting against it. Burgess Mike Ciacciarella along with Rossi, Taf Jackson also expressed concerns over the proposal but felt the matter should go to the public for a vote. Mezzo abstained from the vote.

The change would not directly affect Mezzo since he would still have to run for office in 2013. However, he abstained from voting and the discussion on the matter due to what he described as the “appearance of conflict.”

Between now and the referendum, the borough will work to draft the full language changes and the questions will appear on the ballot at the Nov. 6 election.