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Petition could lead to referendum on police staffing in New London

New London — Residents have successfully petitioned the City Council’s repeal of a staffing ordinance that mandates 80 police officers.

With the required number of signatures collected and now certified by the city clerk, the City Council has a decision to make on whether to rescind its vote or send the question to voters. The council, which received the petition for the record on Monday, did not publicly discuss which of several options it might pursue.

Without a reversal of the repeal, the question will go to a citywide vote.

The council’s repeal of the 2014 police staffing ordinance came on March 1. Councilors said the staffing number was arbitrary, based on an outdated study, and said the move was not related to calls for defunding police but rather the council's intention to examine budgets of all city departments.

At the heart of the opposition to the repeal is what John Russell called a “national narrative to defund police.” The former council member spearheaded the petition drive and said repeal of the staffing ordinance opens the door to possible reductions in police spending.

He said removing the ordinance sends the wrong message at the wrong time.

“They’re building a lot of new apartments in town. There are going to be a lot of young people and they are going to want to go downtown and they are going to want a safe downtown,” Russell said. “Right now the perception is it isn’t safe.”

Russell said the council has also made it a habit of waiving three readings of votes that would occur over multiple council meetings. While it is legal, he said, it serves to stymie public comment because of fewer opportunities to voice opinions before a vote is taken.

City law director Jeffrey Londregan explained that with a certified petition, the council will by city charter have the opportunity to reinstate the ordinance, call for a special election or allow the question of the staffing ordinance to move to the ballot for the municipal elections in November.

Calling for a special election would take a five-sevenths vote by the council. It also would lead to extra expenses.

Democratic City Registrar Bill Giesing said he estimates it would cost in the neighborhood of $10,000 to pull off a special referendum vote before the November elections.

The method of setting up for a referendum mirrors what is done during elections: Ballots are printed, poll workers are hired and voting machines are set up in all three voting districts. Giesing said he would consult with the secretary of the state’s office about how absentee ballots are being handled and whether rules set for the presidential election still apply.

Many residents have spoken in favor of the repeal, calling for more attention to mental health and social service needs of the community.

Councilor John Satti was the lone dissenting vote.

Council President Efrain Dominguez said the council made its decision based in part on ongoing conversations with residents. The repeal of the ordinance, he said, reflects what constituents wanted.

He emphasized that “no one here is against police” but that residents also want accountability.

He expects further discussion among council members leading up to their next meeting. If the council decides to send the question to a referendum, Dominguez said it will be democracy in action.

The 2014 staffing ordinance was championed by former Councilor and now Mayor Michael Passero. The ordinance was a response to shrinking numbers at the department, threats of layoffs, high overtime costs and what some officers said was low morale under former Chief Margaret Ackley.

Councilors at the time recognized reaching 80 officers would be difficult, given the fact that there were 65 sworn officers at the time. The department has not reached 80 officers in the seven years since the ordinance was passed.

Chief Peter Reichard has said the department, with a proposed budget of $12.3 million, now has 73 officers, including six at the police academy. The department expects overtime expenses, more than $1 million last year, to drop in the upcoming budget.

g.smith@theday.com

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