2011-06-30 / Front Page

FTM voting procedures scrutinized

By Phil Zahodiakin

Well aware that their time is short, the members of Jamestown’s reconstituted Charter Review Commission kept a sharp focus on initial steps and work products during its inaugural meeting last week. The panel, which met on June 23, has been directed by the Town Council to develop recommendations on two topics: recall procedures and voting rules at Financial Town Meetings.

The council will review the commission recommendations in August and decide if they should be offered to the town’s voters as charter amendments. A vote on proposed amendments could be held during this November’s election, or, if the council doesn’t decide on the recommendations in time to put them on the ballot, they could be offered to the voters in a special town meeting.

The group re-elected David Long, who is a former Town Council president, as its chairman. Dan Wright was elected vice chairman; and current Town Council President Mike Schnack was elected secretary. The other members of the panel are former Town Council President Julio Di- Giando, Susan Little, Sav Rebecchi and Robert Ullrich.

The group, which will meet on Thursdays at 6 p.m. for the duration of its mission, has been directed to submit its recommendations to the council by July 27. The council reconstituted the commission largely in response to the Taxpayers’ Association of Jamestown petition to change the voting rules for the Financial Town Meeting.

The association had hoped to launch the procedural steps necessary to change FTM voting rules in time for next year’s meeting. Recall procedures were added to the commission’s charge in response to inquiries from resident Arthur Christman.

Commission discussions on the meeting topic dominated the meeting. The discussions included references to last year’s meeting, which was relentlessly chaotic because – among other reasons – some residents were afraid to vote in a way that publicly revealed their position on the controversial animal control officer issue.

The taxpayers’ association argued that the threat of intimidation kept some people away from last year’s meeting. Consequently, the association petitioned for a change in the rules to limit all voting to paper ballots, which are kept anonymous.

Schnack noted that association members have also asserted that residents were turned away from last year’s meeting because the Lawn Avenue School gymnasium was filled to capacity, but he dismissed the allegation as a “misperception of disenfranchisement.” Schnack blamed the chaos at that meeting on what he described as “less than highly professional” management by the town moderator.

Nevertheless, the commission will now explore the options for changing the rules – including the option of abolishing the Financial Town Meeting and replacing it with all-day balloting.

Long remarked that the meetings are “a nostalgic thing, a community ceremony. But we have to balance nostalgia with the effectiveness of the meetings.”

He added, “I don’t want to see FTMs disappear, but I don’t want people driven away [because of inconvenient timing or other reasons].”

Ullrich remarked that the voice and hand voting at town meetings “date back centuries,” and Long observed that historical procedures have not been interfacing with current technology. Rebecchi pointed out, however, that “there is technology for people to register their cell phone numbers and to vote by dialing one number for ‘yes’ and another number for ‘no.’

“We live in a campus-sized community,” Rebecchi continued. “Is it appropriate for a community our size to hold all-day referendums? What happens if we switch to all-day referendums and a budget doesn’t pass?”

Rebecchi also pointed out that, during this year’s meeting, “178 people voted for a paper ballot but only 40 people [voted] ‘no’ [on the budget], which suggests that some people still felt intimidated.”

Under state law, paper ballots may not be held unless a motion for a paper ballot receives a “yes” vote from at least 20 percent of the voters. That’s just one of the town-meeting rules stipulated by state law, which may preclude Jamestown from changing its charter to revise meeting procedures.

“Will the law allow us to deviate [from its stipulated rules]?” asked Dan Wright, prompting Susan Little to say, “If state law is so rigid that you don’t have any latitude for change, we may have to go to something that supersedes state law.”

As one of its first work products, the members agreed to look at the state law governing meetings and develop a list of questions on potential constraints for Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero to answer. The members will also review the formats for budget votes in other Rhode Island towns, with a particular focus on any of their alternatives to meetings.

A potential wrinkle in the commission’s overall effort, Town Clerk Cheryl Fernstrom informed the panel, is newly introduced legislation to amend the state’s election laws. The bill, Fernstrom explained, “Would place any town referendum under the state’s general election rules,” which means that the state’s existing rules would be superseded by, and replaced with, the applicable regulations in general-election rules.

Schnack reminded the group that Jamestown’s meeting – despite the opportunity for the public to offer financial amendments – is limited to one basic question: Whether or not the town should adopt the budget recommended by the council.

“It’s not direct democracy,” Schnack said. “The public doesn’t have the right to change any line items. The Town Council has the final say over expenditures, and when people say, ‘I want to add money for a full-time ACO,’ they’re saying something they really can’t do. It’s up to the council to decide.”

Reminded that a recommended budget was once amended with the addition of $30,000 for the Fire Department, Schnack said, “Yes, but it was a council decision to add the money to the Fire Department’s appropriation.”

Another question the commission will consider is the timing and duration of the meetings. Resident and taxpayers’ association member Mary Jo Diem informed the panel that “many people who signed our petition [for a change in FTM procedures] said they wouldn’t be free to vote at the FTM [under the assumption that the requested Charter change could be offered for a vote at a meeting].”

Little expressed the view that “holding the FTM on one night of the year is limiting. There are people who would go to voting booths but they really don’t want to sit through a long meeting.”

In their brief discussion of the recall issue, the members asked Fernstrom to provide them with the recall procedures used by other towns. The members plan to review those procedures at tonight’s meeting, albeit with some reluctance. That’s because, as Wright pointed out, the amount of time necessary to implement recall procedures is nearly as long as the term of the town’s elected officials. Nevertheless, the members will research the issue.

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