New Canaan referendum set for April 27
Updated 7:36 pm, Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Town Council has scheduled the sidewalk referendum, put forth by the New Canaan Citizens for Responsible Spending, regarding the $4 million dollar bond for the road paving initiative, which may include Main Street sidewalks, for April 27 at New Canaan High School from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Costs for running the actual referendum were appropriated by the Board of Finance this week in the amount of $12,800.
That was the easy part.
The not so easy part was discussing everything else ranging from absentee ballots to the wording of the referendum itself. On election day, the referendum will read: "Shall the action taken by the Town Council on Feb. 16 approving a $4 million appropriation and bond resolution for the town's road network be repealed and overruled and returned to the Board of Finance for reconsideration?"
Town Council deliberated at its April 7 and April 12 meetings whether or not the wording was too confusing as it stands and whether or not to include explanatory text to supplement the question.
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"It should be basic third grade simple words," Town Council member Christine Hussey said. "As I said previously, many people said they voted not the way they thought they voted on the Irwin situation. It's just confusing."
For this referendum, a "yes" vote would be a vote against new sidewalks and the road paving initiative as it stands now. The bond would be sent back to the Board of Finance for reconsideration. Opponents of the sidewalk initiative hope the Board of Finance would then refocus the money squarely on road paving and to clearly prohibit the bonded funds from being spent on sidewalks and other infrastructure projects.
A "yes" vote is simply in favor of repealing the current bond so that the Board of Finance can reconsider the matter. The BOF is not required to reformat the bond in any specific way according to the language of the referendum. Theoretically, it could not change the bond at all, though that would be unprecedented and counterproductive should a "yes" vote win out.
A "no" vote in this case would leave the current bond in place. The $4 million would be available for both road paving and sidewalks, pending Town Council approval for sidewalks.
Members of the public were on hand to get an understanding of the referendum and to voice their opinion regarding how the it came to be in the first place. The notice of intent for collecting signatures for the referendum was initially brought forth by The New Canaan Citizens for Responsible Spending (CRS) March 10. The group gathered more than 627 signatures, 5 percent of the voting population, to put bring the issue to a referendum.
Mary Flaherty, treasurer of newly organized New Canaan Families for Safe Streets and Sidewalks, asked for a clarification from Town Council and the Town Clerk regarding the specific number of votes need to pass the measure.
In order for the referendum to pass, 15 percent of the electorate, or 1,879 voters, must vote "yes" and also have the majority. In other words, there must be at least 1,879 "yes" votes and it also has to be more than the "no" votes. For example, if there are 1,878 "yes" votes and 1 "no" vote, the referendum would not pass.
In terms of absentee ballots, they will have to be collected in person by the voter or someone they can authorize to pick up the application. Once that application is picked up, at the Town Clerk's office, the voter must sign it and then send it back in person to get their official ballot. Absentee voters cannot mail in their ballots or send it in electronically since this referendum will be taking place on such short notice and because the ballots require a live signature as opposed to a copy. The ballots can be given to the Town Clerk in person up until voting day itself April 27.
There are also two types of people who can vote in this referendum according to Town Clerk Claudia Webber: registered voters and certain property owners, who are not registered voters.
According to the Town Clerk's office, "The property owners who are individually liable to the town of New Canaan for taxes assessed against them on an assessment of not less than $1,000 as indicated on the last completed grand list of the Town of new Canaan."
These qualifying tax payers must also be U.S. citizens, be 18 years of age, must not be an elector of the town of New Canaan and must not have voted by absentee ballot in this referendum. They also must not have been convicted of a felony and if they have, their voting rights must have been restored. Special application forms for qualifying tax payers are available at the office of the Town Clerk and will also be available at the polling place the day of the referendum.
With all the rules and guidelines, many feel that residents are confused or will be confused as time goes on. New Canaan resident Cobie Graber pleaded with the Town Council to put out some type of explanation and use their authority to put some of the confusion to rest for potential voters.
"I'm just asking if there is any tool of just stating what the facts are," Graber said. "I am just asking you to frame the referendum, as you did tonight, so that the people who are just going [to vote] and do not have the benefit of having read all the papers or come to every meeting have the available information, which is factual."
Town Council Chairman Mark DeWaele actively discussed that request with the rest of the council.
"It is a little difficult to do that, without somehow putting into that some bias," DeWaele said regarding the dangers of explanation to Graber. "I think that's what we really don't want to do either. Some members of the council said that at some point in this process during the referendum, people in town will be able to understand what a `no' vote is and what a `yes' vote is. I am not Solomon, I don't know whether that is actually going to happen. But I take your point, we would love to be able to just spell things out in bullet points ... I am not sure in fact we can do that. The opinion of the council last week was that we couldn't without creating a bias for those points."
Council member Tom O'Dea Jr. did try and distill the question down to a simple form.
"If you believe that Town Council should not have passed this bond resolution, which includes roads and potentially sidewalks, then vote `yes', they made a mistake and send it back to the Board of Finance," O'Dea said. "If you do not believe they made a mistake, vote `no' and allow the town to proceed as it's been voted on by the elected bodies."
After much deliberation, Town Council decided to not approve any extra explanatory text in regards to the referendum for reasons including legal ramifications, the possibility of bias and even confusing the voter further. The main issue many council members, as well as the Town Clerk and Town Attorney, have with providing some explanations on the vote stem from trying to avoid prejudice. They essentially believe it is too difficult to provide explanatory text for voters that does not have some iota of bias involved.
However, Town Council did indicate that questions regarding absentee ballots and other process questions could be sent to Town Clerk Claudia Weber and Town Attorney Chris Jarboe, who would answer them to the best of their ability. Those questions and answers would then be placed on the town website for everyone to see before they hit the polls April 27.