Groton residents petition rejected charter revision report to November vote

Groton – A group of residents that collected signatures over the last 45 days has successfully petitioned the rejected Charter Revision Commission report onto the ballot for the Nov. 6 election.

Town Clerk Betsy Moukawsher said she verified 2,199 signatures, well above the 1,900 needed to send the report to referendum. The proposed changes would dissolve the town’s 41-member Representative Town Meeting, create a seven-member Board of Finance with members elected by district every four years, and begin an annual budget referendum, with the education and town budgets voted on separately.

“The petition drive was successful because we had a very popular cause and dedicated hard-working people who believed in it,” said Robert Frink, member of the now dissolved Charter Revision Commission and the group called Groton’s Right to Vote, which circulated the petition. “We also had a number of businesses in town that supported our efforts by providing us with space to get our message out. And finally, there were many citizens who saw this as a rare opportunity to change the process and came forward to sign."

The former Town Council had rejected the commission report, which meant it wouldn’t go to referendum unless at least 10 percent of registered voters signed a petition within 45 days. Groton’s Right to Vote mobilized, fanning out across neighborhoods and businesses through the holidays to meet the Jan. 12 deadline.

Town Councilor Lian Obrey said she admires the group’s ability to get all the signatures, but believes it was done in a misguided manner. People who signed the petition thought they were signing for the right to vote on the budget, not to also potentially dissolve the RTM, she said.

“They just kept saying to people, ‘Don’t you want to vote on the budget?’ and you didn’t hear anything about any of the other items,” Obrey said. “And that is wrong.”

The commission proposed so many changes to Groton’s government they couldn’t have all been explained in the time it takes to collect a signature, Obrey said.

Members of the petitioning group denied they misrepresented the petition. Frink said the petition was clearly written and citizens with additional questions were encouraged to go to the town website to learn about the commission’s recommendations.

The group is developing an “extensive outreach program” to inform residents about the recommendations, Frink said.

Former RTM moderator Jean-Claude Ambroise said the group opposing the changes, which calls itself Neighbors Representing Groton, will also be reaching out to residents. The group has created a Facebook page and posted information about RTM members to show the diversity of backgrounds of people on the RTM, he said.

Circulators of the petition had every right to collect signatures and call for a referendum, Ambroise said. But Groton is a diverse community and if the RTM is dissolved and replaced by an advisory, seven-member Board of Finance, the diversity of representation Groton has will not continue, he said.

“You end up consolidating power in the hands of fewer people,” he said.

The proposed changes would alter Groton’s annual budget process, with the Board of Finance providing a budget schedule and financial data, including a five-year forecast of spending and revenue, each fall. The town manager would submit a budget for the town, then forward the proposed town and Board of Education budgets to the Town Council in February.

The Board of Finance would review the budgets in March, with the Town Council voting in April. Finally, Groton voters would accept or reject the budgets - voting on each separately - at a referendum on the third Tuesday in May. Referendums would have no minimum voter turnout.

Currently both the Town Council and RTM approve the budget before the council sets the tax rate.  

The proposed Charter Revision Commission changes would also make it easier for the Town Council to remove the town manager. Under the changes, a vote of six rather than seven councilors would remove the manager.

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