Calls for stronger minority representation, A&T highlight charter hearing

Photo of Brian Gioiele
Shelton City Hall.

Shelton City Hall.

Autumn Driscoll / Autumn Driscoll

SHELTON — The Charter Revision Commission chairman is standing firm that his group’s charge is simply to look at options.

The Board of Aldermen formed the commission in mid-January and rumors circulated that Mayor Mark Lauretti was behind its formation and selected the members to decrease minority representation on the Board of Education and eliminating the Board of Apportionment and Taxation.

But Dan Debicella, the commission’s chair, said the seven members come to the table with no such agenda. He added that the city’s governing document, last examined in 2012, was due to go under the microscope yet again and the only objective is a nonpartisan look at what can be improved.

“The commission has Republicans, unaffiliateds, Democrats … and the goal is to take a nonpartisan look at the charter, get as much input from the public as possible through the process, and find ways to make our city government run more efficiently,” said Debicella.

“We want healthy checks and balances … we want minority representation,” said Debicella, adding that there are many areas of the charter to “grapple with, but I do not see us making radical changes to city government in the process.”

Debicella said he hopes the commission can present a final revised document to the Board of Aldermen by July 4 with a goal of having any changes before the voters for the November 2020 election.

Debicella said the commission will next meet Feb. 18. In the interim, he is asking anyone to email suggestions to The commission will consider all ideas received before March 15.

The information gathering began Jan. 30 with a public hearing — required by state statute before any formal commission meetings. Those who spoke recommended strengthening minority representation on boards and commissions, giving the Board of A&T more authority over budget matters and making the Board of Ethics a more nonpartisan body.

“One of the rampant rumors is that the mayor wants to see the balance on the BOE changed to one more favorable to his party,” said Kate Kutash, present Democratic Board of Education member. “The current 5 to 4 weight has been in effect for decades and has worked well.”

Kutash said the board should operate in a nonpartisan manner and asked that the commission consider changes that would have the nine board members elected with “no regard for party, but for their commitment to providing a quality education for the students in Shelton.”

She said weighting the Board of Education heavily in any one direction would severely hinder the ability of the members to work in the best interests of the students.

Kutash was joined by former Board of Education member and Democratic Town Committee Chair David Gioiello in recommending four-year terms for Board of Education members, with terms that are staggered so that in one given year the whole board is not up for re-election.

“This can maintain some history and experience on the board,” said Kutash. “It has been a difficult situation this year with only three experienced members left on the BOE and so many new faces, many with little knowledge of the functioning of a school system.”

Michelle Laubin, a member of the Board of Apportionment and Taxation, recommended changes be made to strengthen minority representation in a city government dominated by a single political party.

The eight-member Board of Aldermen is presently all Republican, said Laubin, and at its meetings, there is no debate or even explanation provided publicly for any of the motions presented and voted upon.

“All of the work is being done outside of the public eye and there is no attempt made to question or provide information to the public supporting the votes of the legislative council. This is not what a healthy democracy looks like,” Laubin said.

Laubin also called on revising the charter to make the Board of A&T “a functional and robust board that provides actual bipartisan oversight of the city budget.”

“Seymour’s charter has some language pertaining to the need for ‘management and monitoring’ of the budget for the current fiscal year, in collaboration with the finance director and the Board of Selectmen, and specifically references the access that the board has to the records and books of account of the town. Derby also has a similar reference in its charter. These provisions are absent from our charter,” she said.

Laubin also recommended the charter be revised to include the establishment of a “real reserve fund that has rules associated with how much money must be maintained in the reserve and when and how the money may be spent.

“Currently, Shelton has no such rules in place, and it is damaging to our bond rating, which ultimately costs the taxpayers of Shelton more money when we have to borrow money, which we seem to have a need for every year,” she said.

She noted Stratford’s charter language, which requires a reserve fund of 10 percent of the prior year’s general fund expenditures and calls for it to be spent only in the case of an emergency and requires an affirmative vote of eight members of the town council.

“A similar model would be a good start in Shelton,” said Laubin, “and would pave the way for fiscal responsibility.”