Legal opinion opens door to possible change in Stonington finance board elections

Stonington - It appears a major obstacle has been removed for residents trying to change the town charter so that Board of Finance elections have a better chance of being contested in the future.

Town Attorney Tom Londregan has issued an opinion that the town would not need the state legislature to approve a special act to allow the town to make a change to the way finance board members are elected.

Town Clerk Cynthia Ladwig sought the opinion from Londregan because it was a special act of the legislature that created the Board of Finance in 1933. She wanted to ensure that the town would not have to seek approval of another special act to make the change.

Londregan said that he is of the opinion that a proposal recommended by a charter review commission and approved by voters would be sufficient to make the change.

He pointed to a 1969 amendment to the state Constitution that prohibits the legislature from enacting any legislation "relative to the powers, organization, terms of elective office or forms of government for any municipality." He said this amendment took special acts away from the legislature when dealing with municipal government.

In addition, he said the Home Rule Act of 1957 provided that all existing charters and special acts would continue until changed by a town's adoption of a charter or a charter revision. The town created its charter in 1989. Londregan concluded that the "only reasonable method" to amend the town charter is through charter revision.

Every two years, two of the six-year terms on the finance board come up for election. The current procedure calls for the Democratic and Republican town committees to nominate one candidate for each of the two positions. This means that if there is not a third-party, petitioning or independent candidate, the two party endorsed candidates run unopposed and are elected.

An effort to change the procedure failed about 15 years ago when a change was made to make the school board elections contested.

The effort was restarted this spring when some residents were upset when more than 500 people attended a public hearing on the proposed 2014-15 budget and called on the finance board to restore money it had cut from the school budget and let residents vote on it intact. The board refused.

The group has collected more than 1,300 signatures to force the town to create a Charter Revision Commission with the charge of making the finance board elections contested.

Ten percent of the town's 12,229 registered voters are needed to create the commission. Once the signatures are submitted and validated by Ladwig, the Board of Selectmen will be charged with establishing the commission within 90 days. That commission could consider a variety of charter changes in addition to the finance board elections.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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