Groups weigh in on proposed Groton charter revisions
Groton — Voters on Nov. 6 will get a chance to vote on revisions to the town's charter, a topic that has sparked interest on both sides, with residents expressing their opinions through lawn signs, social media and letters to the editor.
The proposed revisions include eliminating the Representative Town Meeting, establishing a seven-member Board of Finance and holding an annual budget referendum for people to vote on the education and town budgets separately. The proposal also would extend town councilors' terms from two years to four years, among other changes outlined in the Charter Revision Commission's final report.
The group supporting the charter revisions and the group in opposition presented their positions in separate interviews with The Day's editorial board this week.
Supporters of the charter revisions, who have formed the "Groton's Right to Vote" PAC, argued to the editorial board that the charter revisions would give people a greater voice in the budget process and the budget referendum would provide "a check" on officials crafting the budget. While the other group, the Vote No Charter Revisions PAC, argued that the proposal actually would decrease voters' rights by extending town councilors' terms and eliminating an elected board, the RTM, which provides "checks and balances."
Bob Frink, a former member of the Town Council who served on the Charter Revision Commission and is now president of Groton's Right to Vote, said on Wednesday that 72 other towns in Connecticut already vote on their budget in some way. He said people in Groton want to vote on the budget, which would happen during a budget referendum held the third Tuesday of May, for reasons including that they feel it's their civic duty, or because they want to control spending.
Daniel Mello, another group member who also served on the Charter Revision Commission, said that "by allowing the people to make the decision, I think that's a check on the council to put forth a budget that they know will be supported by the community."
But, in an interview with the editorial board on Thursday, Jean-Claude Ambroise, former RTM moderator and chairman of the Vote No Charter Revisions PAC, raised concerns with the proposed budget referendum process, including that it does not include a requirement for a minimum voter turnout or a mechanism to trigger a referendum if proposed spending increased by a certain percentage.
Ambroise said the charter revision proposal would decrease voters' rights. He said people in Groton already vote by electing RTM members, a diverse group that looks over the budget "line by line" and decides what's appropriate for the town and also provides "checks and balances" to the Town Council.
"I like that someone who lives in my neighborhood, walks my streets and has the concerns that I have, is willing to put themselves out as a volunteer and go to these RTM meetings and do the hard work, particularly in May when there are multiple meetings, and look at all the books to do that," Chuck Stevens, another opponent, added.
But the group supporting the revisions said that Groton is the only town in Connecticut that has both a representative town meeting and a town council. They argued that the RTM only makes small changes to the budget.
Roseanne Kotowski, an RTM member and former CRC member, pointed to tax increases in Groton. She said there are "all good people on the RTM, but I think it's an antiquated body and the people would be better served and represented more if they had a budget referendum, if they were the end of the line, if they had the final say."
Ambroise, however, said the town doesn't have a tax problem but an issue with revenue due to federal and state cuts. He pointed out that Groton already is in the bottom 20th percentile when it comes to property owners being taxed, which he credited with the deliberative work of the Town Council and RTM.
The charter proposal outlines that the new Board of Finance's role would be to "support all fiscal decisions of the Town Council by providing research and data to support the budget," including creating a budget development schedule and a "five-year financial forecast." The Board of Finance would comprise seven people, elected one per voting district for four-year terms.
The group favoring the changes said that the Board of Finance would be required to issue by Oct. 30 a budget development schedule, which would enable people to get involved early on in the process, while the opposing group said there is already an opportunity for public comment at board meetings.
Four-year terms, minority representation
If the RTM were abolished, state statutes governing minority representation would apply to the nine-member Town Council, according to the Charter Revision Commission's report, a change that Frink said would provide better transparency.
Frink said it behooves the town to have four-year terms for Town Council members so they have time to get up to speed, see multiyear projects through and work on "big picture" initiatives.
But Stevens said replacing two-year Town Council terms with four year-terms and requiring minority representation does not enhance voters' rights. He said every two years people can decided to vote out members of the Town Council, as in the November 2017 election.
"Whether you think that’s a good idea or not, that was the ultimate voice of the voters," he said.
In the interview with the editorial board, Ambroise claimed the City Council would be an "unintended victim" of the charter revisions, as state statutes would require the City Council to follow minority representation rules if the RTM were abolished. Frink, in a follow-up email interview, said he interprets the state statute to exclude the City of Groton, as it's a political subdivision of the state, so the rule wouldn't apply.
The charter revisions are appearing on the ballot following a petition campaign that Groton's Right to Vote spearheaded. The petition drive followed the Town Council's 5-4 vote in November 2017 to reject the Charter Revision Commission's report, The Day has reported.
The charter revision question will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot as: "Shall the Town of Groton Charter be amended and revised, all as set forth in the November 2017 final report of the 2016 Town of Groton Charter Revision Commission, and as on file with the Town Clerk?"
Documents related to the Charter Revision Commission, including the complete list of charter revisions, are available online at bit.ly/GTcharter.
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