How Involved Should Residents Be in Deciding the Future of Public Buildings?

Though their input is valuable, New Canaan taxpayers ultimately should rely on their elected and appointed representatives to make decisions regarding the future of town-owned buildings rather than put such questions to a public referendum, officials say.

Structures such as Gores Pavilion, Vine Cottage and Irwin House “don’t exist in a vacuum” and their capital needs are part of “a very fluid process,” Board of Finance member and Town Building Evaluation & Use Committee co-chair Amy Murphy Carroll said during the recent Forum on Public Buildings.

Responding to a suggestion that putting key decisions on public buildings to a ballot so that residents can determine “what they do with their tax dollars,” Murphy Carroll questioned “how that it would be all that productive to do that.”

“You elected the people on the Town Council, right?” she said during the April 26 forum, held at Town hall. “You elected your representatives.”

While Murphy Carroll and her fellow panelists—First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, Town Council Chairman John Engel, and Town Council members Cristina A. Ross and Penny Young, who also served as committee co-chair—agreed that input from the community is greatly encouraged and appreciated, she and others stressed that residents should also trust them to make the best decisions for the town.

Young said that there need to be more public forums allowing residents to express their opinions about how the buildings should be used.

“I would be really reluctant to bring it to a vote,” she said. “It needs to have an ordinance or a financial component to it to bring it to referendum. It would cost the town upwards of 10, 12, $15,000 every time we have an election and so I’m not so sure that’s the best way to gauge community sentiment. I’m always thinking of the money aspect of it.”

Sponsored by the New Canaan Historical SocietyNew Canaan Preservation AllianceTown of New Canaan and NewCanaanite.com, the forum was designed to give residents information about many of the town-owned buildings whose future uses and ownership are in question, and to open up lines of communication between taxpayers and decision-makers.

Engel agreed that a vote wouldn’t be the best move but said that the town does need a way to get more input from residents. He thanked NewCanaanite.com Editor Michael Dinan for co-sponsoring the event, which allowed residents to react to the report issued in December by the committee.

Engel said that he read all of the questions that were submitted by residents prior to the event and that many of them asked, “What’s the plan?” He then took an informal vote from the audience asking whether the town should create and publish a “master plan” for public buildings similar to the town’s Plan for Conservation and Development, which is published every 10 years. The majority of the audience indicated that a master plan would be useful.

Another resident asked officials how they plan to “accurately gauge the will of the residents” as they decide how the buildings will be utilized.

“I don’t think these decisions can be made behind closed doors without letting the public inside,” Ross said.

Moynihan said that any action taken will go through a process that includes a public hearing.

“Anything that we do is going to be transparent,” he said.

He also encouraged organizations, such as the New Canaan Historical Society, to provide officials with a list of the buildings that should be preserved ranked by priority.

Young urged residents to get involved in the decision-making process earlier rather that later.

“It will help us in establishing our direction,” she said. “To find out about the public being against something after the fact—after the process of research, development and proposal—is not the time to find out about it because people have other ways of experiencing a problem that the 12 of us on the Town Council or the nine on Board of Finance or the three on the Board of Selectmen have experienced, and so it’s important for us to understand those feelings and reactions to our proposals earlier in the process.”

One thought on “How Involved Should Residents Be in Deciding the Future of Public Buildings?

  1. Every fall, there is one or more election being held, last year was town council seats and selectman. This November 6th, we will be voting on state offices. Adding some local questions to an existing election ballot is not a hard or challenging task. The people of New Canaan, all the people, not just the ones who can come to an evenings presentation, deserve to have a direct say in how their monies are being spent on unique issues like what to do with our buildings. Each year, a few buildings, with two or three specific options for each, could appear. That would allow people to ‘let their elected officials’ know directly what they wanted done with their buildings and their money.

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