On Tuesday, Jan. 30, Plainville residents finally approved a $15.7 million upgrade to their water treatment plant which will help them to comply with the stricter federal guidelines for phosphorus removal. The special election referendum passed with an 86 percent approval once votes were tallied. One area newspaper even referred to it as a “landslide.”
This might be breaking news in Plainville, but for Southington residents it’s old news. Locals approved a $57.1 million update in 2016 to account for these changes in federal guidelines. This is one time when Southington residents should applaud our government officials. The way our town proactively addressed this federal guideline should serve as a template for proactively handling these sorts of votes.
Town councils and boards have limited powers in any town charter—whether it’s in Plainville or Southington—so it’s no surprise that referendums come up from time to time. In Southington, every bond ordinance, resolution, or special appropriation over $1 million needs to be decided in referendum. Any emergency ordinance over $50,000, any charter revision, and certain other issues must be decided by residents, not their representatives.
That’s why Southington’s handling of this process should be commended. The recent vote in Plainville drew only 224 of the 11,598 eligible Plainville voters. We’re not sure if a decision made by 2 percent of the electorate can ever be described as a “landslide.” In contrast, Southington’s 2016 landslide vote passed by a 72 percent margin with more than 20,000 people casting votes for the referendum. For more than a year before it reached the ballot, the issue was presented at town meetings, ironed out by town officials, residents, and qualified experts on the record. By the time it reached the electorate, Southington residents approved the project almost 3:1 with an 84 percent voter turnout.
So, why the difference in voter turnout? Is it because Southington voters are more civic-minded and engaged? No. It’s really more of a case of timing. Southington’s referendum was tied to the 2016 presidential and state elections by design. The referendum was announced before anyone even knew the candidates. Then, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton drew 84 percent of Southington voters to the polls.
Since 2010, Southington voters decided 18 referendum questions. Thirteen passed and five have failed. Questions ranged from state election laws and charter revisions to capital projects, funding, and contract definitions. Voter turnout was at least 30 percent in all but one referendum.
The one that didn’t draw voters was a referendum for the middle school renovation project. The vote was needed because of mistakes in the planning of an $85 million project and unforseen problems during construction. More money was needed, and it was more than $4 million. That 2013 referendum drew just 1,721 of the 25,792 eligible voters (just 7 percent). Why? Because it was tucked away on a March 3 ballot, the only one that didn’t coincide with a November election.
With good planning, open discussion, and responsible government, there is seldom a need for a special election for referendums. Had Plainville addressed the water project proactively—in the 2016 or 2017 general election—it probably would have turned out the same way, but the decision could have come from the community with more than 224 votes.
In this comparison between neighboring towns and their governmental procedures, Southington residents are the real winners. It was the only town to hold a true referendum.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer Editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.