(Danbury News Times) Sen. McLachlan’s Public Alert Legislation is “Victory for Taxpayers”

July 11, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Danbury News Times

BETHEL — New language in the just-enacted state budget specifies how towns can use their public alert systems for budget votes, mirroring a local proposal unsuccessfully pushed by Bethel activist Billy Michael in 2012.

Michael proposed an “All or None Public Alert Ordinance” that would require all citizens be informed if some are informed because, he complained, the town’s education department used the alert system to urge only students’ parents to vote on the budget.

“This is such a victory for BAC (Bethel Action Committee) and for all the taxpayers of the state of Connecticut,” Michael said Wednesday. “The language is hauntingly similar to the ordinance I proposed. It means you can’t use a public notification system (just) to inform selected groups of citizens.”

The new language of Public Act 13-247 says “only community notification systems — not systems that reach only a subset of the entire community — are permitted to be used for the limited purposes of reminding voters of the time and location of upcoming referenda, the ballot question itself, and any previously authorized explanatory text describing the subject matter of the question.”

Further, the law allows only the chief elected official of the municipality to authorize the use of such a system for this purpose.

State Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, initiated the amendment after hearing not just from Michael, but other towns, including Windsor.

He said school districts were using their alert systems to remind parents of students to vote for the budget.

“It’s an unfair advantage to use government resources to notify some voters. If you are notifying residents, you need to call everyone, and that is what this bill does,” McLachlan said.

According to the state Election Enforcement Commission’s website, “the rules have changed for school administrators that utilize automated calling systems to remind parents and students about referenda. In the past, the law permitted such school-wide systems to be used for the purpose of sending time, date and place reminders concerning referenda to parents and students. As of July 1, 2013, superintendents and other school officials will no longer be permitted to use automated calling systems in this way.”

Michael made repeated complaints that it was not fair education officials could use the public notification system to remind parents to vote when not all residents were reminded. In the spring of 2012, he advocated for the all-or-nothing ordinance.

The town never adopted Michael’s proposal, but First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker said Wednesday the town adopted a rule to send out postcards to all residents alerting them about a budget vote. He said the new superintendent, Kevin Smith, stopped using the robo-calls to reach parents as his predecessor Gary Chesley had.

“This law has no effect on us now,” Knickerbocker said.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission may impose a civil penalty for violations.