Newtown's charter allows a "local" question to be added to a budget referendum, but exactly how that differs from an "advisory" question remains highly debatable, officials said.
"We are still not clear on what a local question is versus an advisory question," council member George Ferguson said Wednesday night during a brief Legislative Council meeting at the Municipal Center. "That will continue to be a significant issue."
Advisory questions, which the charter doesn't specifically allow, are nonbinding questions that ask voters their opinion about a particular topic while local questions require the town to take an action depending on the answer.
After voting 11 to 0 with one member absent on April 14 to disallow advisory questions on the referendum, the council met Wednesday to re-vote on the matter.
Council chairman Jeff Capeci called for the re-vote because Town Attorney David Grogins mistakenly told the council at last week's meeting that adding local questions required a 45-day advanced notice. Officials have since said the requirement only applies to election ballots, and not local budget referendums.
Wednesday's re-vote – 8 to 2 with two members absent from the meeting –was seen largely as ceremonial because the charter requires the council to adopt a budget no later than the second April Wednesday and for the referendum to be filed with the town clerk at least five days prior to the public vote. The referendum must be held April 27, according to the charter.
Some education advocates support the addition of a referendum question because they believe it gives voters who want more money added to the schools budget a chance to demonstrate their viewpoint. In the past, when a referendum has been defeated, the council has interpreted that as meaning voters want more money slashed from the budget request.
Others believe that adding questions to the referendum may muddle the voting process by making it harder to interpret the results, may have unintended consequences and could lead to legal challenges.
One council member lobbying for the addition of a question to this year's ballot, Gary Davis, continued his pursuit Wednesday.
Davis had asked Grogins during the April 14 meeting whether "Shall the Legislative Council increase the budget if it is defeated at referendum?" could legally qualify as a "local question." Grogins said he needed to do further research.
On Wednesday, Grogins said he still did not have an answer.
"I've been unable to find anything on that point in terms of that law or text on how to further define a local question," Grogins said. "I don't know the answer to your question."
Grogins also said if a local question were to be added to the ballot, the council would be forced to follow through on the answer voters choose.
"You would effectively be limiting the discretion that is vested in the charter," he said.
After further questioning by Davis, Grogins said if voters were to defeat the referendum on April 27, the council could decide to add a local question before sending an amended referendum to a second vote.