At the Tuesday, Feb. 17 regular Board of Selectmen meeting, Wilton’s selectmen rejected Sensible Wilton‘s call for a revote on the Miller-Driscoll renovation bonding question. The group had gathered close to 1,100 petition signatures asking town officials to bring the referendum question back to residents a second time. But last night, following discussion by the board members, advice from Wilton’s town counsel, and almost 1.5 hours of public comments from residents, town officials turned down the revote request, citing legal standing in deciding that no further action should be taken.
“The record should reflect that the board of selectmen reviewed the petition that was submitted, received input from both town counsel and the public. And that there was no support by any of the board members to take any further action on the petition’s request for revote of the Miller-Driscoll School renovation referendum item,” first selectman Bill Brennan said.
The meeting drew an unusual number of people as a standing-room-only crowd showed up for the Sensible Wilton petition discussion last night. Officials had anticipated a large crowd, and set up overflow seating with a large-screen television in the town hall annex room. Speakers seemed evenly divided between those that supported the petition for a revote, and those opposed. [Editor’s Note: a separate article on the comments made by residents during the public comment portion of the meeting will be published tomorrow.]
Sensible Wilton’s petition alleged that town officials committed election violations before and during the Sept. 23 and 27 vote on the Miller-Driscoll Renovation Bonding question, and said a re-vote was justified.
Addressing the wide ranging complaints and accusations by opponents of the renovation plan moving forward–that the project’s $50 million projected cost is too high; that citizens were not adequately informed of meetings and the actual vote; that town officials improperly campaigned to get the project passed by voters; that town officials improperly used town resources and broke laws to get the project passed; that the building committee was comprised of members who should not sit on it; that members of town boards were advancing their own interests before the towns; that contracted vendors would benefit financially from the project moving forward; and more–Brennan stated early on in the meeting that the evening’s focus of the board was much more narrow.
“The focus for the board is the appropriateness and legality of the petition before us, not the purpose, needs or merits of the Miller Driscoll School renovation project,” he said.
What that meant was that the only question the board would consider Tuesday evening was whether the town charter allowed the selectmen to call for a revote on the bonding issue because 1,070 people who signed the petition were asking them to do so–and that the renovation plan and its cost would not be reconsidered or debated.
Town counsel Ken Bernhard addressed the meeting, and referred to the legal brief he gave the BoS in November in advising them they did not have a right to call a referendum vote on a bonding issue if petitioned by the public. He said the town cannot order a revote.
“Can the BOS order a do-over on the very same question that the town meeting just decided?… I am very comfortable advising that the BOS should not ignore the outcome of a town vote on a bonding resolution they initiated. Legally and ethically they are bound to respect and follow the legislative directives of the voters they serve,” Bernhard stated.
Citing legal precedent, he added that if the BoS ordered a revote, they would risk getting mired in other legal problems.
“If the BOS were to order a re-vote, it would effectively be disenfranchising the people who voted in favor of the bonding resolution and whose votes carried the day. Those voters could credibly argue that a re-vote would be a violation of their due process rights under the State Constitution,” Bernhard stated.
He also defended the town’s conduct before and during the vote.
“The subject of going ahead with the project was properly placed on the ballot of a properly noticed town meeting that adhered to all of the democratic town principles that we, as a country, subscribe to. There was a vigorous media debate and ample opportunity to vote…The vote was properly tallied and the bonding resolution passed. I am very comfortable concluding that Wilton not only adhered to the law, it has treated both proponents and opponents fairly.”
He called any possible violations listed in Sensible Wilton’s complaint filed with the SEEC ‘minimal’ and that it “would be highly presumptuous for anyone to pre-suppose that it affected the outcome of the vote…”
First selectman Brennan defended the project and the way the town brought the question to residents. He said that the project has been in the planning process for a very long time, stating that it was in the discussion stages when he was first elected to office in 2005, and that many citizen volunteers and officials have spent “many years” working on it. He said the project has been “closely scrutinized” by members of all three town boards (selectmen, finance and education) and was unanimously endorsed by all of them.
He added that the selectmen gave the public “considerable opportunity to learn about it.”
“The building committee and others spent a great deal of time and energy providing and distributing information about the project at meetings with many Wilton civic organizations, as well as a publicized, public information session at the Wilton Library. It was discussed at various public meetings of the BoS, BoE and BoF, which were reported in the press and information was also posted on the town’s website. The success of these efforts was validated by the fact that the voter turnout at the Sept. special meeting exceeded the turnout of each of the past four annual town meetings.”
Later in the meeting, after many of the residents had left, he made a much stronger, more blunt statement about those who said they were not informed enough about the vote or the project ahead of time: “People have to be on Planet Mars to not know about these meetings.”
