October 23, 2002
ADOPTING CHARTERS AND BYLAWS
By: John G. Rappa, Principal Analyst
You asked us to (1) summarize the procedure municipalities and special districts must follow to adopt or revise a home rule charter or charter amendments and (2) if the statutes specify how special districts must draft and adopt bylaws. The Office of Legislative Research cannot give legal opinions and you should not regard this memo as one.
Towns and special districts must follow virtually the same statutory process for adopting or amending home rule charters. This is true even for towns and districts that currently operate under charters that the legislature enacted on their behalf (i. e. , special act charters). The legislature enacted these charters before a constitutional amendment banned it from enacting special laws affecting any single town. As a result, a town that wants to amend its special act charter must follow the statutory process for amending home rule charters.
The same is not necessarily true for districts operating under special acts, since the amendment does not apply to them. But they may be forced to use the statutory process since the legislature appears to discourage legislation amending special act charters.
A special district operating under a special act must complete a preliminary step before it can convert its special act charter into a home rule one. At least two-thirds of a district's voters at a district meeting must approve this step. If they do, the district must follow the same procedure towns follow when adopting or amending a home rule charter.
The procedure is the same for adopting or amending a charter and involves four steps:
1. The town or district's legislative body or its respective voters can initiate the process by resolution or petition, respectively.
2. The legislative body must appoint a charter commission, which must consider any item the legislative body or the petition specifies. The commission can also consider other items it chooses.
3. The commission and the legislative body must hold public hearings on the proposed charter or charter amendments according to a statutory schedule. The legislative body can recommend changes to the commission's proposal, but the commission does not have to accept them.
4. After the commission finalizes its proposed charter or amendments, the legislative body can accept or reject all or parts of it. Voters can petition for a referendum on the rejected parts and must ultimately vote on the proposal, regardless of whether the legislative body initially approved it.
The statutes are silent on whether and how special districts can adopt bylaws. But they allow districts to adopt ordinances, and the statutory requirements for doing so seem to apply to bylaws as well since the statutes, town charters, and legal commentaries use the terms interchangeable.
The statutes authorize districts' (and towns') legislative bodies to adopt ordinances, but set conditions under which voters can petition for a referendum on a proposed ordinance. They require legislative bodies to publish ordinances or summaries thereof in local newspapers. The summaries must state that they do not reflect the legislative bodies' intent.
CHARTER ADOPTION AND AMENDMENT
Home Rule Charters versus Special Act Charters
The phrase, "Home Rule Charter," signals the fact that some towns and districts operate under charters that they adopted and amended on their own (i. e. , "home rule") while other towns and districts operate under charters that the legislature adopted and amended on their behalf (i. e. , "special act charters"). The distinction holds even though the legislature allowed all towns (in 1957) and districts (in 1963) to act on their own.
A 1969 constitutional amendment banned the legislature from enacting special acts regarding the powers, organization, form of government, and terms of elective office for any single town. The amendment did not repeal special act charters but did block the legislature from amending them. As a result, towns operating under these charters can amend them only by converting them into home rule charters.
While the constitutional ban does not apply to special districts, they may still have to convert their special act charters into home rule charters before they can amend them. The legislature discourages legislation amending district charters because:
1. the legislative process does not move fast enough for districts;
2. drafting, processing, and debating numerous special acts consumes too much time; and
3. the statutes provide a mechanism through which districts can act on their own (Connecticut Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Independent Special Taxing Districts in Connecticut, December 1988).
Preliminary Step for Special Districts
A special district operating under a special charter act can amend it on its own by following the same statutory procedure towns must use to adopt and amend their home rule charters. But district voters must first approve taking this step before the district can formally begin the process. Two-thirds of the voters present at a district meeting must vote to proceed (CGS § 7-328a(a)).
From this point on, the process for adopting or amending a charter is the same for towns and districts. The jurisdiction's legislative body or voters can trigger the process. The former can start the process if two-thirds of its members agree. Voters can trigger the process if 10% of them sign a petition to that effect. In either case, the legislative body appoints a commission to draft the charter or charter amendments (CGS § 7-188 (b)).
The law specifies requirements for preparing petitions and validating signatures. The petition may recommend items for the commission to consider. Petition signatures are valid if they were obtained within 90 days of the date when the page containing them was filed with the legislative body. A signer can have his signature removed at any time before the petition is filed. The petitioners must file the petition with the town or district clerk, who must validate the signatures and certify its sufficiency to the legislative body (CGS Sec 7-188 (c)).
Once the clerk certifies the petition's sufficiency, he cannot accept another petition for the same purpose until the first commission terminates (CGS § 7-188 (d)).
