Tuesday, February 12, 2008

NEW ENGLAND TOWN MEETING, PEOPLE ARE SOVEREIGN

Three centuries ago, when settlers moved into New Fairfield and Sherman, it was they, groups of sovereign citizens assembled, who, without the aid of elected officials, ran the town in Town Meetings (they were one town then). In time they apointed an agent to run the town between Town Meetings, under the direction of Town Meeting. The idea of an agent had originated in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and had been brought to Connecticut by settlers.

The agent who superintend the concerns of the town was called selectman. That has not changed in theory, though in practice, near total control has moved to the selectmen—to a Board of Selectmen. In law, it remains as it was originally: The Connecticut Supreme Court in 2006 determined that the Town Meeting is still supreme in the case of Morris v. Congdon.

Everyone has a right to be a Patrick Henry. Patrick Henry made his disagreements heard, not once but repeatedly during the discussion of whether to adopt a bill of rights. The Constitution having been debated and written and waiting to be signed by delegates from 12 of the 13 states to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, James Madison, worked endlessly to see a Bill of Rights adopted to secure the liberties of individuals. Patrick Henry’s concern was that a Bill of Rights would not serve individuals for it would take authority away from the states and give it to an all-too-powerful federal government. His lengthy speeches were listened to respectfully in the long hot summer of 1787, to the consternation of Madison.

Patrick Henry is not mentioned in the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision but he could have been. A few years ago, in the town of Preston, Connecticut, fifty voters signed a petition for the purpose of eliminating the town planner. The petition asked the Board of Selectmen to warn a special town meeting for that purpose. The Selectmen refused. They said the purpose was illegal, as the power to hire and fire town employees was theirs. They said, further, that they had discretion to refuse to warn a Town Meeting.

Two residents of Preston, Bruce Morris and George Kleeman, went to court. The court ruled against them, upholding the arguments of the selectmen. Plaintiffs Morris and Kleeman then appealed to the Appellate Court. It also ruled against them. They then appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which upheld them.

The Supreme Court held that “in the absence of a charter, ordinance, or statute to the contrary, basic policy decisions are within the town meeting’s authority, while the selectmen have authority over the administration of those decisions.” Towns could (and can) adopt charters to transfer authority from a Town Meeting to the Board of Selectmen and make other changes, but absent ordinance or statute, towns that did not adopt a charter transferring such legislative authority operated under the Home Rule section of the General Statutes, Section 7-1. Preston (like New Fairfield and Sherman) is one of 66 Connecticut towns without a charter.

Sec. 7-1 of the Connecticut General Statutes says that the Selectmen are not required to warn a special town meeting if the purpose is improper or illegal. That was the argument of the Selectmen and the decision by the two lower courts.

The Supreme Court cited the case of Windham Taxpayers Association, in which residents petitioned for a special town meeting to set a time and place for a town-wide referendum to rescind the funding-appropriation for a new school. However, Windham had a charter which transferred legislative authority from Town Meeting to the Selectmen, so was not relevant to Preston.

The defendant selectmen argued that the real purpose of the plaintiffs was to fire the incumbent planner, and that was improper. Plaintiffs Morris and Kleeman stated that their objective was not getting rid of a planner, any planner, any time, and that Preston should not have any paid town planner, part-time or full-time. The court held that the defendants were asking the court to look behind the plaintiffs’ stated purpose of the town meeting to peer into the plaintiffs’ motivation but were unable to cite any relevant authority sanctioning that procedure. The court cited an 1893 decision in which a former chief of police of Bridgeport claimed that the common council had passed an ordinance eliminating his position so as to remove him from office. The then-court reasoned that “we are not to presume an improper motive. If the ordinance can be supported as a legitimate exercise by the common council of its authority . . . it is our duty to give it such a construction as will make it operative and consistent with [Bridgeport’s] charter.”

So the law can be used to effectuate a plan not favored by the Board of Selectmen (for example, in Sherman a board of finance), or to eliminate a plan favored by the Selectmen which is not popular among townspeople (for example in Sherman walk-ways in the town center). A petition for a Town Meeting signed by 21 people, requesting consideration and possible action to introduce a board of finance or, should it happen, to eliminate the plan for walk-ways in the town center, are the tools of the sovereign Town Meeting.

By Natalie Sirkin
c2008
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