The Bethel Charter Committee was formed earlier this year to make recommendations to the Board of Selectmen, to then be forwarded to a Town referendum, to make changes to the Town Charter, the set of bylaws that function as the basis for the Town of Bethel to operate and be governed under.
The Town charter by law must be reviewed every 5 years, and this was last done in Bethel in 2013.
Joyce Hess, Nicholas Hoffman, the committee chair, John Lennon, Theresa Letellier, Melanie O'Brien, Patrick Perrefort and Sharon Straiton have been appointed to the 2018 Charter Commission.
The commission will meet with representatives from Town departments, Town boards and others, as well as hold public hearings before and after developing recommendations. Public input is also generally built into the commission's regular meetings.
Once the recommendations are complete, the Board of Selectmen will review their suggestions and then draft a final charter revision for Town residents to vote on in a referendum.
The commission held a meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. in Meeting Room B in ther Municipal Center as part of their ongoing process. Public input was on the agenda, as was a review of past meeting minutes and discussion of previous public input and other related topics.
Bradley Koltz, Publisher of the Bethel Community Gazette was the only member of the public to attend. Town Selectman Richard Straiton also observed the proceedings as a citizen, although he also provided some context and input during the commission's various discussions.
All commission members were in attendance except Patrick Perrefort, who had a conflicting prior commitment. Attorney Nicholas Vitti Jr. and First Selectman Office Administrator Dionne Craig also attended to provide guidance and support for the commission.
After voting to accept and enter the minutes from the previous meeting, as well as correspondence related to the commission's work, the floor was opened to public input.
Mr. Koltz suggested that the proposed changes to the charter related to public notices be reconsidered, noting that the proposed change is not in alignment with the state guidelines for public notices, which in many instances require publication of legal notices in a newspaper, and not as the proposed change provides, in a "publication". Mr. Vitti suggested that the change was appropriate as the state "may" change the wording at some time in the future. Mr. Koltz countered that changing the definition before the State implemented a change was unwise and could put the Town in violation of notice requirements. Mr. Koltz also pointed out that his request for The Bethel Community Gazette to carry public notices was being considered by the First Selectman and that changing the rules now that the Town once again has a regular, weekly newspaper was inappropriate. Mr. Koltz was asked about the distribution of The Gazette and proposed cost for legal notices, and replied that the paper now has a distribution of about twice the News-Times' in-town distribution and reaches about 1/4 of the households in town. He also stated that the proposed rates are significantly less than what the Town currently pays.
The commission discussed setting a regular monthly meeting date for the next 12 months, and agreed on the first Wednesday of each month, with the exception of January, moving the date from the 2nd to the 16th and July, moving the date from the 3rd to the 10th. This was unanimously adopted.
The commission discussed the idea of moving the date of the Town meeting so as to better align with the release of State of Connecticut budgets. The concept of "shovel ready" budget approvals was also discussed. While the general sentiment seemed to agree with the need for better budget estimates that are closer to actual amounts, the need for estimates with flexibility was also discussed. The idea of forcing a hard number might also run afoul of state grant processes. One commission member states "If we need hard numbers, we'll never build another school again." Further discussion is expected.
The commission discussed the idea of adding a "just right" option to the ballet as opposed to "too high" or "too low".
The commission discussed the idea of moving the First Selectman term from 2 years to 4 years. One membe pointed out that a majority of Connecticut communities have 2 year terms. The issue of constant campaigning being a distraction was raised, and one member stated "The best campaigning is to do a good job while in office."
The idea of allowing the Board of Finance to modify a budget when either only the Town or School budget passes was discussed. One member observed "I can't imagine the Town allowing that to happen."
The idea of allowing Town Meeting to have capital line approval was discussed. Currently many capital items are lumped together, a new building project with a new fire engine, for example. This change, if adopted, would allow a separate vote on each individual item.
The idea of changing the currently elected Town Clerk position to an appointed one was discussed. Some felt this would extend the Town's ability to retain qualified talent while others liked the idea of being able to vote out poor performers.
The commission discussed the board appointment process. Current practice, but not law, holds that the party of a vacant position propose a replacement to the Board of Sleectmen who often, but not always, follow that suggestion. The idea is to codify the practice into law. An alternate idea to move the process back to the individual boards was also discussed. A related change to allow for the removal of board members who do not regularly attend board meetings was also discussed.
Dionne Craig noted that the commission meeting wasn't recorded as Meeting Room B isn't currently setup for that, but she hopes the room will be setup to record the next meeting.
Public input, or the lack of it, was also discussed. One member noted that the last public hearing has six attendees from the public. The current meeting only had one. Considering that the commission is considering making recommendations about changes to term length, board member replacement, capital expenditure process and other important functions of Town governance, many members were surprised at the low attendance, but hoped for more public input in the future.
The next meeting of the Charter Commission will be held on January 16, 2019.
Staff Photo – The Bethel Charter Commission meeting in Meeting Room B on December 4