Jeffrey Steele, moderator of the Representative Town Meeting, just wanted to start a conversation Monday night about the legislative body's inability to redraw local voting districts to conform to state law and the town charter.
With a June 1 deadline fast approaching, the six-member RTM Redistricting Committee has been deadlocked 3-3 for more than a year over how many districts the town should have. The three Republican members favor eight or nine districts and the three Democrats want the current number of 10.
But bringing the stalemate before the full RTM this week did little more than mirror the partisan divide over the number of local voting districts.
Ed Bateson, R-3, a member of the committee, wanted to bring a proposal to redraw the local voting districts to the full 50-member RTM next month, but Harold Schwartz, D-7, and Town Attorney Stanton Lesser said the charter requires that a proposal come from the committee. "My opinion would be that the only ordinance that can be passed is one proposed by the Redistricting Committee," Lesser said.
Allen Marks, D-8, said everyone knew what would happen if a proposal was brought before the full RTM without the committee's backing since the RTM is controlled by one party -- the Republicans.
Hank Ference, R-3, chairman of the committee, said he's been a member of various RTM committees over the past eight years and, "This is the most frustrating position I've held."
"We just seem to be spinning our wheels," Ference said. "We're not getting anywhere."
Kevin Hoffkins, D-7, a committee member, agreed. "Yes, we are at a standoff between 10 districts and nine," he said. "We really just don't think there is anything that's fair other than sticking with 10 districts."
Hoffkins said reducing the number of local voting districts "would start to dilute representation and unfairly benefit the Republican side."
But Joseph Palmer, R-4, denied Republicans are seeking a partisan advantage by reducing the number of voting districts. He said the goal was a "more efficient" RTM and cost savings. "We think it would be a better idea to have a reducion in the size of the RTM," he said. "It wasn't about politics. It was about having a more efficient body."
But Marc Patten, D-7, said, "40 people more efficient than 50 people? You're splitting hairs over nothing." He said the cost savings by having 10 fewer RTM members amounted to less than $5,000 and that the standoff was "ridiculous."
"Just leave it [the number of districts] alone and redraw the lines," Patten said. "It doesn't make any sense to give the people less representation."
Steele said there was no "tie-breaker mechanism so this could be perpetually in stalemate until the end of time."
Ference said Fairfield is the only town in Connecticut that has not redrawn its local voting districts after the state General Assembly redrew voting districts for state legislators based on the 2010 census, and he wasn't optimistic that would change. "I don't see that we're going to be able to bring a proposal out of this committee ... As of June 1, we're going to be in violation of state statute," he said. "I'm at a loss."
Roger Autuori, the Republican registrar of voters, said Wednesday that the town would be in violation of state statutes if the voting districts aren't redrawn by June 1 because the state legislature redrew state legislative districts and requires the town to redraw its local voting districts. He said the town also would be in violation of the town Charter, which requires that one district's population not deviate by more than 10 percent compared to another district.
"If somebody felt wronged by this, they could go to court or the [state] attorney general can go to court. The court could force us to do it," Autuori said. He said the state statute that requires local voting districts to be redrawn doesn't specify a penalty if that isn't done, but he said the state theoretically could decide to fine the town or withhold state aid. The town charter also doesn't specify a penalty for having a district with a population that deviates by more than 10 percent from another district, but Autuori said that too could be challenged in court.
"There's all sorts of things that could happen ... and it just becomes worse and worse the more you think of it," Autuori said.
Doing nothing from a logistical standpoint also is a problem, in part, because one local voting district now has three state legislative districts and the town would have to hire more poll workers to identify which legislative district people are in when they go to vote, Autuori said.
Matt Waggner, the Democratic registrar of voters, said the town now had 10 RTM districts divided into 21 pieces due to how state legislative districts were redrawn. "That's sort of the larger issue," he said.
The town could have more than 10 local voting districts and once had 14, Autuori said. The town charter only says that the number of RTM members cannot exceed 56, he said. When the town had 14 local voting districts, each district was represented by four RTM members.
But Autuori said he didn't think the town now has enough polling places to accommodate 14 districts because the number of public buildings has changed since then. "We'd be pitching tents in parking lots to do that," he said. He didn't rule out enough polling locations for 12 voting districts.
Autuori said he didn't think just redrawing lines and maintaining 10 local voting districts would solve the existing violation with the town charter. "Just tweaking the lines isn't going to give you that 10 percent," he said.
Ann Stamler, D-5, questioned whether the town could have a public forum on the issue of how many voting districts and RTM members the town should have, but Steele said he couldn't imagine that the issue would be settled by 55,000 residents.
Thomas McCarthy, R-8, said it didn't sound like a proposal would ever come out of the Redistricting Committee and that redrawing local voting districts tehn becomes an issue for the full RTM to decide. "As long as it stays in committee, six people have the decision. I think that's unfair," he said.
Nicholas Mirabile, R-9, said the Redistricting Committee had met 18 times over the past year and that the stalemate is "an embarrassment."
"I don't get speechless a lot ... but I have to say this is exactly what gives government a bad name," Mirabile said.