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Weston charter revision: Public has its say

One participant in last week’s April 25 Charter Revision Commission public hearing called it “one of the year’s most interesting and best attended town meetings.”

About 60 people, including the seven commission members, listened to comments from more than 25 people about proposed changes to the town charter. Many praised the commission for its exhaustive efforts at reviewing and revising the town’s main governing document.

“Thank you for serving in this capacity. … You’ve done a tremendous job,” said First Selectman Gayle Weinstein, reflecting the views expressed by many.

While people spoke on many topics, a few received the most attention, including the appointment vs. election of some town officials, and the town budget process.

Town clerk and tax collector

There was a virtual consensus on one issue: The commission has proposed recommending that the town clerk and the tax collector change from elected to appointed positions; at the hearing, the public wholeheartedly disagreed.

No fewer than 14 people argued for keeping the decision about the clerk and the tax collector in the hands of the voters.

Margaret Wirtenberg pointed out that historically in Weston, the town clerk and the tax collector receive more votes than almost anyone on the ballot in most elections.

Most said they felt the change away from elections would actually make the process more political, not less.

“They have a degree of independence based on their being elected,” said Robert Schaaf.

When it comes to appointments, “You can’t stop the political parties from controlling the process,” said former Selectman Dan Gilbert. It’s the Republican and Democratic town committees that usually vet and put up candidates for open spots on boards and committees, and would do so for these “well paid” positions with “short commutes,” Dr. Gilbert said.

Appointment to the positions by the Board of Selectmen would keep unaffiliated voters out of the running, possibly lead to political favor-swapping, and would ultimately limit the pool of qualified candidates rather than expand it, Dr. Gilbert said.

Ken Edgar, co-chairman of the Charter Revision Commission, acknowledged that the commission itself was not unanimous in its belief the posts should change to appointed ones. The rationale for the recommendation, which includes the caveat that the person chosen does not have to live in Weston, is that there would be a wider pool of qualified applicants from which to choose, and it would “promote professionalism.”

Mr. Edgar was quick to point out that the commission’s recommendation is in no way a reflection on the current tax collector or town clerk. He added that in its research, the commission found a “great majority” of towns elect their town clerk, while it’s “about 50/50” for the tax collector.

Others who spoke in favor of keeping the posts elected included Harvey Bellin, Lucy Bowden, Hal Shupack, Susan Moran, Dan Parrett, Merci Federici, Martha Diamant, Amy Sanborn and Christine Lomuscio.

Budget voting

There was general agreement that requiring a budget referendum by machine vote is a good idea. There was a difference of opinion, however, as to whether the referendum should entirely take the place of the Annual Town Budget Meeting (ATBM) or be in addition to it, as well as if it should be left up to the Board of Selectmen to decide if a referendum is necessary in a given year.

“The commission wisely recommended institutionalizing in the town charter an adjourned ATBM machine ballot referendum. Irrefutable evidence supports the commission’s recommendation,” said Mr. Bellin. A referendum “has consistently proven to be citizens’ preferred modality for voting on budgets,” Mr. Bellin said, citing the vastly higher number of people who voted at a budget referendum the last three years compared with the number who attended and voted at the ATBM.

Eileen Buckley, however, said she is concerned about having a mandatory referendum. “I think it negates the ATBM to a public hearing … I have faith” in the selectmen, she said, and if they feel the need, they can call for a referendum, or the public can petition for it, but some years it might not be necessary — and would simply be costly — to go to referendum.

Neil Horner disagreed, saying a budget referendum is “a great deal for the town, regardless of the cost.”

Mr. Horner said he prefers the automatic referendum because “one person’s controversy makes another person yawn.”

First Selectman Weinstein agreed that the referendum should be automatic and the selectmen should not be asked to decide whether the budget should go to a machine vote; the selectmen are presenting the budget they would like to see pass, she said, “but you have the right to disagree.”

Frank Billone echoed these thoughts, saying a machine vote is “the only way to ensure all voters have the opportunity to express their positions and opinions.”

