Op-Ed: Charter Revision Commission chair details reasons to back changes
Shelton should vote “yes” on charter revision on Nov. 3 to give more power to voters, create new checks and balances in city government, and prepare the city for the challenges of the next decade. Our nonpartisan commission worked together to unanimously support a proposal that takes the best practices from surrounding communities and applies them to our context in Shelton.
We completed a comprehensive study of 25 surrounding towns, as well as received many great suggestions from Shelton residents. While a small number of Democratic Town Committee members are opposing the charter for their own political reasons, I encourage all Shelton residents to read the changes, understand their implications and vote “yes.”
First, the new charter gives more power to voters. We eliminate unelected boards like the Board of Apportionment and Taxation, where the Republican and Democratic Town committees choose who serves — and voters have no choice. We move those few responsibilities to the democratically elected Board of Aldermen, where voters can choose who makes decisions on items such as budget line-item transfers. This change is in line with larger towns and cities like Stratford, Bridgeport and Danbury.
We also increase voter choice on the Board of Education and Planning and Zoning Commission. For example, normally voters choose nine out of 10 candidates for the Board of Education — not a lot of a choice. The new charter increases the number of seats a party can win to six, which means that the parties will run six candidates each. Now voters can choose nine of 12 candidates and have more options from which to choose.
The new charter increases the number of Planning and Zoning Commissioners from six to seven. With six members it took 66 percent (4 out of 6) of the members to pass anything — an odd number of commissioners will avoid ties and create a more reasonable majority to pass business.
Second, our proposed charter creates new checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches. The current charter allows the mayor to appoint certain boards and commissions, while the Board of Aldermen certain others. To create more accountability, we now have the mayor appoint and the Board of Aldermen approve all nominations (similar to our federal and state government). We also standardize the terms of boards and commissions to four years.
Third, we have modernized the charter in several ways to be ready for the 2020s. We have created a new citywide technology committee to create and execute a strategy for both the city and our schools. City Hall and the Board of Education will collaborate on our technology needs in a unified way. We also increase the amount of bonding the Board of Aldermen can do from 2 percent to 3 percent of the general fund, so our legislative body can fund “everyday” items like road repair but must go to referendum for voter approval for large items like new schools.
Equally important is what we chose not to put in the charter. We considered a four-year term for the mayor, but rejected that as we want the mayor to be highly accountable to voters through more frequent elections. We considered eliminating minority representation on boards (as they do on the Milford Board of Education), but believe that having both Republican and Democratic voices at the table is critical in local government. Our principle was to maximize the voice of the voter, and we rejected ideas that weakened voter power.
The small number of Democratic Town Committee members who oppose the changes do so because they will lose the unelected power the charter currently grants them. Their arguments mislead on a number of fronts. First, they argue that the Board of A&T is a “check and balance” on the mayor. They are no such thing — the Board of Aldermen as our elected legislative body is the check and balance on the mayor. The Board of A&T was meant to be a specialized budget board to advise the Aldermen — a function not needed given deep Aldermanic engagement on the budget. Second, opponents argue that we strengthen the office of the mayor. We actually do the opposite. We strengthen the Board of Aldermen as a check and balance on the mayor, for example requiring all mayoral appointments to boards and commissions be approved by the Board of Aldermen. In reality, the new charter transfers power away from both the Republican and Democratic Town committees to the voters. The local Democratic politicians who will lose unelected and unaccountable power do not like that.
Democracy is all about giving power to “We the People” of Shelton, while creating the checks and balances in government to protect the rights of minority viewpoints. The new charter succeeds in evolving our local government to give more power to Shelton voters, create new checks and balances and modernize for what lies before us. I encourage all Shelton voters to vote “yes” on Nov. 3.
Dan Debicella was the chair of Shelton’s 2020 Charter Revision Commission and is Shelton’s former state senator.