Selectman candidate and Board of Finance member Jim Gaston is calling for a local question or referendum to be held on two separate and equally controversial issues – the and housing at Fairfield Hills.
Gaston made the proposal as part of his “Return to Reason” campaign platform speech Sunday during what was billed as the Democrats’ grand opening of their Main Street election headquarters, about an hour prior to the parade.
“First as to the owner-operators, I propose that we have a local question on the matter, because you see, on that All-Star contract, there’s a provision that states should the voters not financially support All-Star contract, the contract is void,” Gaston said. “I propose a simple question on this local question: Do you financially support the All-Star bus contract? Yes or no? If it’s no – in other words, if it fails, the new Board of Education voids the contract. Second on that same local question, we include – simple – do you support housing on Fairfield Hills, yes or no?”
In addition, Gaston proposed the formation of an ad-hoc committee to craft “the exact wording of the referendum/local question.” He suggested that the members consist of himself; Independent Party of Newtown Legislative Council member Kevin Fitzgerald; Republican Board of Finance Chairman John Kortze; Republican Legislative Council member Mary Ann Jacob or Kathy Fetchick; Republican Board of Education member Debbie Leidlein; and Republican First Selectman Pat Llodra.
But one of the problems to his proposal is that “local questions” are only allowed to be asked during November elections, which with about a month more to go would be too short of a notice and wouldn’t be legally permissible, officials said. The only other alternative would be through a referendum, but that likely would be held well after the November elections and it was unclear whether the referendum would be able to compel the Board of Education to reverse its decision, officials said.
Llodra said she had looked into matter months ago, and the responsibility in awarding the bus contract falls under the education board’s purview.
“That is exclusively the Board of Education’s right,” she said of the bus contract.
Llodra said if the matter was up to her, she would have supported giving the owner-operators more time to re-organize into an umbrella association so that they could negotiate a single contract with the town. But because the bus contract fell to the education board, she was unsure what a referendum would accomplish.
“It would only be worth it if it would be persuasive to the Board of Ed,” Llodra said.
Gaston referred to a section of the contract that he said would allow for the contract to be terminated "should the voters not financially support the All-Star contract."
There is a section of the contract – Section 4.9 – which would allow the school district to terminate the contract at any time, including for "lack of appropriate funding to operate the transportation program," but it was unclear what would constitute a "lack of funding."
Selectman Bill Furrier, an Independent Party of Newtown member who is running for first selectman, said that in general he supports putting questions to a vote among the electorate, but in the matter of the owner-operators, there may be many legal questions to consider, namely that the education board already has signed a contract with All-Star.
“That’s a done deal,” Furrier said, adding he did not know what a vote would accomplish.
Furrier said he would support putting the question of Fairfield Hills out to a vote, and for more than just housing. The question of housing at the campus recently came up after the Planning and Zoning Commission , despite apparent community opposition to the concept.
Furrier said he would recommend forming a group to come up with a plan from the and then putting that plan to a vote.
“I like the idea that Jim said (regarding Fairfield Hills) and I think it should go further,” he said.
Furrier said he remains most concerned about the Fairfield Hills Authority ordinance and the powers it grants the Board of Selectmen.
Other members, such as Legislative Council member chairman Jeff Capeci and member George Ferguson said they would want to learn more about Gaston’s proposal as it relates to legality and other issues before commenting.