He said allowing a revote would be “a mistake and terrible precedent. Where theoretically would an issue end? ‘Majority rules’ is one of our democratic principles and brings lawful closure to an issue. Wilton is a community of laws, we must abide by [the town charter’s] provisions, not just when it’s convenient.”
Current selectman Michael Kaelin previously served on the Charter Revision Commission, and he mentioned his familiarity with the document in his comments.
“This is not a close question in my mind. There is no authority in the charter, the state constitution or state statutes for us on the BoS to order a revote. We do not have the legal authority to do that. I keep seeing that all the proponents of the petition want is a legal revote. There is no such thing as a ‘legal revote,’ I don’t have the authority to do it and the BoS doesn’t have authority to do it.”
He referenced the town charter provision that allows Wilton citizens to petition the BoS for a town meeting–what Sensible Wilton was relying on–in his comments:
“The specific provision in the charter…specifically excludes bonding issue. When we discussed this on the Charter Commission, we specifically left bonding issues out of that. It’s expressly written in the charter that it doesn’t include bonding issues,” he said.
He said the BoS has no legal authority to do what the petitioners wanted–“to nullify the first vote and to have a second vote without taking into consideration the first vote”–he suggested that Sensible Wilton only had one recourse: to sue the town.
“The only agency that has the authority to order a revote are the courts of the state of CT. If the complaint here tonight is that the statues weren’t followed, election laws were violated, the recourse is not to go to the BoS, the people you’re accusing of violating the law; it’s to go to court, and demonstrate to the court that the law hasn’t been followed, to a degree that justifies a revote,” Kaelin said.
Dick Dubow was direct: “The vote was conducted properly in my mind, and the results have been certified by the registrars of voters. …For me simple logic would suggest that to [call for a new vote] would clearly disenfranchise the majority of voters who voted to approve the resolution. That is not how our democracy works. What the petitioners can do is to increase their participation in the next municipal election by voting to elect those more to their liking. It is not a reasonable option to nullify a legitimate vote taken by the town.
The newest selectman Deborah McFadden referred to her own similar experience years ago before she was in office petitioning the BoS for a town meeting.
“I have been through this process on the other side, I filed a petition that resulted in a special town meeting. I was careful to follow all the protocols. I was sorely disappointed that a matter I was passionate about was defeated…by 34 votes. It was extremely frustrating to have worked so hard on something that I cared a lot about come so close, but the citizens of Wilton had spoken. They voted and the measure was defeated by a slim margin. …While I commend the citizens who have petitioned on their energy and tenacity, I take exception with your cause. You can’t have a do-over in elections–ask Al Gore. We are a country of laws. The votes must be respected.”
She struck on a theme that other speakers mentioned through the meeting: Wilton citizens should be more involved and more diligent about turning out to vote.
“If you had put as much effort getting people to the polls in September, there may have been a different outcome. Most of the people who actually signed the petition did not vote in September. Now they are seeking a second bite at the apple. In Wilton, citizens too often take the privilege of voting for granted.”
Referring to past town meeting votes where budgets are approved automatically because fewer than 15-percent of the town’s voters turn out, McFadden said, “I think that’s appalling, in a town where we have an educated population, that we can’t even meet the minimum threshold.”
She was direct in putting that responsibility back on many of those who signed the petition. “The next time we have a bonding issue and special vote, I’m very hopeful that every person, the 1,070 people that signed the petition, they all vote. Because most of them didn’t vote on it in the first place.”
Jim Saxe acknowledged his own long participation on the M-D project, first as a member of the BoE and now as a selectman, in his comments.
“I want to spend the $50 million, that school needs the $50 million. It’s been neglected too long. It’s the gateway to our community. When people are looking for a new home, the first thing they’re going to do is say, ‘Show me the elementary school.’”
Sensible Wilton Reaction
Alex Ruskewich, the president of Sensible Wilton, said he wasn’t surprised the BoS rejected his group’s petition request.
“It’s what I expected. I continue to believe that the referendum was not conducted in accordance with state law. It was not overturning the vote, what we were saying. We were asking for a vote that was legal and followed the state law. We don’t feel that was done.
He said possibly pursuing the matter in the courts may be “the only decision at this point in time” for the group to consider.
Ruskewich said Sensible Wilton’s members haven’t discussed such a move, but they may have to take that step: “…when you get into this point of was this a legal referendum, since we were told the only way that could be adjudicated, would be through the courts.”
As to whether further legal action would bring additional financial burden on the town, Ruskewich replied, “The cost is expensive on both sides. We know that, that’s one of the reasons we’re reluctant to go that route.”
He also acknowledged that while the referendum vote itself was legal–“yes it was counted legally”– but he was critical of what led up to the vote. “A vote can be influenced in improper ways. When it is influenced, as we tried to show, by targeting a specific subset of the community and not providing information to the remainder of the community, that’s not illegal, but is what I would call ‘dirty pool.’”