Norwich commission looking for charter change ideas

Norwich - The newly formed Charter Revision Commission will meet on the second Thursdays of the month, starting with a public hearing for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 13 to hear from residents on what portions of the city charter should be studied for possible changes.

The seven-member commission met for the first time Wednesday and elected Les King as chairman, Kent Baker as vice chairman and Debra Dickey as commission secretary to write the report the group will submit to the City Council at the end of the 16-month process.

The City Council voted in November to form a charter commission and appointed the seven members in December.

The council directed the commission to consider seven specific issues, ranging from technical corrections to grammar and wording to issues that would bring major changes to the city's government structure.

One of those is "adopting a single mill rate for the entire city." Currently, the center city is served by a paid fire department, and property owners there pay a higher tax rate to cover the costs. Property owners in the five outlying volunteer fire districts pay only a small amount to cover volunteer firefighter pensions, while some costs of all the departments are funneled through the general budget.

The council also asked the new commission to consider four-year staggered terms for council members with a limit of two terms. While the mayor currently has a four-year term, aldermen are elected for two years with a small stipend of $100 per month also stipulated in the charter.

That could change as well, as the new charter commission will be asked to consider changes to council stipends by ordinance instead of charter change.

Another potentially controversial item is a suggestion that the commission propose changing the city bonding limit without needing a referendum. Currently, the council cannot bond for more than $800,000 without a referendum. The commission will consider "raising council bonding threshold to a percent of the adopted city budget."

The commission also will consider whether to change the annual spending on capital improvements from the current 1 mill to 2 percent of the annual city budget.

City Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll started Wednesday's meeting by giving the new commission a history lesson in 150 years of charter establishment and revision in Norwich. He said charter revision commissions have been formed frequently over the years, including three commissions between 1990 and 1993 alone.

Four times from 1959 to 1988, there were proposals to create a mayoral form of government instead of the City Council-city manager structure still in place today, Driscoll said. The City Council did not address the mayoral question in forming the commission, but the commission is free to consider any potential changes once it gets started.

In 2001, voters approved the current council structure, with six members elected at large - replacing precinct representation - every two years, and a mayor elected every four years. The mayor, designated as the head of economic development with a $45,000 salary, still has only one vote on the council.

c.bessette@theday.com

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