Governor clarifies order, RTM will have final budget vote
After much discussion about the meaning of an executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont that allowed Darien and other municipalities to streamline the budget approval process, a clarification on the order issued Wednesday has finally shed needed light.
A Frequently Asked Questions document issued as of Wednesday, April 22, at 8 p.m. (it has since been updated to April 23, 10 a.m.) specifically directs how order 7I affects towns with Representative Town Meetings and if they should meet and vote. Read the FAQ here.
The document said: “Section 13 of EO 7I applies to the suspension of ‘in-person’ budget adoption requirements necessitating participation by members of the public, e.g. residents or property owners, in annual town meetings, referenda, special town meetings; and, thus, does not apply to a Representative Town Meeting (‘RTM’), which by statute is an entity defined separately from a town meeting. RTMs should continue to conduct meetings by ‘conference call, video-conference or other technology’ consistent with the requirements of Executive Order No. 7B.”
The RTM was scheduled to vote on whether it would approve to cede authority on the budget vote to the Board of Finance at its virtual meeting Monday night. Due to the most recent clarification, Town Counsel Wayne Fox said while he felt the previous language in executive orders were unclear, the current guidelines are clear.
“I would expect the normal process, under a slightly different time frame, will proceed, and the resolution calling for the RTM to authorize the Board of Finance to take certain action is moot,” he said.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, who had asked Fox to weigh in and seek clarification as to how the executive order affected towns with RTMs, agreed.
“The governor’s legal staff has finally issued specific guidance relating to RTMs and the municipal budget procedures. We’ve been seeking this clarity for several weeks now,” she said.
“With this new guidance, no vote is necessary, in my opinion. The FAQ finally and clearly states that there is no change of process required for towns with RTMs due to the COVID-19 crisis,” she said.
RTM Moderator Seth Morton told The Darien Times that, “Procedurally, the easiest way to deal with this is simply ask the RTM for Unanimous Consent not to act on the ITEM because the item is moot, based on the governor’s clarification of EO7I.”
On Monday, April 13, the RTM Rules Committee and the Board of Finance discussed adapting the town’s budget process to have the RTM cede budget approval authority to the finance board, citing an order to do so by Gov. Ned Lamont.
Darien’s budget process usually includes a discussion and approval of the budget on the town side by the Board of Selectmen, and the same on the schools side by the Board of Education. Both of these are usually done by February and the budgets are passed on to the Board of Finance for a review during March. That board usually deliberates by April and sets a tentative mill rate. The Board of Finance then passes both to the Representative Town Meeting for final approval in May.
Lamont issued two orders regarding municipal budgets. One gave the towns an additional 30 days to the deadline for approval. He also waived a rule — to ease the burden of passing municipal budgets — eliminating a requirement that the public vote to approve the annual budget in the roughly two-thirds of municipalities that do so.
Darien is one of a few towns in Connecticut that has its budget approved by an RTM. Other towns in Connecticut have a public referendum. Westport, Groton, Fairfield and Greenwich are among other towns that have an RTM.
Stevenson said that because Darien’s budget and mill rate are set by a vote of the Representative Town Meeting, not a townwide referendum, Darien’s process was a bit more complicated, and caused her to consult town counsel.
The RTM’s Rules Committee met and discussed the budget process as well as set how to conduct its virtual April 27 meeting.
Greenwich is proceeding with the RTM vote for its budget. Read more here.
Following the meeting of the Rules Committee, RTM District 2 Vice Chairman Stacey Tié emailed members of the RTM saying she had researched First Selectman Stevenson’s and Town Counsel Fox’s interpretation of the executive order, and cited her opposition.
Tié said she had researched the other towns in the state which have RTM’s and said only Darien had been asked to cede authority. Tié said she had reached out to the RTM moderators of Greenwich, Westport and Fairfield, which she said were continuing with the usual budget process.
Tié cited a new executive order from Lamont, Order 7S, which says “the legislative body of a municipality, or in a municipality where the legislative body is a town meeting other than a representative town meeting , the board of selectmen, and the budget-making authority of said municipality if different from the legislative body or board of selectmen, by majority vote of each such body, as applicable, may authorize.”
Tié also forwarded an email exchange she had with Greenwich RTM moderator Thomas Byrne in which he agreed with Tié ’s conclusion.
“I hope the Darien RTM will insist that, as the duly elected legislative body of Darien, it is the entity that will make the final decisions regarding budgetary matters. We must resist all attempts to undermine our democratic traditions,” Byrne said.
“Do not cede authority to the Board of Finance. Defend our democracy, charter and constitution. Vote No,” Tié concluded.
In response to Tié’s assertions, Stevenson said clearly there was a difference in how the other towns were interpreting the governor’s executive order.
