On November 7, Wallingford voters head to the polls to choose their elected municipal leaders. They also will be asked to vote on this question: Shall the revision to the Wallingford Town Charter recommended by the Charter Revision Commission, and approved by the Wallingford Town Council on June 27, 2017, be adopted? It will surprise no one reading this that, as a Charter Revision Commission member, I ask you to vote “YES.”
This column will attempt to address some of the questions and comments that have been made concerning this important subject so that you will see how and why we came to our conclusions.
Why change the Town Charter? The Charter creates the framework for municipal government. As current philosophy concerning its management and society in general evolves, this foundational document needs to reflect those changes. Our present Charter was last revised in 1989, twenty-eight years ago. To give you an idea how long ago that was, consider this: the Charter Revision Commission’s Vice Chair, Christina Tatta, was four years old.
The changes leave the PUC at three members when some wanted five. Why should I vote “yes” if I wanted five? Please understand that if you vote “no” based on this outcome and your point of view prevails, the PUC will still have three members, and the outdated Charter will remain. In other words, a “no” vote will result in no changes to the Town Charter, all the other useful and substantive changes having been wiped out.
Why is there only one question when there are many changes? The Town Council voted 8-1 to submit all changes together as one question. The Commission advocated this for several reasons: 1) the 1989 revision was only one question; 2) the framework and power structure of our government remains unchanged; and 3) there are no controversial changes to Wallingford’s basic governmental document.
Furthermore, every voter has access to a document with every single line of the revised Town Charter with every change carefully highlighted, as well as explanatory text from the Town Law Department. Please read these documents. You will see that the majority of the changes the commission made were to make our Charter conform to current state law, to eliminate redundancies, and to modernize the language to conform to today’s societal norms. From the start, the guiding philosophy of all eleven commission members was to avoid changes that would doom passage of the revisions as was the case in 2009.
The ethics chapter was changed, and now the Town Council can amend the Ethics Ordinance. Why was this done? Currently, there is a great deal of procedural language in the Charter. Current thinking in fashioning town charters is to include only the framework of governmental structure, including ethics, leaving the procedural aspects of carrying out the law in ordinances. Additionally, there is a great deal of state law dealing with this subject that must be taken into account. Finally, the amendments were authored by two attorneys with extensive experience in drafting and interpreting charter provisions. Their work in no way waters down the impact of the Ethics and Conflict of Interest Chapter. On the contrary, it strengthens it by simplifying the language so people can more easily understand the wording.
One other important note: changes to Town Ordinances require a public hearing. Woe betide the town councilor or group of town councilors who would attempt to weaken the provisions of the Ethics Ordinance. It would be political suicide.
A change to the Ethics and Conflict of Interest chapter eliminates the ability of the council to remove elected officials. Why? Note: this was also done by the Democratic-led commission in 2009. The reason: The Town Council has no power to do such a thing. There are state court decisions stating that no state statutes give such power to remove an elected official from office. The current charter language allowing it contradicts the law. That’s why it was changed.
Let me conclude this column this way: perfection in any endeavor here on earth is impossible to achieve. As said in a previous column on this subject, Moses himself could have brought our Town Charter down from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets, and still there would be objections to this or that. That is the human condition. I know that.
Here in Wallingford, we have the opportunity to work together to modernize the basic document by which town government is guided. The Charter Revision Commission labored for sixteen months to produce commonsense changes that would bring this document up to date, strenuously avoiding changes that would divide the community and jeopardize their work. The product upon which you are being asked to vote is an excellent reflection of that philosophy.
I ask you to vote “YES” on this question on November 7.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.