New Town Financial Meeting format is needed
We are nearing the annual town financial meeting, which is in June. It is hard to believe it has been eight months since the last heated town financial meeting. Despite record attendance, it is fair to say that most left that meeting very concerned about the general conduct and tone.
Now that time has passed and cooler heads prevail, it is worth discussing some steps that can be taken to make sure that chaos does not enter into the voting process again. Redefining the financial town meeting now is particularly critical because there is no doubt we will continue to face very diffi cult economic times ahead and decisions must be made in an environment of true democracy.
Some of the problems with the process and the format of the meeting format include the following:
First, it was unclear - and remains so – whether it should be the town manager or a member of the Town Council who facilitates and addresses issues raised by the audience. That evening, it was the town manager who represented the Council. We question at this point in the budget approval process whether Bruce Keiser should be answering for the Council. This leaves a big question whether or not Roberts Rules of Order for conducting public meetings was followed correctly.
Second, as crowded as the room was, the size of the room was not large enough to accommodate all the potential Jamestown voters should they have wanted to attend. Alternate locations should be considered for the next meeting.
Next, and perhaps most important, with voters and several nonvoters in the room, it was difficult to distinguish between voters and audience verbal yeas and nays. Coupled with no physical boundary, the venue made it difficult to distinguish audibly which side had the most votes. More importantly, this environment for small town meetings fosters divisiveness and mistrust in the outcome by the community. It also fosters intimidation of voting residents. It is difficult for many under these conditions to vote their conscience in front of friends, neighbors and coworkers who felt very passionately about key issues that evening.
There’s an opportunity to revisit the way this meeting is conducted so our registered voters feel positive about participating in town government – as we should all want them to do. We recommend moving away from voice votes to some sort of private voting system reserved to registered voters of Jamestown to allow them to vote freely without peer and social pressures that a verbal vote affects. This proposed change would not affect democracy. It must support both the will of the voters and adhere to the existing parliamentary procedures as proscribed by the general laws of Rhode Island and Jamestown.
How do we effect change? After successfully collecting at least 10 percent of registered voters signatures, the town is required to address this proposed charter amendment within 30 days. If the Town Council rejects or does not address this request, the proposed charter amendment must be presented to voters for approval in an election as is scheduled for November 2011.
The Taxpayers’ Association of Jamestown has taken the first step to amend the town charter by drafting a petition for voters to sign which states:
“We, the registered voters and citizens of Jamestown, petition the Town Council to amend the Town Charter in the following way: All issues, referendums, warrants, et al, to be voted on by the registered voters of Jamestown at the Town Financial Meeting, be accomplished through written ballots (secret ballots).”
We are now actively collecting signatures from voters. On Saturday, March 19, your friends and neighbors from the Taxpayers’ Association of Jamestwon will be available throughout town where you can stop by to ask questions, and if you agree, can sign our petitions to move this process to completion. We will be available at three locations: The Transfer Station, McQuade’s Marketplace and the corner of Narragansett and Conanicus Avenues.
Despite a desire to keep our small town financial meetings small, we must face the reality of different times and a different financial climate. It is clear that the town is going to have to make very tough financial decisions going forward. If we don’t want to tear this village apart over differences of opinion, we need to offer a more voter-friendly process that invites discussion and disagreement as prescribed by law, while at the same time offers registered voters the opportunity to cast their vote privately without offending or angering neighbors and friends.
Blake Dickinson is the president of the Taxpayers’ Association of Jamestown.