Unaffiliated voters may need to petition to serve on appointed boards

Selectmen seeking a way to include unaffiliated voters in the pool of candidates to fill vacant seats on appointed boards got a lot of feedback Monday night.

“We are looking for an avenue for people who are unaffiliated and want to stay unaffiliated,” First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice said at the March 21 meeting.

“We had a number of unfilled positions, and at our Jan. 19 meeting, when we said [unaffiliated] people could come forward, we suddenly had a lot of people come forward.”

But going directly through the Board of Selectmen cuts out vetting processes the Republican Town Committee and Democratic Town Committee both conduct before recommending candidates for nomination.

At the request of Vanderslice, RTC Chair Al Alper and DTC Chair Deborah McFadden attended the March 21 meeting. She wanted each to make a formal proposal, but only the Republicans came ready.

“[The RTC’s] recommendation was that unaffiliated voters be required to receive 150 signatures on a petition, and that the affiliated voters interview with the respective town committees,” Vanderslice said.

The DTC did not make a recommendation, because “We have not have time to vote on it, and we cannot have a formal [proposal] until we vote,” said McFadden.

McFadden did offer some thoughts for the record, however, namely pointing out her concern that in the past at least one person the DTC has passed over during its interview process made an “end-run” to the Board of Selectmen for consideration.

“We give you a name, and then somebody that was interviewed for that position that we did not select for whatever reason does an end-run, goes directly to you, and their name is considered equally, and we did not pick them.

“It’s already happened,” McFadden said.

McFadden also emphasized the value of the vetting process she said the RTC and the DTC handle with equal rigor, something that gets bypassed when the only thing unaffiliated electors need to do to be considered for service is put their names in with town executives.

“The RTC, I’m sure, has a vetting process that’s just as rigorous as ours, and there is great value in our vetting process,” she said.

Second Selectman Michael Kaelin said he’s “not in favor” of making any “radical changes” to a process McFadden said has “worked for decades.”

“It’s not because I’m lazy; it’s because it’s really not my place to do it,” Kaelin said. “What I think everyone needs to understand is, we didn’t set up this system … our state and federal forefathers did this.

“What people lose sight of is that the primary role of the political party is to get somebody’s name on the ballot so that the voters can vote for them.”

Kaelin went on to say he’s “open minded,” and agreed with the RTC that requiring unaffiliated candidates to petition for consideration would be the best way to vet them outside of the committee process. Vanderslice agreed.

That said, Vanderslice and Kaelin both held that 150 signatures was an unnecessarily high number, leaning more towards the town election model.

This requires an unaffiliated citizen who petitions onto an elective ballot gather signatures matching 1% of the number of votes the seat they’re looking to fill got in the last election.

Board of Finance Vice Chair Warren Serenbetz spoke as a member of the public, and introduced an idea that struck a chord with several others.

“I think there’s a distinction between petitioning to be on a ballot, and petitioning to come in front of you, which I think could argue for more signatures being required,” Serenbetz said.

“If they petition on the ballot, they have to be elected after that. That means that all people are going to consider if that person is worthy of that job.

“When you go into a process where you guys are the ones that are going to decide, it’s a much smaller group of people; I think they have to be able to demonstrate that they have a broader backing.”

“One hundred fifty’s high,” Vanderslice said.

“I agree,” Serenbetz replied,” but I think 20’s too low. What the right number is, I’m not sure.”

Tom Dubin, DTC vice chair, said, “I think it’s absolutely correct, that the threshold for ballot access as an unaffiliated ought to be seen as a different concept because of the very fact that the election event is required afterwards.”

State Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26) commented, saying, “I think that what was mentioned was probably the most right and democratic process, which is the petitioning process … and I agree with the fact that it should be higher than, certainly 20, but maybe not as many as 150.”

Alper, who suggested the 150-signature petition requirement, said, “The truth of the matter is, we need people who are going to go out there and go over a very high hurdle to demonstrate representation.

“If you force a high hurdle of petitioning, by definition, you’re forcing a higher diversity of thought, because they are listening to more people, and therefore more people are signing that petition.

“I want diversity. To do that, you need to make sure that people come forward demonstrating the fact that they can represent a wider diversity of thought than the echo chamber that is their friends, that 20 signatures will guarantee.”

After hearing everyone who wanted to speak, selectmen tabled the discussion to a later date when the Democratic Town Committee could submit its proposal.