Unique requirement stands out after referendum

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Ballot Clerk John Kochis, left, hands Kathleen Cavoto a ballot during Naugatuck’s referendum on the 2013-14 municipal and school budgets July 9. Both budgets were adopted after the referendum failed to get the required 15 percent voter turnout. –FILE PHOTO
Ballot Clerk John Kochis, left, hands Kathleen Cavoto a ballot during Naugatuck’s referendum on the 2013-14 municipal and school budgets July 9. Both budgets were adopted after the referendum failed to get the required 15 percent voter turnout. –FILE PHOTO

NAUGATUCK — Even though those that turned out voted overwhelmingly against them at a referendum last week, the borough’s 2013-14 municipal and school budgets were adopted by default.

This was due to the fact the Naugatuck Charter stipulates that 15 percent of the electorate has to turn out in order for the results of the referendum to count. This year the turnout fell short of reaching the 15 percent threshold by 236 voters.

The budgets were forced to the referendum through a petition effort by the group Naugatuck Taxpayers in Revolt. The group also forced a referendum on the budgets two years ago. At that referendum, only 6.9 percent of registered voters turned out to vote.

The ability to send a budget to referendum has not always been something that borough residents could do, however.

In May 1993 a Charter revision was approved by voters that allowed residents to petition for a referendum, according to Borough Clerk Nancy DiMeo.

At that time, revision stipulated 40 percent turnout was needed to validate the results of a budget referendum, she said.

It was not until three years later, during the presidential elections of 1996, that the threshold was lowered to 15 percent through another Charter revision. The same revision process lead to the municipal and school budgets being voted on separately, DiMeo said, and set the limit of possible referendums at three.

The latest Charter Revision Commission once again explored changes to the referendum process, including lowering the turnout requirement of 15 percent. Ultimately, the question that made its way to the ballot in November of 2012 would have decreased the number of signatures to force a second and third referendum. It was voted down by voters.

“Municipal charters are not easy to change for good reason, and the leaders who worked to enact Naugatuck’s budget referendum undoubtedly analyzed the issue in great detail to ensure that a certain, minimum percentage of voters [15 percent] participated in the voting process,” Mayor Robert Mezzo wrote in a blog post following last week’s referendum.

Andy Bottinick, who chaired the latest Charter Revision Commission, said all parts of the referendum were on the table. Some of the members wanted to do away with the referendum process, while others wanted to make it much easier to have a referendum, he said.

In the end the committee came to a compromise, which included leaving the 15 percent voter turnout intact, Bottinick said.

“We felt that was a small enough percentage that the referendum wasn’t driven by a small group but would need a groundswell of voters,” Bottinick said.

Naugatuck is unique in setting a minimum voter turnout for referendums.

The Secretary of State’s office doesn’t keep information on how towns with budget referendums govern them. A survey of a handful of surrounding and similar towns showed none share the same requirement as Naugatuck.

Budget referendums on the municipal budgets for Beacon Falls and Prospect as well as the Region 16 school district do not require a minimum percent of voters to cast their ballot.

In both Watertown and Oxford the budget automatically goes to a referendum with no minimum turnout required.

Middletown and East Haven, which are both in the same School District Reference Group as Naugatuck, give their residents the ability to force a referendum on the budget by petition. But there is no turnout minimum needed to vote to validate the results in either town.  

The way Naugatuck’s budget referendums are structured means residents can essentially vote in favor of the budget without even leaving their homes. Some of the borough’s elected officials chose to exercise this option last week.

“I expressed my desire for the budget to be approved by not voting,” Board of Education Chairman David Heller said.

Heller said if there were no 15 percent threshold, he would have voted to keep the budget the same.

“I’m putting it down entirely to support of the budget,” Heller said of the turnout at last week’s referendum. “The only group that made an effort to get out the vote was the ‘no’ vote, and that’s traditionally how it works.”

Board of Finance Chairman Diane Scinto also voted in favor of the budget by not voting.

However, Scinto said that even without the 15 percent rule she would refuse to vote as a personal protest against the referendum process. Scinto said she believes budget referendums allow a small percentage of voters to possibly overthrow a spending plan that officials have spent months crafting.

Mezzo said he voted in favor of both of the budgets.

“I felt an obligation to vote based on the office that I currently hold,” Mezzo said. “I think the right to vote or not to vote is something sacred to this country. We don’t have forced voting like you do in some totalitarian regimes.”

Mezzo added he did not try to influence residents’ votes one way or the other.

“I did not urge people not to vote. Individuals possess the right to make their own choices whether or not to vote in our democracy,” Mezzo said.

The Republican American contributed to this article.