Friday, August 15, 2014

Council Democrats Propose Charter Revisions

6 of the 11 members of the Charter Revision Commission
attended the Council meeting. The Commission did
actually include two women.
At a special meeting Thursday evening, the Common Council voted to recommend a set of changes to the City Charter. The changes they recommended were a subset of those proposed by the Charter Revision Commission,  and they added a recommendation that was explicitly voted down by the Commission.

The Charter Revision Commission has been meeting since May to discuss two dozen proposed changes. They held numerous public hearings, and the minutes of their meetings are the most complete minutes The Eye has ever seen for a city commission. Their final draft report was similarly detailed, and offered not just a recommendation but also the various reasons why it was favored or not.

The Democratic Caucus discussed the report last week, and brought to the Council a resolution that contradicted several recommendations from the Commission. The Democratic resolution (HERE) passed 8-3, with all Democrats and Sandra Russo-Driska voting in favor.

City Treasurer
The Commission's first recommendation, which was unanimous, was to eliminate the position of City Treasurer as an elected, stipend-paying position. The City Treasurer is currently Quentin Phipps, who was nominated by the Democratic Town Committee in the last election cycle after failing to be nominated for the Common Council. At last week's Council meeting, members of the faith-based community nearly filled Council chambers, and several spoke out against eliminating the Treasurer position.

The Democratic caucus on the Council responded by recommending to leave the Treasurer as an elected position.

Currently, the Council can only borrow (bond) up to $750,000 without getting approval from voters in a referendum. The Council routinely breaks large projects into artificially smaller units that allow them to borrow multiple $749,000 pieces. The Commission voted (4-3) to increase the amount of money that the Council could bond without a public referendum to $1M.

The Democratic caucus on the Council supported this recommendation. Several Council members said that if it was increased they shouldn't do the artificial subdivisions to circumvent the limit. Others nodded in agreement. They all looked kind of earnest, as if they meant it this time.

Four year Council terms
A recommendation to increase the Mayor and the Council terms from two years to four generated the most discussion among Council and Commission members. There was general agreement on increasing the mayor's term to four years, but sharp disagreement over increasing Council terms.

The Commission itself had held 3 votes on Council terms, as it considered new information and arguments. In its draft report, the Commission noted that the legislative bodies of both the state and the country had 2 year terms.  The first vote (2-4) was to leave the Council term at two years. The second vote took into account the possible savings of money by having fewer elections, and was in favor (4-2) of four year terms. After hearing feedback from the public, and realizing that off-year elections would still need to be held, solely for half of the Planning and Zoning Commission and half the Board of Education, the Commission voted 5-5 to keep the term for  Council at 2 years. Since this was a tied vote, the second of the votes was not overturned.

Council member Tom Serra said that the Democratic Caucus was also divided on the issue, and was recommending it so that voters could make the decision. David Bauer, a Republican Council member, was not undecided, he said he could not support 4 year terms for Council under any circumstance.

The Democratic caucus voted to support changes that would put the mayor's salary and the Council members' stipends into the Charter. The mayor's salary would be $100,000 per year, the Commission report states that it should be "similar to what directors of the City are receiving."

The Council stipend would increase by nearly 17%, from $600 per month to $700 per month. No Council member spoke in favor or against this increase.

Planning and Zoning approval rules
The Democratic Caucus added to its resolution a recommendation affecting the governance of Planning and Zoning. Currently, any action by Planning and Zoning requires 5 votes to pass. Since no party can hold more than 4 seats, this ensures that every decision on land use must be bipartisan. The past chair of the Democratic Town Committee, and current chair of Planning and Zoning, Dan Russo, has publicly argued that land use decisions should require only 4 votes, allowing one political party to have control over how land is developed in the city.

The Commission discussed changing the charter so that only 4 votes would be required, but voted 2-6 against making that change. The report concluded, "[Five votes] allows for bipartisanship in the development of Middletown and has served Middletown well."

No Council or Charter Revision Commission member spoke in favor of changing the voting rules for Planning and Zoning, and several expressed opposition to changing the current 5-vote rule. Rob Blanchard, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission who served on the Charter Revision Commission, told the Council that changing this rule would be "problematic ... It ought to stay as is."

Further votes ahead
The Charter Revision Commission will meet one more time, next week, to consider  the Council recommendations. This meeting will be held on Wednesday, August 20th, at 7PM in the Board of Education Building. There will be period open for Public Comment.

Their final report will then be submitted to Council, which will make the final determination on what to put on the ballot in November. This will take place at the September 2nd Council meeting. The Council can place all recommendations in one question, or can put separate recommendations into separate  questions that voters can individually consider.

Author's disclaimer:  I am a Democrat, and an elected Planning and Zoning Commissioner


Bill Wilson said...

I am wondering why the council is caving in on the Treasurer position. If you want to keep the position as is, then defund it. Most other elected officials in Middletown that sit on the Board of Education, and Planning and Zoning receive no compensation for all their work. Why should a position that doesn't have the responsibilities of years past continue to get four thousand dollars a year. Explain that to me.

cybermom said...

If Middletown changes the charter for the Mayor and Common Council to a 4 year term is there going to be term limitations?

Anne-Marie Cannata said...

Thanks for this report, Stephen. I appreciate your time and it's conciseness.

Personally I feel that raising the limit of the amount the Council can borrow w/o a bond to 1M is fine, but it should also be stated that funds needed for large projects can't be artificially divided into smaller amounts. This seems quite devious, lacking transparency and against the original purpose of the ruling. If they all "Looked earnest", then they should put it in writing and not simply raise the limit - which really just gives them more money to use w/o public approval.

Linda Salafia said...

I had hoped that the Commission would address the limit on bonding to limit the borrowing not to expand it. I would feel better about increasing the limit to 1M if they also included having a super majority to pass it or imposed a top limit on the amount borrowed without a referendum.