Op-Ed: Charter revisions only serve to limit checks and balances

Michelle Laubin

Michelle Laubin

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The proposal of the Charter Revision Commission now pending before the Board of Aldermen represents an enormous missed opportunity. I have no doubt that it will be passed, largely unchanged, by the Board of Aldermen, and will be on the ballot as a referendum for the public to approve in November. I urge all Shelton voters to start looking at the proposal on the city website (located under “resources”), familiarize yourselves with it, and prepare to vote “no.”

I’m going to limit most of my comments here to the central issue of removing the Board of A&T from the charter. The Charter Revision Commission (CRC) says that they want to promote “checks and balances”, but they did the exact opposite. The phrase “checks and balances” speaks to the powers of different branches of government to hold one another in check. The CRC has conflated this with voter accountability, which is the power of the voters to vote out a public official who does not represent the public well. The CRC takes the position that because the Board of A&T is “appointed” by nominations of individuals coming from the DTC and the RTC, and the people nominated are usually voted into office by virtue of their nomination, that makes the Board of A&T invalid as a “check and balance.” Nonsense.

First of all, this overlooks the fact that the Board of A&T is elected on the ballot, and that other candidates for the Board of A&T can run for it and compete with those nominated by the DTC and the RTC. If people want more choices of candidates for the Board of A&T on the ballot, then we can encourage more people to run for office, whether affiliated with a political party or not, to make it competitive. Instead, the CRC also made the proposal to limit the number of candidates for any city board who can run from any political party to the number of seats that can be controlled by that party. This will result in fewer choices of candidates on the ballot for the remaining city boards, not more.

Secondly, whether the Board of A&T is elected or appointed doesn’t have any bearing on the importance of its function in the roles of “checks and balances.” The judicial branch of the federal and State governments is appointed, but it performs an important role as a “check and balance” on the other two branches of government, and by virtue of being appointed, is actually considered to be above the political fray and less subject to political pressure.

The role of the Board of A&T is just as important in our charter and in our city government. However, until last year, it was treated as unimportant and superfluous. What happened last year? For the first time in a long time, the Board of A&T, by a narrow one-vote majority, voted to adopt a budget that was different from the one proposed by the Mayor. We actually did operate in a bipartisan fashion, took the process seriously, asked a lot of questions of the department heads who did show up to the hearings, debated the budget, worked hard, and came up with a compromise that provided more funding to education than the Mayor had proposed and less funding to some of the other departments that are repeatedly over-funded year after year. Despite the fact that the Mayor had enough votes on the BOA to make sure that our proposed budget was overturned, according to the process laid out in the current charter, that wasn’t enough. When the time came to review the charter, he spoke in public and demanded that the CRC eliminate the Board of A&T from the charter. They complied.

Mr. Anglace stated that the only power of the Board of A&T that is being transferred to the BOA Finance Committee in the charter revision proposal is the power to make intra-department line item transfers during the course of the fiscal year. That is not the only role of the Board of A&T. The central role of the Board of A&T in the current charter comes at budget time, when it is time to examine the proposed budget and set the tax rate for the upcoming year. The Board of A&T actually runs the budget process, chairing the hearings, and taking the lead in questioning the department heads, and then, assuming it has the votes, it adopts a budget and sets the mill rate for the city. The Board of A&T is currently three Republicans and three Democrats, and if there is a tie, the Mayor can vote and break the tie. The BOA can overturn this budget using the process in the current charter, and in fact, that is what happened last year.

Mr. Anglace also stated that even if the Board of A&T is eliminated, the “recommendations” of the Board of A&T can still be submitted to the BOA through the public hearing process. Not true. The only reason that the Board of A&T has access to the budget runs and the back-up documentation is because we are members of the Board of A&T. The public never receives the back-up documentation from the departments, and cannot ask questions of the department representatives during the budget hearings. We do it now because that is what we are elected to do, and we represent the public in this process. I want the public to know that if this proposal is adopted, your voice in the budget process will be greatly diminished, if not eliminated altogether.

The slogan that the CRC has assigned to this, that this proposal is an improvement in “voter choice” is an insult to the intelligence of the voters of Shelton. As the old saying goes, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

Michelle Laubin is a Democrat member of the Board of Apportionment and Taxation.