COLUMN: Some background on revising Wallingford’s town charter

COLUMN: Some background on revising Wallingford’s town charter

Record-Journal
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10. Sewer Division Superintendent Terry Smith - $107,864

On Tuesday, July 11, the Wallingford Town Council voted to send the revisions to the Town Charter to the voters in the form of only one question. The favorable vote included both Democratic Councilors, the Independent Town Councilor and five of the six Republican Councilors. Members of the Charter Revision Commission were asked their opinion on the subject. As the chairman of this commission, I would like to provide some background as to why I advocated for one question. Four factors driving my opinion were: lack of controversy of the revisions, unanimity of votes for the revisions, adoption of most of the previous commission’s work and the history of previously adopted revisions.

Lack of controversy: Throughout our fourteen months of deliberations, foremost in the minds of every commissioner was that our primary goal was to modernize the Town Charter, not restructure the government. The previous commission had included in their modifications several very controversial changes that resulted in rejection of their entire body of work by the voters in 2009. So, wanting very much to avoid the same fate, we, as a body, sought to only include changes updating language, streamlining lines of authority and building additional flexibility into the making of policies and regulations.

What we specifically left intact was the authority structure of the government. We also eliminated some language and subjects better left to or already included in ordinances. We did so to build more flexibility for the legislative branch to more easily react to changing circumstances by being able to update ordinances rather than to have to convene a Revision Commission. In other words, modern thinking concerning a municipal town charter is that that document should build the framework or structure of the government, leaving the details to be fleshed out in ordinances, regulations, and policies and procedures manuals.

Unanimity of commission votes: Our commission consisted of three members of the Democratic Party, two unaffiliated commissioners and six Republicans. While there was indeed a majority of Republicans, there was able representation from both Democrats and unaffiliated. And yet probably 95 percent of our votes were unanimous. Naturally, there were issues where individual commissioners disagreed, but every issue brought up by every commissioner got a fair and respectful hearing. In fact, I can safely say that every commissioner is proud of the civility, cooperation and open-mindedness that were hallmarks of the many hours we spent together.

Adoption of most of the previous commission’s work: From the outset of this commission’s work, all members agreed that we should build on the excellent work done by the previous Charter Revision Commission, a group with a majority of, and led by, members from the Democratic Party.

This present commission, as stated above, did indeed consist of a majority of Republicans. Yet many important changes recommended by the previous commission were adopted by the present one, including the manner in which the Town Clerk is chosen, the restructuring of the hiring of the Environmental Planner and Fire Marshal, and the updating of language to make the Charter gender-neutral. In fact, it could be said that what distinguishes our work from that of the previous commission is more about what we did not choose to include, again in the hope that the lack of controversial topics would result in voter approval this time around.

History of previous charter revisions: the last successful revision of the Wallingford Town Charter was presented to the voters as one single question. I will confess that I do not know what those revisions consisted of, but, at that time, the voters of Wallingford voted 63 percent-37 percent to approve them. The Town Council felt that one question was sufficient at that time, and that thinking still stands.

In conclusion, let me say that I know that nothing in government is created or changed with universal support. If the Wallingford Town Charter had been brought down on stone tablets from Mt. Sinai by Moses himself, there would still be discussion about its merits. I get that. That’s the nature of politics.

But it has been twenty-eight long years since our foundational document has been updated. Societal norms have changed, state laws have changed, thinking about how government can be best and most efficiently structured has changed. The eleven members of the Charter Revision Commission labored to produce a modernized document sensitive to these changes while avoiding the partisan pitfalls of the past. This is what is being presented to the voters in the form of one simple question. We hope that they will answer “Yes” when asked for their approval.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.


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