The May 3 Amity Regional School Budget referendum results spoke volumes. Here in Woodbridge voters sent a clear message that the Amity Board of Education (ABOE) needs to go back to the drawing board. The message was even more pronounced in Orange, with a rejection greater than 2:1, and Bethany rejected it as well. The majority of voters agreed this was a bad budget. The reasons varied: some saw the 3.99% budget increase as too much; some saw the recurring million-dollar plus surpluses coming from the ABOE as reason enough not to trust this budget. There was also considerable sentiment against the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) effort promoted by the Board and Superintendent.
Readers may remember another recent Amity-related referendum – the one focused on putting artificial turf on the football field. While the vote did pass across the three towns, it was defeated in Woodbridge. In that case the most noted concerns were the immediate and long-term costs, the effect such turf has on the student athletes and the environmental concerns about the turf materials themselves.
An obvious take-away from these votes is that referendums are the most democratic way for local residents to determine how we want our money spent – and how much of it. One could argue that neither defeat was financially motivated, but it is certainly the most democratic way for taxpayers to participate in budget decisions.
In Woodbridge, that’s where the true democratic process regarding our budget ends. Sure, there are sparsely attended public hearings on the budget, and good questions can arise that make a marginal impact on what the final budget looks like. But once the budget is ready for a vote – when it counts – the current Town Charter-prescribed process effectively precludes change. Our charter requires a vote on each line item of the budget, rather than the budget as a whole, at a Town Meeting with at least 250 voters present. Last year’s Town Meeting saw a chaos when the line-item vote process played out. There was more confusion than clarity in that meeting, which was to be expected given the antiquated approval/rejection process we must follow. The cynic in me sees this as a way to assure the budget is finalized unchanged. Ironically, we could easily revise the Charter and so fix the problem, but the First Selectman and the Democrat majority have never lifted finger once to consider bringing this important democratic change to Woodbridge. It’s high time they did.
Woodbridge desperately needs the Board of Selectmen (BOS) to convene a Charter Revision Commission that will consider changing the way we govern ourselves in several important areas – or at least put possible changes to a town wide vote. The case for a town budget referendum has been made before in this column. And while such a Commission is in place – hopefully made up of a truly bi-partisan group of residents – it should examine how we put people on the Board of Finance. While our Board of Finance members are appointed, many other towns, including Bethany and Orange, have elected Boards of Finance, effectively giving voters another way to reject or support the Town’s financial decisions. Additionally, the vast majority of our boards and commissions are appointed by the BOS, and those appointments are made by a vote of the majority of the BOS (consensus is not required). It has become a process driven by nominees’ party registration, not experience or competency. Taking this a step further, on our six-person BOS where the First Selectman gets to cast a second vote to break a 3-3 tie, the First Selectman functions as a King or Queen. We see this representation strangulation play out in nearly every contentious vote by the BOS today, and to an even more appalling degree with Board and Commission appointments. There is no executive/legislative check and balance system in Woodbridge today. A Charter Revision Commission can and should be charged with evaluating all these points – and probably others – and offer alternatives to Woodbridge voters.
So, let’s get a Charter revision Commission going to create a more democratic local government. Odd request from a Republican, huh?
By Chuck Pyne – Woodbridge Republican Town Committee Chairman