2011-06-02 / Front Page

Changes made to Financial Town Meeting procedures

By Phil Zahodiakin

In an effort to prevent the misbehavior that disrupted last year’s Financial Town Meeting, Jamestown’s Board of Canvassers recently adopted a rule that will impact some of the people who attend this year’s meeting. The board, which met on May 23 to prepare for next week’s meeting, also changed one of the procedures involved with hand votes.

This year’s meeting doesn’t have a controversy as divisive as the animal control officer issue that bedeviled last year’s proceedings, but a petition to reduce the town and school budget is raising eyebrows because it could force the town to slash its capital spending budget by 50 percent, and force the Town Council and School Committee to decide which side of the budget absorbs the heaviest hit.

The meeting will be held on Monday, June 6, at the Lawn Avenue School gymnasium. It is scheduled to start at 7 p.m., although it remains to be seen if there will be any delays as the board members and their alternates implement the new rule, which will require people who haven’t registered to vote in the meeting to go to a room away from the gym.

Sav Rebecchi, a member of the School Committee and owner of the Jamestown Record Web site, will provide the room with a streaming video of the proceedings. The rule directing unregistered individuals away from the gym is intended to ensure that they don’t participate, or attempt to participate, in the voting.

Canvassing Clerk Karen Montoya recalls that during last year’s meeting she “had to get a policeman to stop unregistered people from voting.” She declined to predict if the rule would cause any disputes, but pointed out that the events at last year’s meeting was an aberration.

“The unregistered people at Financial Town Meetings have always been respectful in the prior years,” Montoya said, pointing out that May 7 was the last day to register for this year’s meeting.

Residents who would like to confi rm that they are registered to vote can visit the town Web site and click on “Voting” in the drop-down menu below “Town Government,” then open the “Registration Information” link and enter the requested information.

A second change adopted by the Board of Canvassers amends a procedure for hand votes. Unless there’s a motion for a paper ballot, which the public can offer at any point after the moderator announces the subject of a vote, the first ballot is always a voice vote. If the moderator is unable to discern a clear majority, the second ballot is a hand vote, which is counted section by section.

It was during last year’s hand voting on the animal control motions that some of the meeting participants rushed from one section of the gym to another in an attempt to vote more than once. The change in this year’s procedure is that the Board of Canvassers – not the moderator – will be responsible for counting the hands raised in each section of the gym.

It remains to be seen if anyone will request a paper ballot at this year’s meeting, but an issue that could spark the request is the Taxpayers’ Association of Jamestown’s warrant for a motion to reduce by $601,350 the combined fiscal year 2011-12 budget for the town and its schools.

The recommended budget increase for the town and its schools is $611,896. The association’s request to zero out all but about $10,000 of the recommended increase would have major consequences for some town projects. That’s because all but about $90,000 of the $459,717 increase recommended for the town budget is intended for capital expenditures.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said that the petition would force the town “to defer maintenance, purchases and investments in a number of very important areas. Our recommended capital-spending budget is about $1 million, and reducing that by nearly half would preclude road improvements, the replacement of aging vehicles, which will mean spending more on maintenance for them, fire station roof replacement, and other expenditures that will have to be made, eventually.”

“The petition, if it were to be enacted,” Keiser continued, “would also reduce or eliminate our setasides for affordable housing and a potential lawsuit to fight the proposed LNG terminal. Jamestown residents need to understand that all of the potentially affected expenditures are investments that the Town Council considered important for the maintenance of our assets and our ability to pursue important initiatives for the community – and that the [property] tax increase to support the recommended increase in our capital spending is just slightly over 1 percent – which is a minimal increase in the tax burden for what the Town Council determined to be worthy expenditures.”

If the association’s motion to reduce the budget passes, the Town Council and School Committee will have to decide how to allocate the reductions to their respective budgets.

Currently, the school’s share of the total recommended budget is 57.8 percent while the town’s is 42.2 percent. During the May 19 meeting of the School Committee, the discussions on this question led Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser to suggest allocating 75 percent of the requested reduction to the town and 25 percent to the schools, which would track the proportions of the budget increases recommended for the town and the schools.

Asked for his opinion of Kaiser’s recommendation, Keiser said, “It’s absolutely reasonable, but we won’t have time to sort that before the Financial Town Meeting. The Town Council and the School Committee would have to meet after the Financial Town Meeting to discuss that issue if the taxpayers’ association petition for their requested reduction passes.”

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