RTM Petition Ordinance Faces Rewrite
by marcia chambers | Sep 17, 2012 1:43 pm
The Representative Town Meeting (RTM) voted last week to repeal its current petition policy and replace it with a new one that is expected to permit the RTM Moderator and the RTM clerk to review petitions before deciding where they should be sent.
Prior to 2010, the RTM’s moderator was empowered to decide whether or not to accept citizen petitions for placement on the RTM agenda. After a policy change in June, 2010, the RTM began automatically accepting all petitions from Branford neighbors, placing them on the RTM agenda and automatically sending them to committee.
With the exception of an RTM petition to provide soundproofing for the Walsh Intermediate School, the remaining nearly two dozen other petitions came from Wayne Cooke, who has spent years in a public fight with Town Hall.
Due to the policy, for more than two years the RTM found itself wrestling with issues that were not under their authority or belonged elsewhere or might lead to future legal problems because they were handling inquiries outside their mandate. Sometimes issues belonged in the First Selectman’s office or before a commission or another agency. But the way the petition rule was written the RTM moderator was precluded from sending petitions where they belonged.
The petition policy generated an intense debate last week as the RTM met for the first time at the new firehouse community room on North Main St. Republican RTM members asserted the issue was free speech. The Democrat RTM members asserted the revised petition policy, now two years old, was tying the RTM committee system in knots.
Democrats pointed out that besides petitions there were any number of ways for residents to bring issues before the RTM: By talking to one of 30 RTM representatives who can put the issue on the agenda if it belongs there, by letter and by appearing in person before the RTM.
Frank Twohill, the Republican minority leader, gave the history of the petition revision. He said the current version of the petition policy was adopted by the RTM on June 9, 2010. Cooke along with other Republicans pressed for this new petition policy during Rules and Ordinances committee hearings. Twohill said one reason it was adopted is that the RTM was getting bogged down “in citizen’s letters,” and while he did not mention Cooke by name, he was referring to the numerous letters Cooke sent to the RTM that had to be read at every meeting. The idea was that the new petition process “would save us time,” Twohill said.
Twohill, a longtime member of the RTM, said he was concerned that with the repeal of the policy, the moderator and the clerk as the leaders of the RTM would wind up having “too much power over free speech.”
The current moderator is Chris Sullivan. The clerk is Dennis Flanagan, the longest serving RTM member. As long as there has been an RTM, the moderator and clerk have decided whether an issue belongs before the RTM or not.
The petition policy adopted in June, 2010 ended that. For the first time the moderator of the RTM was told that any petition item “shall” be put “on the agenda for consideration by the RTM.” It was then automatically sent to a committee. The moderator had no choice.
For the next two years Cooke’s petitions took over the work of the RTM even though some items did not belong before the RTM. Committees wrestled with one issue after another, shuffled the petitions from one committee to the next, and took endless hours of debate on Cooke’s agenda.
Maggie Bruno, a Democratic RTM member, observed that the petition process “has taken away our powers” by being sent directly to an RTM committee. “And it has bogged down many of the committees with things that do not belong there.” Nobody mentioned Cooke’s name, but Bruno alluded to it. The items, she said, deal with “personal things” pertaining “to a particular person,” she said.
When the vote came, the Republican side of the aisle voted against repeal. The Democrats voted for it. One democrat, Adam Hansen voted to abstain, as he had the previous night at the Rules & Ordinance Committee.
Then Rep. David Baker, (pictured) chair of the administrative services committee, made a motion to add an amendment to the repeal, saying it was necessary to develop a new set of rules and procedures so that the petition concept is kept but with changes to its implementation. His amendment passed and included yes votes from two attorneys who sit on the Republican side, Rep.Peter Black and Rep. Robin Sandler, a former town counsel.
At one point Rep. Sandler made a motion to remove the word “repeal,” but that failed.
REp Mary Davis’s committee, the Rules and Ordinances Committee, will now have to rewrite the rule. At the meeting she described the current set of Cooke petitions this way: “Some are irrelevant, some pejorative. We need the filter of the Moderator and the Clerk. The idea is to prevent petitions from automatically going to committee,” she said.
“This is not about free speech,” said Rep. Josh Brooks. (pictured) It’s about a rule we made that is broken.”
Rep. Brooks, a democrat, went on: “In a perfect world it would be great, if we could do town business. However, it has become political, a sort of free for all; it is more about politics and grand standing….”
Walsh Petition Survives
Republican Rep. Marc Riccio, the vice-chair of the Republican Town Committee, stood to say there was another resident who used the petition process. He was referring to Nichole Cipriano, who was in the audience. Cipriano and Kate Ross, another parent, had presented hundreds of names on their RTM petition seeking funds for sound-proofing at Walsh. The noise level at Walsh, a school without walls, they said, was unacceptable. Click here to read a prior story. Click here for a school facilities update.
“This was a result of the process that you just voted to kill,” Riccio (pictured) shouted to the Democrats across from him, who hold the majority on the RTM. “I want to go on record, for the folks in TV land to hear that loud and clear—that another citizen brought the petition to this body and because of that process it is now on this agenda to help 1200 students at the middle school.”
