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Dozens turn out for North Stonington town meeting, vote down controversial election ordinance

North Stonington — After an hour of intense discussion, dozens of residents handily voted down a proposed ordinance that would have changed a controversial election procedure at Monday night's special town meeting.

The proposal, the result of an Aug. 21 petition circulated by resident Bill Ricker, would have created an ordinance that would put a losing first selectman candidate out of the race entirely.

Section 9-188 of state law, which non-chartered North Stonington follows, says that a candidate who runs for first selectman and loses can become a regular selectman if he or she receives more votes than the others running for selectman positions.

While many in attendance Monday night, which was many more than have attended recent town meetings, expressed support for the proposed ordinance, most of them were opposed to passing it this close to the election, including Ricker.

He said his reason for that was a new opinion from Ted Bromley, a staff attorney with the secretary of the state's office, that came to town officials' attention on Monday.

In his Sept. 10 email, Bromley gave two reasons North Stonington shouldn't try to create the ordinance on Monday.

Bromley wrote that while the law makes it clear that "this default provision can be altered by special act, charter or ordinance," the opinion of Town Attorney Frank Eppinger carries substantial weight.

In his January 2014 opinion, Eppinger concluded that the town meeting "does not have the lawful authority to enact an ordinance overriding and nullifying the 'bumping' provision of (Section) 9-188."

"It has always been the position of this office to defer to and support the decisions made by municipal attorneys especially when they are made regarding issues that fall outside the jurisdiction of this office," Bromley wrote.

Bromley also explained that several election deadlines that already passed show that such an ordinance "should not be made at this juncture in the electoral process."

Specifically, he pointed out that the deadlines to endorse additional candidates and to force primaries have passed.

"Taking the entire electoral scheme into account, it is clear that the legislature intended to provide adequate notice to all political parties and candidates of the opportunities to obtain ballot access and for which offices they have the ability to run candidates," Bromley wrote. "As such, it would be contrary to these principles if a municipality altered a fundamental method by which the board of selectmen of a municipality were elected after all applicable deadlines and opportunities to endorse candidates have expired."

Bromley's information — along with the petition and the proposed ordinance; Eppinger's January 2014 opinion on the matter; the Monday opinion of Bruce Chudwick, who is an attorney with the Hartford firm Shipman & Goodwin LLP, and several other supporting documents — was given to meeting attendees in the form of a 53-page packet as they arrived.

Many of them were seeing the information for the first time. Some questioned the legitimacy of trying to digest, understand and vote on such a high volume of information in a single night.

Chudwick was on hand answering several of their questions.

Before the Monday meeting, First Selectman Nick Mullane acknowledged what Bromley wrote and said Chudwick expressed similar sentiments in his recent opinion.

In essence, Chudwick wrote that the town is able to adopt this type of ordinance, but doing so at this point in the process comes with a "substantial risk of action under Section 9-328." That section allows any elector or candidate who claims to have been aggrieved by election-related issues to bring a complaint to the Superior Court.

Such litigation, Mullane said, could "be expensive to the town."

Some residents asked whether Eppinger's opinion would need to be overturned prior to any future petitions on the topic, and how to go about doing that, if so.

Mullane noted before the meeting that Thomas Londregan, a longtime municipal attorney in the region, also has said the town is allowed to create such an ordinance, and that the town has called on Londregan and Chudwick in the past for various issues.

"There is no simple part of this," Mullane said, "and there are many parts."

At the meeting, Mullane, who previously called the proposed ordinance a "no-brainer," included himself among those who said they would — and did — vote against the ordinance.

Twitter: @LindsayABoyle


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