May 24, 2013
Written by Macklin Reid, Press Staff
Tuesday, 06 March 2012 05:47
A petition calling for the town’s $4.3-million CL&P refund to be returned to taxpayers has been rejected as invalid by the town.
Ed Tyrrell, who led an effort that got the petition signed by nearly 500 Ridgefielders, is deeply frustrated.
“The right to petition has been eviscerated,” he said. “If you cannot petition on an issue such as this, a simple issue about what to do with the taxpayers’ money, you cannot petition about anything, anymore.”The petition was rejected by Town Attorney David Grogins, who objected to specific wording he said he’d warned Mr. Tyrrell should be taken out of the petition. Mr. Tyrrell did amend his petition, twice, but problems remained.
The petition reads:
“We, the undersigned, in accordance with Section 10-2 of the Town Charter, do hereby petition for an additional appropriation to return to real property taxpayers their pro rata share of the $4.3 million CL&P overcharge and interest that was refunded to the Town of Ridgefield on or about December 22, 2011. The pro rata share will be determined for each taxpayer for the period covered by the overpayment.”
“The pro rata share will be determined for each taxpayer” was the problematic part.
“I told Ed, if he dropped the last sentence, it would be okay,” Town Attorney David Grogins said. “He basically wanted us to come up with a plan which essentially pro-rated reimbursements to the various taxpayers.”
The amount taxpayers got back would vary with both the assessed value of their property and the length of time they’d been in town.
“I thought it would be a nightmare,” Mr. Grogins said.
“I don’t think the provisions of the charter were intended to allow the citizens to micro-manage the minutia of the affairs of the Town of Ridgefield.”
The town clerk’s office has stopped the laborious process of checking signatures.
“I started to check the petitions but I came to a halt,” said Town Clerk Barbara Serfilippi. “It would be senseless if the town attorney was going to reject the petitions.”
Mr. Tyrrell’s group wanted to force a referendum on the proposal by have the petitions signed by 5% of town voters — about 850 signatures for close to 17,000 registered voters, he figured.
They were getting there.
“Besides the first 375 signatures, and additional 75 were submitted and 40 more await submission,” he said. “We collected nearly 500 signatures in less than a week.”
“We are not collecting any more signatures at this time,” he said Tuesday. “In good conscience I cannot ask people to stand outside given the obstruction, even though we think we are right.”
He insisted the petition’s final wording was all right.
“The petitions that were distributed and signed describe a routine additional appropriation, substantially the same as previous petitions for the Playhouse, Bennett’s Farm, or Onalfo Field. What is done with the town’s funds is the bread and butter of petitions, and of course is proper,” Mr. Tyrrell said.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi said Mr. Tyrrell’s effort might still have life as a political statement.
“Recognizing that Mr. Tyrrell was successful in gathering 300 signatures — signatures representing a cross section of our community — I think it should be taken into consideration by both the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance, as to the use or not of the $4.3 million,” Mr. Marconi said.
He had previously said at least some of the money might be best used beefing up the town’s multi-year surplus or “fund balance.” It’s $13 million counting the CL&P refund, $9 million without it.
The idea came from talks he had in the fall with Moody’s, which was rethinking the town’s Aaa rating.
“We do know that amongst triple-As in Fairfield County, we have one of the lowest fund balances, if not the lowest,” he said.
The decision, Mr. Marconi said, needs the full Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance.
“I haven’t heard a lot of support for that,” he said of the fund balance idea. “I’m not the type of person that’s going to go to my grave over something like that. My job is to do what the people want.”
In a long email Mr. Tyrrell described his efforts to work with town officials though a series of email exchanges over nearly a month, from Jan. 16 to Feb. 6, to find acceptable wording.
“At every step I followed the rules,” he said. “At every step I met with delay and obstruction.”
The final sentence that caused Mr. Grogins to reject the petitions was originally longer, with more specific directions: “This distribution should be in the form of direct payments made to each taxpayer who actually paid taxes that represents their pro rata amount of the grand list at the time the overcharges by CL&P took place. These direct payments should be made within 90 days of the approval of the resolution by the Town Meeting.”
Mr. Tyrrell also noted that he’d added wording and a specific charter citation to conform to Mr. Grogin’s idea that the petition was a request for an appropriation:
Despite changes, Mr. Grogins said the petition’s final wording did not set his concerns to rest.
“It’s my job under the charter to rule whether it’s an appropriate form for a petition to the electorate,” he said. “I said it wasn’t, because it set forth the methodology for how the money would be returned.”
Mr. Marconi agreed. “The petitioner was informed by counsel not to contain any language in the petition that had to do with the disbursements, the method of disbursements, and the last sentence did. Was part of it eliminated? Yes. But it still had that last sentence.”
Mr. Marconi also said it was proper for Mr. Grogins to look over Mr. Tyrrell’s original petition and advise him about it, and then review the wording turned in to the town clerk and decide based on that.
“This petition,” he said, “was reviewed again, and denied on the basis that it did contain language calling for a specific distribution — the pro-rated share,” he said.
Mr. Tyrrell defended his petition, recalling Mr. Marconi’s previous description of tracking down all former taxpayers and pro-rate shares.
“This petition effort is completely legitimate and is not ‘a borderline Marx Brothers comedy.’ It is a simple request for a special appropriation,” he said. “It should not be sabotaged because someone thinks it will be too hard to implement or someone has other plans for the money. Those are factors properly taken into consideration by the voters.”
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