UPDATE: This report was updated on January 17 at 4:30 pm to clarify the date and time of the next commission meeting.
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After weighing recommending the Board of Finance (BOF) becoming an appointed advisory board, Newtown’s Charter Revision Commission (CRC) is now recommending the elected finance board be eliminated altogether.
CRC Chairman Andrew Buzzi said during a January 6 meeting that at the prior meeting, there had been a clear division in the commission over making the BOF an appointed, advisory board — while there seemed to be a larger consensus around eliminating the board.
“We should go into the next step with more of a consensus than a bare majority,” said Buzzi.
Commissioner Tony Filiato said that his position from the beginning was that the BOF should be an appointed, advisory board, and that the “Legislative Council as the town’s fiscal authority can ignore the BOF and often [does].” The former councilman noted he had also previously served on an ad hoc committee for roads which had been set up by the council, and that the CRC itself was an appointed, advisory committee set up by the council.
“A financial advisory board can be set up by the Legislative Council; it’s something that can be done that way,” said Filiato. “Like with this committee, the Legislative Council has been good at being bipartisan; there are Republicans, Democrats, and Independents here.”
Filiato said he was good with the BOF elimination, with the caveat that language be added to the charter to allow it to create an advisory board at budget time or when it needs fiscal policy advice.
Commissioner Prerna Rao also agreed with the concept of eliminating the BOF, and liked the idea of allowing the council to do the ad hoc creation of an advisory board.
“It could be helpful, and assist the council when they need to rely on knowledgeable input and advice,” Rao said. “It’s helpful for the council to have the recommendation in creating an ad hoc committee, so that the council has to give guidance on what is to be addressed, or maybe give it a mission.”
Rao also thought that if a financial advisory board was only formed as the council needed it, there would be fewer people complaining about “the redundancy in the process.” At prior meetings, commissioners have noted that some department heads have referred to needing to go to multiple commissions for budget approvals to be “spinning their tires.”
Commissioner James Gaston said he preferred a BOF that required a supermajority for the council to override, but he would rather have no BOF than one “without teeth.”
Commissioner Dennis Brestovansky was the sole vote against elimination, believing that it was “important to have a body chosen due to their expertise in financial matters.”
Requesting Proposed Language
Buzzi charged Gaston and Filiato with developing formal language for the actual charter revision to be discussed at the CRC’s next meeting, which will be held virtually on Monday, January 24 at 7 pm. Find link and password details to participate at Newtown-CT.gov under the ‘Agendas and Minutes tab.
Discussion from the community on a vision for the Board of Finance continued, and the CRC added a letter from former First Selectman Herb Rosenthal to the record. Rosenthal stated that the Board of Finance was the town’s original fiscal authority and was eliminated in 1975 with the creation of the Legislative Council. It was re-created as a fiscal authority in the 2001 Charter revision, but was a “confusing process.”
“The Charter Review Commission recommended its re-creation with changes to some of the duties of the Legislative Council so that duties did not conflict or overlap,” wrote Herb Rosenthal. “However, the Legislative Council voted not to send that change to the voters.”
Herb Rosenthal stated that the 2001 CRC then petitioned to have the BOF revision submitted to the voters and were successful in having it placed on the ballot. The voters approved the question, but other revisions to the Charter failed.
“Town Attorney Dave Grogins, Finance Director Ben Spragg, and I then met to try and figure out how to add the Board of Finance as approved by the voters to the rest of the then existing, unchanged Charter,” the former first selectman wrote. “We were faced with a dual fiscal authority on a number of issues, so using the voter approved language we made our best effort to fit it in and that is how it has remained until now.”
Herb Rosenthal agreed that modifications were needed to remove some of the overlapping duties, and felt the BOF should be a “non-partisan body.” He also felt the BOF should be no longer involved in budget transfers or even the budget other than guidance on what the town can “reasonably and appropriately afford.”
“Newtown needs one body whose sole focus is on the financial planning of sound fiscal policy,” he wrote. “I agree with our first selectman that the revised Board of Finance should spend its time primarily on the continued development of sound fiscal policy.”
BOF Weighs In
At a January 10 BOF meeting, the board itself discussed the 2022 CRC’s current position on its elimination.
Herb Rosenthal’s son, current First Selectman Dan Rosenthal, said that he felt the BOF should “set financial policy in town,” and it should “have teeth” in setting that policy, with the council needing a supermajority to override those policy decisions.
The first selectman believes the BOF should not be involved in budget transfers or even in the budget process, since those are redundancies, but “should be involved in setting the guideposts for the town,” such as debt service and budget growth. He said that the council is “the chief-est fiscal authority” by statute and that there “is no way around that.”
He said the current process “wears everyone out” and from “a user standpoint, such as the library perspective and Edmond Town Hall, it could certainly use some streamlining.”
“The BOF wouldn’t care how much is spent in Parks & Recreation or Public Works, so long as the total budget framework is within the framework set,” said Rosenthal, who noted that such policy “often gets lost in the shuffle” for the council.
BOF member Erica Sullivan said she felt “that scope doesn’t give us a lot to do.”
“Once those things are set, then what?” asked Sullivan.
First Selectman Rosenthal said there is “always work to do,” and if the BOF felt it didn’t have enough to do, it could keep its other responsibilities such as reviewing the budget, “but those are redundancies.”
Sullivan said she thought the CRC was looking to “strengthen the role” of the BOF and “untangle the mishmash of overlapping” responsibilities with the council. BOF member Laura Miller said that “it was the voters who wanted the BOF back” in 2001, but that the process “got mangled” as a result of the referendum.
First Selectman Rosenthal said that “some things passed” related to the BOF and “some things failed.”
BOF Chairman John Madzula said that at his board’s next meeting, members would put together language for a formal letter on its stance to the CRC.
“It’s a matter of preservation really,” Madzula said.
“Yes, self-preservation,” agreed Miller.
Reporter Jim Taylor can be reached at [email protected].