Mr. Billone said he believes low voter turnout at a referendum is not a reason to not hold it; it is instead a show of support for the budget. And, he said, having a referendum on the budget “has gone a long way to helping us get to more realistic tax increases… When people know there is going to be a second look at what you do, the budget process is done with a sharper pencil,” Mr. Billone said.

ATBM

Some went so far as to say the referendum should take the place of the ATBM, not be in addition to it, while others said the ATBM is part of Weston’s character and serves an important role.

“I believe in the Town Meeting. It’s Weston and what differentiates us from other towns,” said Mr. Shupack.

Susan Moran, the Republican registrar of voters, said she is “a fan of the ATBM.” She would like to see a secret ballot available at the ATBM itself so that the budget is decided all at once, rather than the commission’s recommendation of holding machine balloting after the ATBM and then on an additional day.

Ms. Bowden said the Town Meeting has always been Weston’s form of government and it would not be right to do away with it.

Several people disagreed.

Melissa Koller said the ATBM is “subject to gamesmanship.” It’s “lovely but antiquated” and it needs to go, she said.

Both Maria Kalivas and Cathy Green made the point that voters choose elected officials and hire competent people to help put together good budgets; the public has ample time to give input before the ATBM, they said.

Ms. Green said she thinks the people have already spoken as to the relevancy of the ATBM by virtue of the fact that fewer than 2% of registered voters have shown up for the last 10 years.

Board of Finance member Mike O’Brien said he likes the ATBM because it gives his board an opportunity to hear “what’s in people’s minds,” especially if the budget is voted down.

Ms. Green countered that is what the finance board public hearing is for.

Quorum at ATBM

The Charter Revision Commission’s proposed changes to the budget process would require a “quorum” at the ATBM of at least 2% of qualified voters (currently about 130 people) in order to reduce the budget.

The commission has stated the reason for this recommendation is because “budget reductions could be effected by a very small minority of voters whose views may not be representative of the views of the great majority of voters in town.”

Most did not like the quorum recommendation.

“Some might think this … is an insult to the people of Weston,” Dr. Wirtenberg said.

“An ATBM quorum requirement can result in as much chicanery as any problems it hoped to prevent,” Mr. Bellin said.

Dr. Gilbert also did not like the idea of requiring a threshold for the number of voters who must turn out in order to make a change to the budget. “Based on American values, it doesn’t matter. What counts are the people who show up.” It would be inappropriate to have government make the decision, Dr. Gilbert said. “Budgets should never be protected from the voter.”

Conversely, Ruth Glazer said she agreed with the commission’s assessment that a small number of people at the ATBM can “hijack” the budget process. She said she would like to see the quorum threshold raised to 5%.

Other subjects

Speakers touched on other subjects at the hearing.

Dr. Wirtenberg disagreed with using a percentage instead of a number for the amount of voters needed to petition an item to a Town Meeting. “This puts the responsibility on the citizens themselves to figure out even the first steps of how to question the power of the Board of Selectmen,” she said.

There was support for the recommendation that the ability to borrow money for supplemental appropriations be limited.

There was both support for and disagreement with the idea that the finance board terms should be changed from six years to four terms. Most agreed, however, that a glitch should be fixed to eliminate a voting cycle where no finance board members are chosen.

Several people — including Don Gary and First Selectman Weinstein — said they would be in favor of term limits for elected officials.

There was also agreement that the school board “safe seats” should be eliminated.

Dr. Gilbert and Don Saltzman did not like the proposal to eliminate the ability of some commissions (especially Planning and Zoning) to hire outside legal counsel on their own.

Next

The Charter Revision Commission is expected to submit a finalized draft report to the Board of Selectmen for review in the next few weeks. The board may discuss the draft report and it must hold its own public hearing on recommended changes within 45 days.

The selectmen have 15 days after their public hearing to either accept the commission’s report in full or return it to the charter commission with comments.

If they return it with comments, the commission has 30 days to respond.

Once the commission has responded, the Board of Selectmen has 15 days to either accept or reject the report.

If accepted, the proposed changes would then go to the voters for final approval.

Officials hope to have charter questions in some form on the Nov. 6 presidential election ballot.

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