GROTON — In a procedural squabble between one faction of the Representative Town Meeting hoping to debate an updated policy for dealing with the town’s vacant properties and an opposing faction seeking to move on from the issue, RTM member Ian Thomas at first tried unsuccessfully to add the 2023 Property Re-Use Committee’s Evaluation Policy to the Wednesday agenda. But failing that, it’s now up to the RTM moderator to decide whether the matter will be discussed at a future meeting.
If the 2023 draft policy – which addresses the disposition of town-owned land – had been placed on the agenda, then RTM members could have voted to send it for reconsideration by the Town Council.
The council instead voted to adopt the 2021 draft policy in a contentious meeting on June 27.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Thomas motioned to use the Power of Initiative rule to put the 2023 policy on the agenda. The move requires suspending RTM rules to add an agenda item that had not been sent to committee for consideration.
Moderator Jill Rusk advised RTM members that Thomas’ motion was not debatable and that, according to RTM rules, it had to pass by a two-thirds majority of members present.
On a roll call vote, which needed 21 of 31 members to approve, the motion failed 7-20 with 4 abstentions.
Understanding RTM Rules
The rules of the RTM may appear complex to outsiders.
In order for an item to be considered for placement on the agenda, it must be sent to one of the seven RTM committees. Each committee chair is responsible for sending a report to the full group on items referred to the committee, as well as items the committee initiates for consideration, “for the purpose of advising the RTM as to the recommended action on such matters.”
However, all matters referred to committee are at the discretion of the moderator, the town manager in their absence, or the Town Council if both are absent, according to RTM rules.
Matters may be referred to standing committees at any time by the moderator or, in their absence, the town manager, or in the absence of both, by the council chairman.
According to the town website, “the duties of the RTM include reviewing the actions of the Council and the power of initiative to institute legislation or force reconsideration of legislation already adopted.”
Before the vote on Thomas’ motion, Rusk confirmed that consideration of the 2023 policy was “not referred to committee, it was asked to be added to the agenda.” Earlier in the meeting, she confirmed that Town Councilor David McBride, chair of the Property Re-Use Committee, had sent an email asking that the matter be on the agenda, and also a communication from Thomas with the same request.
The council formed the Property Re-Use Committee, based on a referral from Councilor Portia Bordelon, in reaction to the town’s development agreement with Jeffrey Respler, who had proposed 900-unit apartment complex at the Mystic Oral School.
The committee, which met at least twice a month for a year, worked to reformulate the town’s process for entering into agreements with developers for the town’s 54 vacant properties in a more transparent manner, which resulted in the 2023 Property Re-Use Committee’s Evaluation Policy.
Prior to the vote on the motion, Groton Democratic Town Committee Chair Natalie Billing spoke in opposition to Thomas’ motion to suspend the rules and add an item to the agenda.
“The Freedom of Information law in Connecticut says if you’re going to discuss something at a meeting, it needs to be on the agenda. Why? So that the public knows you’re going to be talking about it. If you suspend the rules and add this to the agenda tonight, you’d be taking up something that the public at large is not aware that you’re going to be talking about,” she said.
She said the reuse of the town’s property had been on the Town Council’s agenda many times, giving the public the opportunity to speak on the matter. She also warned the RTM would be setting a precedent that items not approved by the Town Council could be shuffled to the RTM for reconsideration.
“I speak as a former town councilor, as a former member of the RTM and former moderator. You’d be setting a precedent. It’s never been done before that an item discussed at the council, that doesn’t pass at the council, that the people who aren’t happy about that then say, ‘Oh, let’s take it over to the RTM and see what the RTM thinks,’” she said. “… I have a lot of concern about how that would affect the town and the governing of the town.”
After Thomas’ motion failed, Rusk initially said she would refer the matter to the RTM Finance Committee.
However, representative Lauren Gauthier asked that the referral go to the Community Development and Services Committee, and questioned Rusk’s choice of the Finance Committee because the policy “does not have a financial component.”
Thomas asked that the item be referred to the Rules and Procedures Committee, “since it is a procedure with only a small financial component.”
Rusk said she’d consider the suggestions and make a decision before the group’s next meeting.
After intermittent discussion, representative and Republican Town Committee Chair John Scott asked if Rusk had “officially accepted” the item as a referral.
Rusk said she was considering it and, after consulting a document, decided to refer the item to Rules and Procedures.
But Scott challenged Rusk’s decision.
“I don’t believe this is an appropriate referral item. And I think we can dispose of this tonight by challenging your decision. I don’t think that this needs to be on our agenda or referred to any committee,” he said.
Seconding Scott’s challenge was representative Genevieve Cerf, who is running for Town Council on the Groton Independents’ slate, which supports the 2023 Property Re-Use Committee’s policy
At the back of the room, Bordelon stood up and said that Cerf needed to hear the motion again.
“Just because I know from other council meetings, and I don’t mean this in any rude way, that Representative Cerf sometimes can’t hear and she was in support of the Property Reuse Committee. So she might not be sure that she’s trying to dispose of it. So could you just please repeat for her what she’s raising her hand to please.”
Rusk responded that Cerf “is seconding a motion to challenge the ruling of the chair.”
Cerf explained that the last time the Power of Initiative rule was used, the matter did not go to the Rules and Procedures Committee and she saw “no reason for it to go there this time.” She said the matter was instead treated as new business.
Gauthier called for a point of information asking whether the motion was to challenge which committee the matter would go to, or to not consider the motion at all.
Rusk confirmed the motion was to not consider the matter at all.
After additional clarification on the motion, Thomas thanked Rusk for referring the matter to the Rules and Procedures Committee and said he “would hope the body votes to allow it to go there because it is a procedure, and it is legal for the RTM to propose such a thing to the Town Council.”
Scott interrupted, “Point of order. Can we stick to the topic of whether we are going to appeal the chair?”
Thomas urged the body to vote in favor of the moderator’s referral to the Rules and Procedures Committee, of which he is a member.
“It gives us a chance to workshop the document, take a look at it and dig into it with some nuance,” he said.
Gauthier called for another point of information.
“This is new procedural territory for us all, challenging the decision of the moderator. I’d like to understand better before we take the vote. What exactly are the grounds that this can be challenged? Can you overturn it? Can you have veto power, can it be appealed, can it be challenged?” Gauthier said.
Rusk then called for a 10-minute recess.
Upon return, Cerf rescinded her second and said she agreed with Rusk that the matter should go to committee, but disagreed on Rusk’s committee choice.
Rusk then rescinded her motion to send the matter to committee.
“I’m going to hold judgment on where it will be sent, or if it will be sent next month,” she said.
At that point, Scott also rescinded his motion, and the RTM adjourned.