COLUMN: Charter revision panel rejects request to expand PUC

COLUMN: Charter revision panel rejects request to expand PUC


The Charter Revision Commission finished its work this past Thursday, June 15th, in a one-hour meeting. The Wallingford Town Council had directed us to reconsider four subjects: 1) to increase the number of Public Utilities Commissioners to five from the present three, 2) to have those two additional commissioners be appointed by and report to the Town Council, 3) to change the start of the 15-day period in which the Council could veto an action of the PUC, and 4) to “look at how quickly the public gets the budget before the public hearing.”

Readers of this newspaper are no doubt already aware that the commission voted overwhelmingly to leave our original draft of the revised Town Charter intact. I am taking advantage of the privilege given me to write these columns to elaborate on that result. Let’s take the four matters one by one as directed by the Town Council motions:

Expand the PUC from three to five members: This was obviously the most controversial matter of the four. The Town Council had voted 6 to 2 to direct us to make this change, but we voted 8 to 3 not to do so. While the three members advocating the increase made substantive arguments for this change, the eight of us that elected to keep the PUC at three commissioners were not convinced that such a change would either solve a problem that existed or enhance the effectiveness of that commission.

The fundamental reasoning that swayed most of us was that, in our estimation, the PUC as it is presently constituted has, for fifty-six years, carried out its duties effectively as a three-person body. The overriding principle that guided all of the Charter Revision Commissioners throughout our fifteen months of review was that any change that we made had to be a marked improvement or to correct a problem that existed. Making this change advocated by the Town Council met neither of those tests.

Furthermore, we were satisfied that the governmental structure in which they presently carry out their responsibilities builds in more than adequate accountability to the mayor, Town Council and, by extension, the public. The Council may veto any action that they have taken and must approve of their annual budget. The Finance Department oversees their finances, the Law Department supervises legal matters, the Personnel Department acts as a human resources department, and all purchasing is processed by the Purchasing Department.

Explore adding two PUC appointees by the Town Council who would report to the Town Council: Of course, having decided not to increase the PUC to five members rendered this matter essentially moot. But I am convinced that our commission would have voted down this request regardless because the majority of us felt it would have resulted in dividing the commission into two factions, one appointed by the mayor and the other by the Town Council. No accountability would be gained and the possibility of counterproductive political influence would have hampered the work of the PUC.

Reconsider that the 15-day time frame for the Council to veto a PUC action start when the Council is noticed of the action, not when the action occurs: Currently, the clock starts when the PUC takes an action at a meeting, and within 48 hours, the motions made describing that action must be filed with the town clerk, followed by complete minutes. Again, the overriding thinking by the Charter Revision Commission was that a problem had to exist for us to correct. Unanimously, we did not feel that test was met, and the change advocated would have actually complicated the 15-day timeline.

Look at how quickly the public gets the budget before the public hearing: Once again, this appeared to us to be a solution in search of a problem. The genesis of this request by the Council was that the printed edition of the proposed annual Town budget was often not available until the day of the public hearing, which did not give members of the public time to analyze it and formulate questions or comments.

Two thoughts guided us to unanimously conclude that no action need be taken on this subject. First of all, we did not feel that the Town Charter was the place for such minor instructions. The purpose of a town charter is to lay out the structure of the municipal government, and to leave such details as this to be outlined in town ordinances. Secondly, the proposed budget is now available in its entirety on the Town of Wallingford website approximately two days after the mayor unveils it.

The revised Town Charter is now back in the hands of the Town Council. All eleven Commissioners hope that it will meet with their endorsement and be sent intact to the voters for their approval in November.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.

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