“We are researching and attempting to get clarity from the town counsel and the governor’s legal counsel,” Stevenson said.
Finance and Budget votes against ceding authority
On Monday, April 20, the RTM’s Finance and Budget Committee, made up of 17 members, voted unanimously against ceding its budget-making authority to the Board of Finance.
Chairman Jack Davis sent follow up comments to The Darien Times to address the committee’s discussion leading up to the vote.
“Overall, the resolution presented to the RTM was in response to an EO of the Governor. This EO addressed concerns dealing with public meetings held by Town governments and is applicable to Towns, regardless of how they are structured. As such, the EO’s wording did not take into account that, in Darien’s case, there is a duality to its budget-making authority; split as it is between the BOF and the RTM; BOTH bodies comprise the Darien’s budget-making authority,” Davis said.
In a follow-up email to the committee, committee member Peter P. Orphanos said the language in the executive order “reaffirms that the RTM, Darien’s ‘legislative body,’ shall authorize the budget making authority in Darien to adopt a budget for FY 2021.”
He said the only situation the order to cede authority applies is if the town has a town meeting.
“Darien does not have a town meeting, we have an RTM. This provision does not apply and the RTM should proceed with its budget process in due course,” Orphanos wrote.
Town Counsel Fox said Thursday morning that his opinion has been “that the language contained in paragraph 13 of Executive Order 7-I was unclear. It gave a directive but it failed to distinguish the very significant difference between a town meeting and a representative town meeting.”
He said his intention was not to be critical “of those in Hartford who were attempting to deal with a crisis that we had never faced before.”
A representative town meeting is a group of elected officials that have a responsibility under the charter, Fox said.
“A town meeting is very different and provides for certain qualified individuals who are electors of a town to attend a given meeting and vote on certain issues. It was always my opinion that Hartford did not intend to make this directive applicable to a representative town meeting but that’s not what was said, and words have meaning,” Fox said.
He added that he was “delighted that this point has been clarified.”
Confusion over Board of Selectmen involvement
At a meeting of the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, a discussion was held over the the ceding of the RTM’s authority and feedback directed to the RTM about their vote.
Selectman Sarah Neumann said the Board of Selectmen had seen emails going to the RTM over the vote. Town Administrator Kate Buch said the emails weren’t directed to the Board of Selectmen but were forwarded to them to review.
Buch said she found it “disturbing” that a number of the emails indicated they thought the discussion about ceding authority from the RTM to the Board of Finance had originated from the Board of Selectmen and the first selectman.
“It was a response by the town attorney to the executive order that this was how the executive order was to be carried out. It not something that originated from the Board of Selectmen. You are all aware you had nothing to do with it,” Buch said.
Stevenson added that the first selectman and Board of Selectmen have “no role at this time.” She also noted that none of the emails sent to the RTM had been sent to her or the Board of Selectmen for the board to address at Tuesday’s meeting.
Neumann added that she was “disheartened by the public’s opinion that the board is trying to impede the RTM’s ability to vote on this.”
Stevenson said that no one who has made a comment to the RTM has reached out to ask her or Buch questions and thanked Neumann for bringing it up so she was able to give her perspective.
“When Executive Order 7I came out, we were trying to understand it with Wayne for the budget process. It was incredulous to us that the governor would suggest the RTM would meet to transfer power to the Board of Finance but they could not meet to vote on the budget,” Stevenson said.
She added that officials had pushed “really hard” for clarity.
“I have to acknowledge and support the legal opinion of town counsel,” she added.
“I want to state for the record that there was a lot of public comment with no backup information and no conversations with those of us who have been working very hard to try and understand what the governor intends,” Stevenson said.
Board of Finance
In the meantime, the Board of Finance met virtually last Tuesday to discuss how to fully involve RTM committees in the discussion of the budget should it have voted to cede its authority. A buddy system was discussed to pair RTM members with Board of Finance members.
The Board of Finance discussed setting meetings through May to discuss various parts of the budget which will continue to be the schedule.
The set schedule of meetings by budget department in May will be publicly posted on the town of Darien’s website, and the public is encouraged to weigh in and get involved. On Thursday morning, Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky said those May meetings will still occur, and he expects his board to vote on the budget and set the mill rate on May 14.
It will then go to the RTM for a final vote on June 10.
The Representative Town Meeting will be holding a virtual meeting Monday night on April 27 at 8 p.m. Topics include voting on the proposed tax deferment for residents and deciding how to handle this year’s budget process in light of the pandemic.
The public can join the RTM meeting to watch from a computer, tablet or smartphone. https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/848522381
Residents can also listen by dialing in using 312-757-3121 Access code: 848-522-381.