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Proposed Ledyard charter teeters on state statute line

Ledyard— The Town's proposed new charter was engineered to follow state statutes but there's one change in particular that's just within the legal line.

Rather than requiring notice of a public hearing on passage of ordinances to be published "in a newspaper having circulation in said Town," the Charter Commission has suggested this notice be posted "on the Town website."

Section 7-3 of the Connecticut General Statutes states: "Notice of a town meeting shall be given by ... a warning in a newspaper published in such town or having a circulation therein, such posting and such publication to be at least five days previous to holding the meeting." While there are mentions of a "signpost ... near the office of the town clerk" and a "printed or written warning signed by the selectmen," there is no mention of utilizing a town website to keep residents informed.

The commission's saving grace seems to be the language at the beginning of the stipulation: "Unless otherwise required by State statutes ..."

Charter Commission Chairman Stan Juber argued that this phrase keeps Ledyard within statewide law.

"Depending upon what the Town is doing, State Statute may require publication in a newspaper, in which case, that's what the Town will do," Juber wrote in an email. However, if there is no statutory requirement, the town will be free to just publish the information on its website, he wrote.

Putting notices in a newspaper costs money, and the town wanted to stay current with how people get their information, which is increasingly online, according to Juber.

For a long time, towns have felt "that they are overcharged because the statutory requirement creates a captive audience; most towns have only a couple of newspapers with general circulation in town, and that monopoly leads to a lack of price competition," Juber wrote.

Beyond the cost, the rising use of paywalls on newspaper websites means that residents have reduced ability to see the notices that the town pays a lot of money to post, he wrote.

A 2016 report issued by the state Office of Legislative Research collected statutes mandating legal notices in newspapers. Principal analyst Terrance Adams found 149 different instances of such stipulations.

"To produce the table, the Legislative Library searched the Connecticut General Statutes and compiled a list of those that reference 'municipality,' 'notice,' and 'newspaper,'" the report reads.

Among the 149, there are 39 statutes that begin with the wording, "Notice of a public hearing," which is more specific to Ledyard's charter regarding notice of public hearings on proposed ordinances.

An example of such a statute is: "Notice of public hearing on proposal to establish a tax increment district." The topics necessitating a public hearing are diverse — they could cover "sale, lease, or transfer of municipal property" or "a draft plan of conservation and development," to name a couple.

Gail McTaggart, town attorney for New Fairfield & Roxbury and an executive board member of the Connecticut Association of Municipal Attorneys, said that if Ledyard can prove the provision is of purely local concern, there's legal precedent for charters lawfully conflicting with state statute.

"There's some complicated questions about whether it's a purely local concern, but if there's some statewide reason why that's the way it is, it cannot conflict," McTaggart said.

An example of this legal precedent is the Windham Taxpayers Association v. Board of Selectmen case. As McTaggart pointed out, if the issue is of local concern rather than statewide, a town's charter may override general statute.

But, Juber explained, Ledyard initially had altered the charter to stay up to date with state statute. The charter last was revised nine years ago.

"Our hope is that, eventually, the General Assembly will allow all legal notices to be posted (online) in lieu of publication in a newspaper, so we wanted the Charter to be ready for that eventuality," Juber wrote.

Editor's Note: Brad Towson, the chief legislative attorney at the Legislative Commissioners' Office, said he did not say a quote that was attributed to him.

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