Opponents say Shelton charter revisions only enhance mayor’s power

Photo of Brian Gioiele
Shelton City Hall.

Shelton City Hall.

Contributed photo

SHELTON — Proposed charter changes only serve to further consolidate Mayor Mark Lauretti’s power while eroding any checks on his authority, opponents of the changes told the Board of Aldermen last week.

More than a dozen residents spoke during a public hearing on the revisions prepared by the Charter Revision Commission — with most criticizing elimination of the Board of Apportionment and Taxation and increasing party maximums for elected positions.

The same criticisms have been made by critics at each step of the process.

“The administration is seeking to consolidate power,” said A&T member Michelle Laubin, a Democrat and vocal critic of the charter revisions. “In my view, this is not an improvement in the process, it is a tremendous loss. The slogan that you have 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.”

Lauretti called the claims untrue, saying the opponents are trying to mislead the public. In his ly 30 years in office, the charter has been worded to provide a strong mayoral form of government, he said.

“No one understands the charter better than me. ... I’ve been living by it for 30 years,” Lauretti said. “To these people, I ask, ‘What qualifies them to say these things? How do they substantiate these claims?’ This is just the same group of malcontents who are complaining all the time. If people in Shelton don’t like the direction, they have the right to make a change every two years.”

Elimination of the Board of Apportionment and Taxation would transfer all financial responsibilities to the aldermen, the city’s fiscal authority.

“The Lauretti administration has orchestrated that (A&T) not do its job since June 2019,” said Democrat A&T member Joe Knapik. “Now the Lauretti administration seeks to legitimize its actions by proposing the elimination of A&T.”

Knapik called the Charter Revision Commission a “puppet board,” pushing Lauretti’s “blatant” power grab, with changes that would allow for a veto-resistent split on the Board of Education — a board that has for years feuded with the city administration.

The commission also recommended increased majority party maximums — highlighted with a Board of Education shift from a near-even political split — 5 to 4 — to a heavily weighted 6 to 3. The Planning and Zoning Commission would also be expanded from six to seven members.

The commission also proposes increasing the level of bonding the Board of Aldermen can do without a referendum from 2 percent to 3 percent.

Charter Revision Commission Chair Dan Debicella has stated that the revisions are designed to give more power to voters and has denied claims Lauretti orchestrated the revisions to further consolidate his power.

The current mayor is a Republican. The entire Board of Aldermen are Republicans. The political makeup of the charter change commission was four Republicans, two unaffiliateds and one Democrat.

Mark Holden, former Board of Education chairman, said the revisions as proposed “systematically increases the power of the mayor while removing checks and balances and reduces voter choice for the Board of Education.”

Holden also said, if approved, the revisions would allow the mayor to decide who to hire for many more city positions, greatly increasing his power.

“The proposed change to the Board of Education will reduce the number of people who can run with party endorsement,” Holden said.

In six elections from 2009 to 2019, Holden said, the city had an average of 12.5 people on the ballot for nine seats. Both parties have usually run more people than could be elected under majority limitation, Holden said.

“The proposed charter will reduce voter choice in the general election and increase the odds we’ll need to hold primaries,” Holden said. “The only thing that’s been transparent about this charter revision is the determination to put together a proposal maximizing the power of the mayor with as little public scrutiny as possible.”

Student Mary Pavliouk, representing SHS Students Fight for Change, told the aldermen partisan politics have no place in education.

“Three members of the minority party is not enough to serve as a check,” Pavliouk said. “Decisions about our education should not be a partisan charade, but rather a bipartisan effort to do what’s best for all our students, parents and teachers. A 6-3 board will only encourage the majority of members to work together and shut out the remaining three members of the board, as their votes to pass policy changes will no longer be needed. This sets a dangerous precedent.”

James Orazietti, Republican Board of Education vice chair who stated he was speaking as a private citizen, said the change to a 6-to-3 split would help create a more decisive and more productive school board. Orazietti said he agrees with this revision now, same as he did 10 years ago as a Democrat.

Knapik said a dictatorship will not help enhance Shelton’s image.

“Let’s encourage diversity in government, not one-man rule,” Knapik said.

Now that a public hearing has been held, the aldermen have three options: approve the charter revisions as proposed; amend the list and send them back to the commission for approval; or reject them altogether.

The aldermen have until Sept. 3 to approve the revisions for them to be on the November ballot.