Hines Sight / At referendum time, let's be civil
Fairfield has a long history with referendums -- that ultimate exercise in democracy.
And once again, for the second time in less than a year, the town is about to face another, but this one has a twist. Referendums traditionally have been sought to overturn the Representative Town Meeting's approval of an appropriation over a certain dollar amount. However, a referendum can be conducted, under the provisions of the town charter, to reverse or modify the decision of the RTM for a cut in funding as well.
And that's where we are today. An effort is under way to obtain petitions to force a referendum to restore the $800,000 cut from the 2011-12 education budget that was approved by the RTM on May 2. The budget amount requested by the Board of Education previously was cut by $2 million by the Board of Selectmen and recommended to the RTM by the Board of Finance. The RTM approved an education budget of $145.7 million; the current fiscal year school budget is $141.6 million.
I will refrain from commenting on whether or not I think anyone should sign the petitions, or if the seekers are successful in obtaining the requirement number of signatures, how I think anyone should vote when the time comes. Residents who have read this space in the last few weeks surely know where I stand.
Here is how it works: 1,748 signatures of voters must be gathered by May 17, then the signatures are verified by the town clerk's office. If the required number of verified signatures is met, then the Board of Selectmen sets a date for a town-wide referendum. We go to the polls just like we do for any other election. The town charter requires that "in order to reverse or modify the action taken by the RTM, the vote in favor of reversing or modifying the action must both exceed 25 percent of the total number of electors of the town eligible to vote as of the close of business on the day before the election; and constitute a majority of votes cast on the question."
Those are fairly stringent requirements, which have been the reason for why some past referendums have failed. The other reason is purely a lack of interest. And yet another is timing -- a referendum conducted in the summer, for instance, has a greater chance of failing because the electorate is disinterested or out of town.
Let's take a quick look back to past referendums from the archives of the Fairfield Citizen.
The most recent attempt to reverse the RTM's decision to bond $350,000 for a girls' softball field at the Hoyden's Hill Open Space failed in August 2010 because it fell short of the vote threshold.
Prior to that, an attempt to reduce the 2008-09 education budget by $2.1 million failed because of a lack of sufficient signatures. Other referendum attempts also failed because the petitioners fell far short of the required number of signatures.
According to an article in the Fairfield Citizen in fall 2010, 11 referendums were conducted in the last 35 years. Of those 11, only one was successful. In August 1995, the voters overturned the RTM's approval of $24.6 million for a 10th elementary school and third middle school at the old Roger Ludlowe High School building. Years later, of course, RLHS was reopened as Fairfield Ludlowe High School and a new middle school was built alongside it.
Two years later, reversing a $17.1 million appropriation to build the middle school at the Ludlowe property was the referendum question but it failed because it didn't meet the charter requirements. This particular referendum had the greatest interest since the 1970s as 41 percent of registered voters went to the polls, according to the article.
If we look farther back, the only other successful referendum was in 1972 when the voters achieved a $1 million cut to the education budget.
The best part about a referendum is that the public gets the final word over a decision made by our elected leaders. The worst part is how a referendum pits groups of people against each other. And I fear that is what is going to happen with the current undertaking. The group wanting to force a referendum on the $800,000 cut is made up primarily of parents, a rather large contingent.
Those wanting to keep the cut undoubtedly are on fixed incomes -- like senior citizens or the unemployed or people who have seen financial reversals, all of whom worry about added expenses, like taxes.
I am hopeful that, perhaps, this time around the debate won't get too out of hand -- as it often does.
Take it from someone who witnessed the anger and ugliness during 24 years as editor of this newspaper, particularly where school funding was concerned.
It takes the community some time to mend.
Let's employ some civility.