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Open Government Via Charter Revision [Opinion]

The Woodbridge Town Charter is the handbook by which we self-govern.  It’s our local Constitution, setting forth the number and responsibilities of both the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance, specifying the matters that must be presented to a Town Meeting, the manner in which voluntary Boards and Commissions shall be established, and the process for adopting local ordinances.  Like the U.S. Constitution, the Town Charter foresees the potential need for amendment, and so allows the Board of Selectmen to occasionally establish a Charter Revision Commission to consider and propose to residents appropriate changes to the Charter.  The last Charter Revision Commission was convened some eighteen years ago, and a new Commission is long overdue.

In the previous “Other Side of the Aisle” we pointed out that the overwhelming majority of Woodbridge residents voted for the state legislature to devise a process for early voting statewide.  The conventional wisdom was that such a change would increase citizen participation.  Now juxtapose that with how Woodbridge taxpayers are limited in our opportunity to approve or disapprove our annual town budget – we attend one weekday evening meeting a year, and there must be at least 250 taxpayers present before we are allowed to vote on each of dozens of line items (one at a time) in the proposed budget.  There is never an opportunity to vote on the budget as a whole in a single vote.

We’ve witnessed how impractical, if not chaotic, the current budget approval process is and how it all but guarantees no changes to the proposed budget.  And it’s worth repeating that without reaching that charter-prescribed 250-person quorum, there won’t even be a vote.  Since a quorum is hardly ever achieved, the budget is almost always adopted automatically.  In sharp contrast, town residents vote every year by referendum on the Amity School District budget.  So why doesn’t the Democrat leadership support voting when it comes to our town budget, and initiate a charter revision process?  All it takes is the Democrat leadership to get that ball rolling.  Thus far, repeated calls to empower town taxpayers have been ignored.

There are many other areas of our self-government that deserve a fresh look and consideration of amendment.  A big one is how the Board of Finance, the group that actually sets our mill rate, is chosen.  If the power of taxation is to remain with the Board of Finance, then its members should be elected, not appointed as they are today.  A quick survey of towns in our area shows the way we populate the powerful Board of Finance is way out of sync with our neighbors – they elect their tax-establishing bodies.  Woodbridge should do the same – and we can if we update our Town Charter.

In a broader scope, our current First Selectman/Board of Selectmen structure is completely out of step with the concept of a check-and-balance between executive and legislative branches of government.  While we don’t have a local judicial branch to completely mirror our federal system, the idea of each of the two branches we do have keeping a check on the other is extremely important.  In Woodbridge today, however, with the exception of the aforementioned control of our mill rate, all decisions flow from the Board of Selectmen (legislature), which includes the First Selectman (executive).  This is true from ordinances to who gets appointed to the many volunteer boards and commissions.  Currently, we have a six-member Board of Selectmen where the First Selectman gets a second vote in case of a 3-3 tie.  Since other Charter provisions ensure that the First Selectman will always serve with at least two Selectmen of the same party, electing our First Selectman is in reality electing a king or queen for the two-year term.  The First Selectman has final control to break all ties – no “veto override” is possible.  So why did Woodbridge adopt this mode of governing, in defiance of the state’s model charter and in opposition to the practice of so many other Connecticut towns?  Our Charter inhibits open and effective government and should be reviewed by a Charter Revision Commission.

To borrow a phrase, the goal of a Charter Revision Commission is to “form a more perfect” Woodbridge.  These are but a few of the areas where we should realize there is a better way to govern ourselves.  This suggestion isn’t partisan; our goal is a better, more open Woodbridge.  Let’s hope 2023 is the year that the Board of Selectmen finally establishes a Charter Revision Commission.

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