A new state law has changed our municipal elections from May to November, beginning in 2023 (the next local election cycle), so we need to update our town Charter accordingly. Today, our town’s Charter is founded on local elections in May of odd numbered years and, therefore, prescribes terms of office beginning July 1 of that same year for both elected and appointed positions. Clearly, the Charter provisions no longer align with the new state law, so we need a fix.
Our Charter authorizes the Board of Selectmen (BOS) to establish a Charter Revision Commission and the time has come for the BOS to do so. Once the Charter Revision Commission finishes its work, town residents will have the opportunity to vote on the proposed revisions, potentially at a Town Meeting but preferably by referendum.
The Charter under which we operate was adopted in 1961. Since that time, there has been some “fine tuning” of the rules under which we govern ourselves (as well as State laws that have minimized home rule), but there have been no consequential updates to our Charter. Since we need to alter some parts of the Charter to address the election date change, we should take advantage of this opportunity to consider other revisions. Nearby towns operate quite differently from ours, in significant ways, and it is worth looking at the way they operate.
Let’s start by updating the process by which we approve/reject our annual town budget. Currently, we follow an 18th century-designed process that requires an in-person vote at a Town meeting held in one specific hour on one specific day. Further, voters are not allowed to reject the budget as a whole, but must vote each line item of the budget up or down, and there are hundreds of line items. That’s archaic and impractical, to say the least, and flies in the face of our state and country’s recent focus on broadening the opportunity for people to vote. Anyone who attended the Town meeting at the fire house last May knows how unwieldy and impractical our budget approval process is today – and it’s painfully detailed in the Charter. What’s the fix? The Charter Revision Commission should consider changing the town budget approval process to a full day of voting, with machines, ballots, and absentee voting, the same way that we vote on the Amity budget each year. It will likely allow more than a couple hundred residents who manage to get to a town meeting in one evening to participate in the process.
At the same time the Charter Revision Commission should reevaluate how we place people on the Board of Finance. At present, the members are appointed by majority vote of the Board of Selectmen. In other towns, the Board of Finance is elected. The Board of Finance has the final say on what our town expenditures will be, and thus they set our mill rate. With the specter of high tax increases now looming, as acknowledged by our First Selectman, what better time to let our town residents reconsider how someone becomes a member of the Board of Finance – whether by appointment or by popular vote? We elect state and federal representatives who set our tax rates, yet in Woodbridge, we don’t.
Another critical, currently appointed board is the Town Plan and Zoning Commission (TPZ). The TPZ members were recently front and center when faced with the controversial 2 Orchard Road application. The TPZ’s final decision on the application included sweeping changes to our town zoning regulations that have opened the door to accessory dwellings, multi-family homes, and denser development, potentially changing the landscape and character of Woodbridge. Whether one agrees with these changes or not, they are consequential and the authority to make such changes should be in the hands of elected individuals as they are in other towns.
Revisions to a town charter are serious business. Recommendations should not be knee-jerk reactions to fleeting town issues but the result of careful review of our town’s charter provisions, the charter provisions of other towns, and the pros and cons of each provision. Charter Revision Committee members should represent a diverse approach to the role and structure of local self-government and such a commission should be given a finite time in which to complete its work. We have a timely opportunity to launch a Charter review with the tremendous potential to improve how we do our business, and the Republican party encourages the establishment of a Charter Revision Commission immediately.