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New London council in budget quandary

By Kathleen Edgecomb

Publication: The Day

Published 11/10/2012 12:00 AM
Updated 11/10/2012 01:54 PM
Referendum issue creates dilemma with city charter

New London - Earlier this week the City Council, by taking no action on a second citizens' petition to reduce the 2012-13 budget, scheduled a referendum for next November - four months after the close of the fiscal year.

"The absurdity of it is loud and clear,'' Councilor Donald Macrino said several days after the vote. "How to resolve it, I simply don't know."

All seven city councilors voted to accept the petition Monday that called for the council to reconsider the $41.3 million general government budget. After a series of parliamentary maneuvers failed - including declaring the petition invalid, repealing part of the budget and rescheduling the referendum to an earlier date - the council was left in a dilemma.

By accepting the budget petition and setting the referendum a year away, it violated another provision in the charter, which says the city cannot spend more than 25 percent of the amount in the previous year's budget until a budget ordinance is approved.

A petition submitted last summer forced the first referendum on Sept. 8, at which a majority of voters rejected a $42.3 million general government budget.

William Cornish, spokesman for the Looking Out for Taxpayers group that initiated the petition, accused the council of "going around the law" and taking advantage of a glitch in the charter that postponed the vote until next November.

"They had options that would have been good for the citizens of New London,'' said Cornish, who sat through the Monday meeting and at one point said he thought he was in the "Twilight Zone."

"They did not even try to reach out to us," he said of the council.

The LOT executive board has yet to meet to decide what to do next, Cornish said.

City Council President Michael Passero said Thursday that he now believes the second, most recent petition was probably invalid, but not for the reason given by the city law director at last Monday's council meeting - that it came in after some departments had exceeded the 25 percent spending cap.

Rather, Passero said, a judge could find that the petition was not submitted in time to be scheduled for the 2012 municipal election, and therefore could not go forward.

"Because the charter provides that the vote be at the next municipal election, to contemplate a petition after that probably doesn't work,'' Passero said.

City Attorney Jeffrey Londregan had advised the council not to accept the petition because some departments had already exceeded the cap. Three councilors went along with that advice: Macrino, Anthony Nolan and Wade Hyslop. The remaining four - Passero, John Maynard, Adam Sprecace and Marie Friess-McSparran - ignored Londregan's advice and accepted the petition.

Macrino, who days later was still digesting the 90-minute debate and whirlwind series of motions and votes, said the issue is complex and revealed some weaknesses in the charter.

"When I get in a situation like that, and it's common sense to me, I defer to the path that best serves the city and moves things forward,'' Macrino said. "I'm not a student of city law. I'm a guy who does something else most of the day and comes to the council to do the best I can."

Macrino said he did not want to accept the petition because he felt most people in the city want an approved budget, and accepting the petition would mean the city did not have one.

"In the end, we moved forward with the present budget and delayed the referendum until next year,'' he said. "I'm not sure how it will play out."

Sprecace said he believes the latest series of council votes has left the city without an approved budget, in violation of the charter. He said he intends to reach out to other councilors to try to pass an emergency ordinance at the Nov. 19 meeting so there will be a legitimate budget in place.

"I think it's necessary to help the city move forward,'' he said Friday. "At some point, we have to acknowledge each other's positions and then do what's right for the city."

But Sprecace added that he's not optimistic that anything will change. "We're in a situation now, all other options have been exhausted and there does not appear to be a will or ability to change the situation right now,'' he said.

Passero said he was confident the councilors examined all the options and voted according to conscience.

"We've done everything the charter has required us to do,'' said Passero, who is a lawyer in addition to being a city firefighter. "But I don't think it's over. I think there's been no final judicial determination."

There can't be a judicial ruling unless someone takes it to court. Residents who brought the petition before the council could seek a legal ruling, but so far that hasn't happened.

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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The council votes

The motions put forward at the Nov. 5 New London City Council meeting and the votes on them:

Main motion: Accept budget petition for the record. First amendment, to declare petition invalid, fails.

Yes: Macrino, Nolan, Hyslop

No: Passero, Maynard, Sprecace, McSparran

Second amendment, to repeal all or part of the budget, fails.

Yes: McSparran, Maynard, Sprecace

No: Hyslop, Macrino, Nolan, Passero

Third amendment, to set referendum for Dec. 11, 2012, needing at least five votes, fails.

Yes: McSparran, Maynard, Passero, Sprecace

No: Hyslop, Macrino, Nolan

Fourth amendment, to adopt emergency measure on budget and tax rate, needing at least six votes, fails.

Yes: Hyslop, Macrino, Nolan, Passero, Sprecace

No: McSparran, Maynard

Main motion is approved 7 to 0.

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