Stonington charter-changing group ready to hand in signatures

Stonington - A group of residents that wants to change the town charter to ensure that Board of Finance candidates no longer run unopposed plans to be at Town Hall this morning to hand in a petition with more than 1,500 signatures that will force the town to create a charter review commission to study the issue and possibly recommend a change.

A total of 1,229 signatures, or 10 percent of the town's registered voters, would be needed to force the Board of Selectmen to create the commission.

Former school board member Kevin Bornstein, one of the leaders of Change the Charter, said his group has already checked the signatures against the voting list and found 1,300 are from registered voters, surpassing the number needed. The group wants the commission to look at the nominating process, balloting, terms and party representation of the board.

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. Voters are asked to select one of two candidates on their ballot, but both are elected.

While past efforts to change the process have failed, the effort was restarted this spring when some residents grew upset after more than 500 people attended a public hearing on the proposed 2014-15 budget and the finance board refused their request to restore money it had cut from the school budget and let residents vote on it intact.

In announcing the apparent success of its petition drive, Change the Charter said that the current charter provision means voters do not get an effective choice of who is placed on this important board.

"Change the Charter believes that this is wrong and undemocratic, and we are petitioning the town to examine this outdated system," the group wrote, adding the petition has been a community effort with 65 circulators collecting the signatures. It stated the petition was signed over the past three months by people of varying ages and party affiliations in every voting district.

"All of these people, with their diverse concerns and viewpoints are calling on the town to give them a greater say in how their tax dollars are spent. We all believe we can be trusted to choose the people who are entrusted with our financial affairs. We all believe it's time for more democracy in Stonington," it wrote.

Bornstein added this week that few voters declined to sign the petition, especially after the current process was explained to them.

"It was remarkable how few people didn't know that even though they choose one candidate, both get on (the board)," he said.

Bornstein said another reason some people said they signed was a comment made this spring by veteran finance board member Dudley Wheeler when it was suggested that emails from supporters of the long-discussed elementary school renovation project be printed out and distributed because Wheeler does not have an email account.

Wheeler said, "I don't want to see their BS."

Once the signatures are submitted and validated by Town Clerk Cynthia Ladwig, the Board of Selectmen will be charged with establishing and appointing five to 15 members to the commission within 30 days. That commission could consider a variety of charter changes in addition to the finance board elections.

Change the Charter, which has established a website at www.changethecharter.com, said its organizers "are committed to the seating of a commission with citizens who would offer a balanced view of the concerns of the town and who will move this process forward in the constructive spirit in which is was begun."

It added anyone interested in serving on the commission should contact the Board of Selectmen.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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