This is a topic that generates much confusion and frustration for the public. Aren't all meeting alike?
No. Municipal meeting have a structure all their own.
Official meetings in Clinton have specific purposes and specified forms of operation dictated by our Town Charter, State Statutes and sometimes Federal laws, as in the case of the Freedom of information act (FOIA).
All meetings are run under Robert's Rules of Order, unless otherwise specified according to the latest edition of our Town Charter.
And...there are also more than one kind of official meeting. (You knew that was coming). How many different kinds? Eight!
They are :
- Regular meetings: Those with a schedule published during December or early January, for the entire new year and usually contain 13 months of meeting dates. These meeting are for the board, committee or commission to do their work of deliberating and discussing and when necessary, voting. While the public is entitled to attend and observe, they do not have a right to participate. As a matter of fact, no one may speak at any official meeting without the consent of the chairman, not even the board's own members. In some circumstances the chairman may allow members of the public to speak, but it is not required. In other cases, land use commissions, for example, after a public hearing has been closed, no additional information may be introduced to the commission.
- Special meetings: Those called for a time and date that isn't on the published schedule. They must be noticed ahead of time, same as a regular meeting and nothing except the items on the published agenda may be discussed. Nothing can be added at the meeting.
- Emergency meetings: Self explanatory except they also must be noticed, but only 24 hours ahead if possible and can be posted after the meeting if the emergency is acute and doesn't allow for the time needed to post ahead.
- Executive sessions: Special closed sessions within another meeting from which all are excluded except those specified by the board or commission in their motion to go into executive session. There are very specific rules concerning the circumstance under which executive session can be called. It cannot be used simply to hide actions from public view. Matters relating to personnel, ethics, litigation, negotiations, labor, land purchase and strategies for these things, are legitimate reasons for an executive session. No votes may be taken and no minutes are kept. All actions taken must occur outside of the executive session. Voting, for example. In order for litigation to be a reason for an executive session, there must be an actual lawsuit occurring or a legal notice of intent to sue, not just the worry that a suit might be forthcoming.
- Public information meetings: To give or get information to/or from the public. The public is invited to ask questions.
- Public Hearings: A specific format designed to get information from the public. No voting or deliberations may take place and the board or commission may not answer questions or give reasons. A good example from land use would be when the neighbors (called abutters) are notified to come to a Public Hearing regarding an application that could affect their property. Their purpose is to bring any information that under the law is pertinent. In most cases, as I have stressed before in articles, simply not liking the application isn't a legal issue. There are some instances in which opinion is relevant, but in very few cases. As I said above, once the Public Hearing is closed, no more information may be given to the board of commission except from their own staff's work.
- Town Meetings: These are meetings called under specific rules of our Town Charter. Except for the annual budget Town Meeting which is specifically noted in the Town Charter, all other Town Meetings are called Special Town Meetings. For example, if an appropriation is for more than $15,000, it must be approved at a Special Town Meeting, in addition to the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance approvals. All persons eligible to vote in Town Meetings as prescribed in Section 7-6 of the General Statutes, as amended, shall be eligible to vote in Special Town Meetings called as provided in Section 4-8 of this Chapter of the Town charter. Town Meetings are called by the Board of Selectmen [i].See footnote below for Section 7-6 description of eligibility
- Special Town Meetings shall be required for approval after recommendation by the Board of Selectmen and the approval of the Board of Finance for: Any resolution making an appropriation of an amount more than fifteen thousand $15,000); Any resolution authorizing the issuance of bonds or notes; The purchase of real estate; The sale of any real estate; Any real estate lease and/or lease with option which involves a term in excess of three years.
Referendums, which are simply town-wide votes by the qualified electors to approve or deny specific actions, can be called for many reasons. With the exception of the annual budget, any resolution appropriating an amount equal to five (5) percent or more of the current tax levy (amount of tax to be collected by the town) must have a referendum called; also any resolution authorizing the issuance of bonds, notes, and all other forms of financing equal to five (5) percent or more of the current tax levy, requires a referendum. With the exception of the annual budget, three hundred (300) persons qualified to vote in a Town Meeting may petition over their signatures for any item on the call (official advertisement) of a Town Meeting to be voted on in referendum. The procedure shall be in accordance with Section 7-7 of the General Statutes of the State of Connecticut, as amended. Refer to Section 4-4 A for annual budget referendum procedures. The provisions of Section 7-7 of the General Statutes, as amended, shall not apply to the adoption of the Town Budget.
In addition to Robert's rules, the Town charter and State Statutes, many boards, commissions and committees have passed their own bylaws, creating another layer of rules and/or restriction to adhere to. Though many of the rules under which boards and commissions operate may seem arcane or illogical, they never the less must be adhered to, in order to prevent what is commonly referred to as procedural error. In other words, making an error by not following the prescribed legal process. That mistake then results in grounds for a legal challenge and possible overturning of the decision of the board or committee. These legal challenges are called appeals. Appeals require the filling of the proper papers with a court of the proper jurisdiction. It is a law suit with all its attendant work and costs.
The purpose of this article isn't to provide an exhaustive detailed study of the laws affecting meetings but to provide some general understanding of the different kinds of municipal meetings and what should be expected to happen at them. All of the rules are public information meaning that once you know what kind of meeting is being called, you know what to expect. Reading the rather short Town Charter (on line) is a good place to start. All of the town regulations are available in the Town Clerk's office with many of them already on line. Zoning regulations etc, are on the Town Website for your review.
Given that it takes board and commission members months of study to familiarize themselves with the rules for their particular organization with the assistance of specialists (lawyers, etc) to explain the more complex and arcane issues, the regular layman is understandably behind the learning curve, giving rise to frustration. If you have a particular area of interest, the information is available, but diligent study is required.
Before leaving this issue I think it is important the reiterate and come to terms with the following idea: Though it may not seem reasonable, in most cases the board and commission members are not there to do what they think is right or fair, but to do what the law requires them to do. Examine only the information the law allows, obtained through the proper procedures, from allowable sources and then deliberate based only on criteria set forth in the law or regulations. Much of the anger and frustration in response to decisions of municipal boards and commission results from not understanding the rules and constraints put on the commission members under the law.
I hope I have given you a little understanding of the meetings procedure in Clinton and a place to start to ask questions. As I've said more times than I can count, get involved. Knowledge is power.
Until next time,
[i] Sec. 7-6. Eligibility to vote. At any town meeting other than a regular or special town election or at any meeting of any fire, sewer or school district or any other municipal subdivision of any town incorporated by any special act, any person who is an elector of such town may vote and any citizen of the United States of the age of eighteen years or more who, jointly or severally, is liable to the town, district or subdivision for taxes assessed against him on an assessment of not less than one thousand dollars on the last-completed grand list of such town, district or subdivision, or who would be so liable if not entitled to an exemption under subdivision (17), (19), (22), (23), (25) or (26) of section 12-81, may vote, unless restricted by the provisions of any special act relating to such town, district or subdivision.