Charter debate healthy for Stonington

Most Stonington residents view local elections as insignificant. The vast majority of registered voters never cast ballots to choose the officials who set school policy or decide which roads to repair, how many police should patrol the streets and how much tax each property owner will pay.

In 2013, even with a hotly contested first selectman's race, nearly 61 percent of the town's registered voters stayed away from the polls on Election Day. In 2011, turnout was more abysmal: 66 percent did not cast a ballot. Admittedly, this phenomenon is hardly unique to Stonington. Local elections almost always get the lowest turnouts. With each passing year it grows more difficult to fill slots on local boards and commissions.

Yet while low-voter turnout may be commonplace, it shouldn't be accepted. In Stonington, at least, officials who long have bemoaned voter apathy will soon be handed an opportunity that could entice more voters to the polls, or at least prevent those who now vote from joining the ranks of the disaffected.

A small group of civic-minded residents have for more than two months been knocking on doors, chatting up neighbors and explaining the municipal electoral process to any who would listen. They appear poised to submit a petition asking that a Charter Revision Commission be established to consider making Board of Finance races contested.

The petition signed by more than 1,300 voters - a very comfortable margin over the minimum number of signatures needed - will be presented soon to the town clerk's office for validation. The Board of Selectmen will then be charged with establishing the commission within 90 days.

At the heart of the effort is growing dissatisfaction with the Board of Finance and the actions of individual members who often punctuate the annual budget discussion with verbal barbs aimed at education officials and school supporters. Those seeking a charter change say the real problem is the fact that finance board members are not truly elected by, and so not beholden to, the voters.

Sure, Board of Finance candidates' names appear on the municipal ballot every two years, but unless there are third-party, petitioning or independent candidates among them, the two candidates chosen by the 70 residents who serve on the Democratic and Republican town committees, automatically win a 6-year term. A charter change can alter this. Such a change could bring more choice and power to the voters and reduce excuses for staying away from the polls on Election Day.

Things appeared to come to a head during the recent budget cycle when hundreds of school supporters turned out at a public hearing to oppose deep cuts in the Board of Education's budget proposal. The message seemed to be clear - restore the money and let the voters decide at referendum - but the Board of Finance opted to restore roughly half. That left many feeling that the town needed a board more accountable to the voters. That's reasonable.

For the selectmen, this petition is like a gift basket containing a winning lottery ticket. There is no political risk here. The selectmen do not have to take a stand on the issue to start the charter revision ball rolling. All they have to do is the right thing: establish a commission comprised of hard-working, community-spirited people and trust that those people will thoroughly research the charter options.

Once created, a charter commission is free to consider any changes to the charter. That, too, is a healthy debate to have. Activism at the local level is something to cheer, a counterpoint to the more typical and discouraging apathy.

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