Petition eliminating state 'bumping' clause sent to North Stonington town meeting

North Stonington — A petition for an ordinance regarding election rules in North Stonington that would change the way votes are counted for first selectman — which stirred controversy before last year's election — has been submitted again by Bill Ricker and sent to an upcoming special town meeting.

The additional $2.25 million funding request for the Emergency Services Building was also forwarded to the same town meeting.

The petition, received Feb. 16, would limit votes cast for a candidate for first selectman to that office only.

Under state statute 9-188 — which North Stonington follows since it lacks a charter — if a candidate for first selectman loses the election for that office, votes cast for the candidate are counted toward that candidate in the race for the selectman's seat. According to the statute, this applies "unless otherwise provided by special act, charter or ordinance."

The town sought two other legal opinions before then-First Selectman Nick Mullane received a comprehensive report from Shipman & Goodwin, which cost the town close to $13,000, and advised that the ordinance would be legal, citing the legislative history of when the bill was passed and noting that Sharon and Salisbury, which lack charters, adopted similar ordinances in 1998 and 2013. 

The original petition was filed two months before the election in which then-Selectman Bob Testa faced Shawn Murphy for the first selectman position.

The town first looked into the issue in 2014 when the question was raised: at the time, town attorney Frank Eppinger sent a memo noting that since the town follows the state statutes for local governance, an ordinance could not supersede the provision, known as "bumping."

However, a conflict arose when the petition was submitted in August of last year. Testa said the town should stand behind Eppinger's opinion and let the petitioners challenge it in the courts.

Mullane sought an opinion from Thomas Londregan of New London law firm Conway, Londregan, Sheehan & Monaco, before deciding on Shipman & Goodwin. 

The opinion, written by attorney Bruce Chudwick, advised that the timing could create "uncertainty as to the election results" and open the town up to litigation, which Mullane noted at the time would be expensive.

In an interview, Testa said the town shouldn't be challenging its own attorney, and that the ordinance has already cost the town too much money in legal fees. He said he would be in favor of a more comprehensive look at election reform.

Ricker said the timing of the original petition was unfortunate: He didn't want to politicize the issue, and eventually encouraged everyone, including those who signed the petition, to vote against the ordinance at a September town meeting.

"Once their candidacies were in place," Ricker said of Murphy and Testa, "I shouldn't have done it."

According to Ricker, he proposed the ordinance because he wanted the voters to have clarity when voting for a candidate for first selectman.

"If you're voting for dogcatcher, you don't drop down into the treasurer's position," Ricker said.

He also believes the statute gives first selectmen candidates an advantage: When the number of candidates for the office of selectman exceeds the candidates for first selectman, the losing candidate is splitting a smaller share of the vote, since voters can only choose one candidate in both cases.

The special town meeting has been scheduled for March 7 with a referendum on March 14.

Twitter: @_nathanlynch


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