Rep. Doug Hanlon, who sat on the Democratic side, stood, visibly angry.
“And I want to go on record,” Hanlon declared,” that if that citizen came to me I would have gladly brought it to the RTM. If it were prior to 2010 or if were after 2010, it makes no difference. Her voice would have been heard. I have a 5th grader in that school so I have an actual stake in this.”
Rep. Riccio interjected: “And why did it take 23 years to finally take action?” he asked.
Hanlon replied: “And again we could have taken action whether it was this process or the one we just got rid of. You are acting like the town was a totalitarian state before 2010, that there was no way for a citizen to be heard. That’s ludicrous. There were plenty of ways for residents to do it and there will be plenty of ways for them to do it afterward. This is all just political maneuvering.”
Rep. Maryanne Amore, the chair of the RTM education committee, said it was important to understand that her committee took no action on the Walsh issue.
“We never took any action on it; we never could have taken any action on it. The Board of Education was working on it already.”
Rep. Sullivan, the moderator, asked whether Amore wanted to re-refer the Walsh issue back to committee.
Rep. Brooks now stood to say he wanted it known that he was the one who suggested to Cipriano, when she served as co-chair of the PTA at the Tisko elementary school in his district, that she bring the issue to the RTM. She choose the petition route, but he could have presented the issue himself. Her move provided publicity as well as an end run around the BOE. Brooks knew the RTM could not vote on school matters other than the budget. He also knew these parents were deeply upset about the situation their kids faced when they entered the fifth grade this fall.
“I want to keep it on the call,” he declared, meaning he wants the Walsh petition to stay in front of the committee. The RTM unanimously agreed.
Mediation Favored Over Fair Rent Commission
In other matters before the RTM last week, representatives heard an update on a proposal to create a fair rent commission.
Rep. Hansen (pictured) had taken the lead on fair rent commission and presided over a public hearing last July. First Selectman Unk DaRos favored mediation not the establishment of a Fair Rent Commission. So did many Republican RTM members concerned about the process and the funding. Click here to read about hearing..
Hansen rose to tell the RTM that “significant progress” has been made since July.
After the hearing, he said, “it seemed that most in attendance agreed that before anything else, professional mediation should be the first step,” Hansen reported.
He said he learned that in the past Branford had used a company named Community Mediation and that in two instances in town, the mediation process “had been extremely successful.” He said the Branford Community Foundation had funded this work and he asked Eunice Lasala, the foundation’s president, if additional funding were possible. She said yes and her board agreed to make a $2,000 grant.
He spoke with the residents of the Highland Bluff trailer park, the single group in town that had prompted the commission idea and they agreed to give mediation a shot, he said. The question remains as to whether Newbury Management, which oversees the trailer park, will do so. “They said that they would be willing to consider the mediation process but needed a detailed outline of how the process would be instituted.” So the matter was referred back to the committee pending the outcome.
Rep. Riccio was delighted. “I commend you,” he told Hansen.
No More Testing
The RTM also voted against further environmental testing at the Founders Village housing project site.
Minority Leader Twohill pressed to have the Triton engineer who conducted an Environmental Phase 1 report on the open space property between Cedar and Ivy Streets further explain his findings to an RTM committee. He said he was not asking for a phase II report, though the Republicans had pressed for that in recent months. Twohill said it was important to question the engineer about his findings.
Rep. Baker said that the town engineer, Janice Plaziak, did not see a need for a second environmental report, and Town Counsel William H. Clendenen Jr., said there was no legal exposure for the town, he added.
In addition to the first phase 1 study there are two others, one undertaken by the builder, Alex Vigliotti and a general one outlined by former RTM member Paul Muniz, a licensed environmental expert, who has overseen site remediation at numerous large developments in the state. Bill Horne, one of the town’s environmental leaders, asked Muniz to present his opinion to the RTM in June. Muniz said then that the town should not worry about current or future contamination at the site.
“We have three opinions. How much more do we need?” Rep. Hanlon asked.
When it came time to vote, the RTM was evenly divided 12-12 with Republican Rep. Peter Black abstaining. Black had said at the June meeting that he trusted Muniz’s evaluation and did not see the need for a second report. However, at last week’s RTM meeting, Black said there was no harm in having a second opinion. Then he voted to abstain.
The tie vote put the question squarely on Sullivan, the moderator. “I vote no,” he said in breaking it.
And that was the end of any further environmental study at the site, which is now in the process of being cleared.
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It certainly appears this is an anti-Wayne Cooke measure. Silence all the voices of opposition or even questioning the Democrat controlled RTM - bring in the rubber-stampers on the finance; change the rules so that voices aren’t heard and all of it must pass through the gatekeepers themselves who can decide whether in their individual judgment, something deserves the hallowed time of this august body.
Of particular note are those chest thumpers who rise is faux anger to snipe and carp about their three relatives: woulda, coulda and shoulda. They should save their speeches for the bathroom mirror and focus on solving all the town problems that are brought to their attention by any taxpayer in the town. The RTM should remember they are servants of the public and they should check their considerable egos at the door. Otherwise, you look and act like a Patton Place chamber of horrors.