Appointing the Charter Commission
The legislative body must appoint a charter commission consisting of between five to 15 voters, no more than one-third of whom can hold any other town or district office and no more than a bare majority of whom can belong to the same political party. The legislative body must appoint all of the commissioners within 30 days after it voted to start the process or the clerk certified the petition (CGS § 7-190 (a)).
The legislative body can recommend items for the commission to consider, and the commission must consider these and any other items specified in the petition, if there was one. The commission can also consider other items it deems necessary. Its reports must discuss all of the items it considered, including its own.
The legislative body must adopt a resolution setting a deadline for the commission to complete its work, but the actual date must fall within 16 months after the commission's appointment (CGS § 7-190 (b)). The commission terminates after the legislative body accepts or rejects the commission's final report (CGS § 7-190 (c)).
Holding Public Hearings on the Proposed Charter
The commission and the appointing authority must separately hold public hearings on the proposed charter or amendments. The commission must hold at least two hearings, one before it begins to draft its proposal and one before it submits the draft to the legislative body. It may hold additional hearings (CGS § 7-191 (a)).
After completing its hearings, the commission must submit the proposal to the town or district clerk, who must send it to the legislative body, which must hold at least one hearing on the proposal. Its last hearing can be no later than 45 days after it received the report (CGS § 70-191(b)).
The legislative body has up to 15 days from its last hearing to recommend changes to the proposal (CGS § 7-191(b)). If it does not, the legislative body tacitly accepts the report and must act on it. If the legislative body does recommend changes, the law requires the commission to discuss them with the legislative body. The commission can accept these recommendations and incorporated them in its proposal or reject them. In either case, it must submit its final proposal to the legislative body no later than 30 days after the legislative body made its recommendations (CGS § 7-191(c)).
Approving the Charter
The legislative body must act on the commission's final report no later than 15 days after receiving it. It can, by majority vote, approve or reject the entire proposal or reject parts of it. If it rejects all or parts of the proposal, voters can petition the legislative body for a referendum. They have 45 days to submit the petition, which must be signed by at least 10% of the voters. The petition requirements are the same as those for requesting a charter commission (CGS § 7-191 (d)).
The town or district must publish the proposal in a local newspaper no later than 30 days after (1) approving them or (2) the petition's certification (CGS § 7-191 (d)).
The legislative body must also decide by majority vote the forum for submitting the proposal to the voters for approval. Town legislative bodies can submit the proposal at a regular or special election while district commissions can submit one at a regular or special district meeting. In both cases, the referendum must be held no later than 15 months after the legislative body approved the proposal or the respective
clerks certified the petition. The legislative body must also decide whether to submit the proposal to the voters as a single question or several questions (CGS § 7-191(e) and (f)).
The voting requirements for approving the proposal depend on whether the vote is taken at a regular or special election (or meeting). A majority vote is required for proposals submitted at regular elections or district meetings. A majority vote is also required for those submitted at special elections or meetings, but that majority must equal at least 15% of all town or district voters. The proposal takes effect 30 days after the vote, unless it requires otherwise (CGS § 7-191(f)).
The town or district clerk must file copies of the approved charter or amendments with the secretary of the state no later than 30 days after the voters approved them (CGS § 7-191(h)).
ORDINANCES AND BYLAWS
The requirements for adopting and publishing ordinances seem to apply to bylaws as well. The statutes, town charters, and legal commentaries seem to use the terms interchangeably. For example, CGS § 7-159 grandfathers "any valid ordinances, bylaws, or regulations adopted prior to October 1, 1957 under the provisions of the general statutes.... " Several town charters list both bylaws and ordinances as the means for exercising municipal powers. Black's Legal Dictionary lists bylaws as a synonym for ordinance and likewise shows "ordinance" as one meaning for bylaw.
Adoption and Publication
The statutory requirements for adopting ordinances explicitly apply to towns, cities, boroughs, and fire districts. The local legislative body or voters at a town or district meeting can adopt ordinances and have them published in a local newspaper. Those adopted by the legislative body take effect 30 days after publication; those adopted at meetings take effect 15 days after publication. But these requirements apply only if the local charter does not provide otherwise (CGS § 7-157 (a)).
Voters can block these ordinances from taking effect by petitioning to have them approved at a referendum. At least 15% of the voters must sign the petition and submit it to the town or district clerk within 30 days after the newspaper publication. The petition must indicate if the
referendum should be held at the next regular election or at a special meeting. The ordinance is adopted if a majority of voters approve (CGS § 7-157(a)).
The statutes allow jurisdictions to publish a summary of non-budgetary ordinances in lieu of the actual ones. Nonetheless, the jurisdiction's clerk must make copies of the actual ordinance available to the public upon request. The summary must include a statutory disclaimer explaining, in part, that it does not represent the legislative body's intent (CGS § 7-159(b)).