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RIDGEFIELD Town’s ‘living document’ under review

June 28, 2018

RIDGEFIELD —Last November’s chaotic local election will likely be at the forefront of residents’ minds as they consider one of several changes to the town’s charter over the next few months.

One of four major proposals approved by a Charter Revision Commission this week prohibits candidates from running for multiple positions with overlapping terms.

The hope is that, if approved, it can avoid a scramble like last November, where town officials struggled for nearly a week after Election Day to decipher a ballot with four people running for multiple spots.

Three candidates had run for two positions each and one person had run for four.

Those results were the most difficult Town Clerk Barbara Serfilippi said she ever had to figure out. But it was ultimately her concern for voters that led her to propose the new rule, along with other residents and the selectmen, to the commission earlier this year.

“My main emphasis is not to confuse the voters,” Serfilippi said. “Seeing somebody on there four times, I don’t think the average voter understood what was happening. And sometimes, when people see that and they don’t’ know how to vote, they don’t vote at all.”

Members of the Charter Revision Commission, which approved the idea 9-0, felt it was always the intention of the town to prevent candidates from running for multiple seats -- but it was never explicitly written into its regulations, Chairman Jonathan Seem said.

They also found that without the rule, positions a candidate won but didn’t take would be filled by appointment, or by the second-highest vote-getter. Members felt this could deprive voters of choosing someone for the seat, Seem said.

The suggested change will head to the Board of Selectmen in a “draft report” of charter revisions over the next few weeks. Other big changes proposed in the 52-page report include alterations to the budget process, other town positions and the structure of boards and commissions.

One budget-process revision would require a threshold of 2 percent of voters, or about 365 people, to make changes to the budget at the Annual Town Meeting, where town and school budgets are discussed and then sent to referendum.

Now, any person who shows up can propose a change — to a line item of the town budget or to the total amount of the school budget — and it can be approved by the rest of the attendees, no matter the size of the group. Seem said commission members thought this structure gave too much authority to a group that might not reflect the will of the town.

“We generally have maybe 100 to 150 people turn up,” Seems said. “You could potentially have a change to the budget by one person and approved by this small group of people — does that truly represent the feeling of the town populous in general?”

But some residents during a hearing on the charter changes worried whether the threshold is realistic. Resident Ed Tyrrell said he agrees with the reason for the change, but is concerned setting it at 2 percent might actually have the opposite affect than what is intended.

“There’s a good chance no one will show up because they know there won’t be 365 people and the Town Meeting will become even more hollow,” Tyrrell said.

But Seem contends those who feel strongly about a “hot topic” should be able to recruit enough residents to attend the meeting if they want to make a change.

Another proposal in the commission’s draft report would be to create a separate Inland Wetlands Board, instead of having the Planning and Zoning Commission act as the Inland Wetlands Board, as it does now.

This has been suggested in past charter revisions, but has failed each time, Seem said. This time, it was approved by a 5-4 vote

“Members felt that the community would be better served by having a dedicated board of people either experienced or interested in wetlands with a real focus on looking at applications with a very specific wetlands eye,” Seem said.

Ridgefield is one of eight of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities that combine the two, he added.

The commission has also suggested switching the town treasurer and tax collector positions to appointed rather than elected, which they said would ensure candidates with specific expertise, even if they live outside of Ridgefield, could get the job. However, a proposal to make the town clerk position an appointed job failed, Seem said.

The draft report with the changes, and others that can be found on the town website, will go back to the commission after the selectmen make their recommendations. A final copy will then be approved by the selectmen and will then head to voters in November.

“The charter is meant to be a living document in any given town,” Seem said of the process, which is required by the state to be reviewed every four years. “Over time, things change around Ridgefield and inside Ridgefield, and that requires the charter to be updated. It’s an important exercise.”