Westonites spoke out on several issues, but there were three main topics at a public hearing last week on proposed changes to the town charter: whether the town clerk and the tax collector should become appointed rather than elected positions; whether a minimum quorum should be required at the Annual Town Budget Meeting (ATBM); and the pros and cons of holding the ATBM, a machine referendum or some combination of the two.
A seven-member appointed Charter Revision Commission has spent nearly a year reviewing and revising the town charter. It submitted its recommendations to the Board of Selectmen on May 14. Last Thursday, June 14, the Board of Selectmen solicited opinions on the proposal from the public.
The board now has until next Friday to ask the commission to make any changes to its recommendations. It is expected to discuss the charter changes at its meeting tonight, set for 7:30 in the town Hall Meeting Room.
The selectmen also must decide how they would like the question or questions about the charter changes to go to the electorate. The plan is to have the charter changes in some form on the Nov. 6 Presidential Election ballot.
Ken Edgar, co-chairman of the Charter Revision Commission clarified that there is no deadline for deciding how the charter questions will appear on the ballot — other than it must be decided before the ballots are printed.
Aside from several members of the Charter Commission who spoke to clarify some issues that came up, a dozen people spoke at the hearing.
Town clerk and tax collector
Christine Lomuscio, Fred Rosen, Dan Gilbert, and Dawn Rivera all spoke in favor of keeping the town clerk and the tax collector elected positions.
Ms. Rivera argued that both officials have “extensive contact with the public.” In addition, she said, if the tax collector is an elected resident of Weston, she or he is likely to have closer ties to the community and would be subject to fewer political pressures.
Dr. Gilbert said he does not like the fact that the new charter would allow a petition to change the status of the tax collector and the town clerk positions — but only once. That disenfranchises future electors who may feel differently, he said.
Mr. Rosen said he has not heard a persuasive reason for making the change and so the posts should both remain elected.
Ms. Lomuscio made a similar argument. “It’s always worked as an elected office,” she said, adding that re-inventing the wheel is a “philosophy [that] bothers me.”
Several people spoke in favor of the commission’s proposal to add an automatic machine referendum for the budget vote to the charter.
Frank Billone, in a letter read by Martha Diamant, said the voter turn-out at referenda the last three years shows it has been “successful in providing many more people a voice” in the budget process. Also, he said, “it may have helped moderate greater tax increases in recent years, a very positive outcome.”
Mr. Rosen called a referendum “a great thing to do.”
Harvey Bellin said the numbers — far more voted at referendum than at the ATBM — tell the story: “Obviously, the people of Weston prefer” voting at referendum, he said.
Mr. Bellin was among those who did not agree with the he Charter Revision Commission that a minimum quorum should be necessary at the ATBM in order for a budget to be voted down. He used this year’s ATBM, when just 89 people attended, as an example. If anyone there had wanted to reduce a line item, they couldn’t have if the quorum requirement were in place, he noted.
Amy Sanborn agreed. A quorum takes “we the people” out of the budget process, she said. She also said she does not like a proposal that would require more than a simple majority to ask for voting by secret ballot at the ATBM. “The majority should rule,” she said.
Cathy Green said requiring a referendum for the budget is a “step in the right direction,” but it doesn’t go far enough. She would prefer to eliminate the ATBM all together.
Pat Heifetz said she would like the commission to consider changing the Board of Selectmen to five members instead of three. She is also in favor of having an ombudsman who could mediate disputes between town boards and commissions.
Dr. Gilbert said he is in favor of allowing the Planning and Zoning Commission to have a separate attorney other than the town attorney.
Almost all who spoke at the hearing praised the commission for its diligence and its commitment to the process. First Selectman Gayle Weinstein said the commission did “a magnificent job.”
Ms. Sanborn thanked not only the commission members, but their families, too, who didn’t see them very often during the extensive review process.
Mr. Bellin praised the selectmen for choosing such a diverse group to serve on the commission, which is made up of “a whole bunch of really smart people … those guys killed themselves … [and produced] a really great piece of work.”