Editorial: On Denying Old Lyme Residents a Meeting by Petition

in Editorials

I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of a town in Connecticut denying residents the right to petition for a special meeting. In Old Lyme, at least, it’s not often that this quaint provision of small-town New England democracy is ever even attempted. I can’t cite a case when it’s been abused.

To be sure, Connecticut General Statutes set a notably low legal bar – the petition of “twenty inhabitants qualified to vote in town meetings” – to hold the selectman duty-bound to honor the request.

So, it demands some legal explanation, when sixty-one residents of Old Lyme petition the town government for a special meeting – three times the number required by state statute – and the town denies them.

So far, neither Town Attorney Jack Collins of Suisman Shapiro, nor First Selectman Bonnie Reemsnyder, are willing to explain the legal basis for their decision.

Asked by reporter Cate Hewitt on Tuesday, Collins claimed attorney-client privilege. Reemsnyder did not respond.

The best we can surmise – and it is only an educated guess — Collins and Reemsnyder likely maintain that the object of the petition fails to meet a standard of “lawful, proper, and not frivolous” – language which is no longer part of the statute, but has been cited as recently as 1995 in an unpublished opinion by a State of Connecticut Superior Court.

Frankly – whatever you think of the merits of the petitioners’ complaints – their petition, by any reasonable judgement, sails well above such minimal requirements.

And in fact, given that Old Lyme’s WPCA continues to revise its cost-sharing formula after a town-wide vote, and WPCA Chair Richard Prendergast has offered to answer questions in written form, it seems hard to deny that the actions of the town have not raised enough new questions to reasonably justify a special meeting by petition.

Whether Collins has provided the town with fair-minded legal advice is an open question – but it should be noted that ostensibly in his capacity as a resident – not as town attorney – he earlier and controversially intervened in an August 6 vote to help defeat residents of Sound View. In that case, Collins’ procedural move held open a vote, while town officials made phone calls and new voters arrived, perhaps tipping the balance.

In this case – whatever the merits of the town’s legal claim – you have to simply wonder about a rightness of a town government unwilling to hold a meeting, the first and only time one has been requested by petition.

But if perchance, the petitioners have erred, isn’t it incumbent on the town, if only in the spirit of old-fashioned fair play, to explain to these residents how they can petition the town in a manner that complies with the law?

It’s no wonder that Sound View residents see themselves treated as second-class residents.