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New London - Residents are expected to start collecting signatures to force a second referendum on the 2012-13 budget, and Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio may not be able to stop it.
"The mayor is not part of this process. He cannot issue any orders to interfere with this process," Council President Michael Passero said Friday. "They (the voters) have every right to petition. The city clerk will be under a legal obligation to review the petition for validity and forward it to the City Council.''
Finizio sent a letter to City Clerk Nathan Caron Thursday, instructing him "not to issue, accept or certify any petitions related to the annual appropriation ordinance for the City of New London for fiscal year 2012-13."
Finizio cited an opinion by the law director, which said the budget cannot be taken to another referendum because the city has already spent more than 25 percent of its budgetary allocation for the fiscal year. Law Director Jeffrey T. Londregan cited 2003 and 2007 opinions from the former city attorney, Thomas Londregan, in which the spending cap prevented residents from taking the budget to a referendum.
"The legal opinion is (that) the petition cannot be certified by the clerk and the council can take no action,'' Finizio said.
He amended his directive to the city clerk Friday to say any petitions should be accepted and time-stamped, but added that the clerk's office is too busy to take time to certify signatures for an action he said would be "moot."
"I don't want the clerk's office to expend city resources ... toward something that ... legally has no merit,'' the mayor said.
But Passero said the city clerk has an obligation to review and validate any petitions that come before him. It is up to the City Council to act on this petition, he added.
"The mayor can't stop us, or stop the clerk, or stop the people from petitioning,'' he said.
Passero disagreed with the law director's opinion that the appropriation ordinance, adopted by the council on Tuesday, cannot be put to a referendum. He said the mayor's directive to the city clerk interferes with the City Council's authority to act on a valid referendum petition.
Passero cited a lawsuit filed in 2007 - Larry Hample et al. v. City of New London - in which a New London Superior Court judge accepted the argument that certifying a referendum petition is not a discretionary act and citizens have a legal right to file a referendum petition.
"While the court's ruling was not (settled) on the merits of the plaintiffs' claims in that case, I believe the ruling is compelling evidence that the Law Director's opinion is incorrect,'' Passero said in an email to The Day Friday afternoon.
Also on Friday, despite the mayor's opinion that the budget cannot be challenged, several residents showed up at City Hall to start the petition process.
"People will sign the petition because he (Finizio) is trying to take away our rights,'' said Susan Plunkett, who picked up a copy of the budget appropriation ordinance, which is the first step in circulating a petition.
William Cornish, a member of Looking Out for Taxpayers, and Kathleen Mitchell, a local activist, also picked up documents to start a petition drive. "I don't like anyone telling me I can't do something,'' Mitchell said. "The (City) Charter says we can do this. We have the right to do it."
Cornish said LOT members will meet today to discuss the petition drive.
Shannon Brenek, who was with Mitchell and Plunkett at City Hall, said taxpayers are being told their money has been mismanaged over the years and questioned the need to fix the problem in one year. "I don't think another referendum is an unreasonable request,'' she said.
On Tuesday the council passed a revised 2012-13 general government budget of $41.3 million, representing a 5.1 percent tax increase. The mayor signed it Thursday.
The adopted budget is about $1 million less than the budget approved by the council in June, which required a 7.5 percent increase in taxes. Voters rejected that budget in a September referendum.
According to the charter, taxpayers have 15 days after the mayor signs the budget to submit signatures for a referendum. At least 483 signatures - 10 percent of all those who voted in the last municipal election - are needed.