2011-07-07 / Front Page

Charter panel to seek legal help

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Charter Review Commission last week held its second round of discussions on potential revisions to the voting rules for annual Financial Town Meetings, with much the same result as the outcome from the first meeting: a consensus that the revisions can’t be seriously considered until the panel gets an opinion on its legality.

To that end, the panel decided to invite Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero to attend the next meeting of the commission and offer his opinions on the issue.

The commission, which met on June 30, also addressed the second of its charges: providing the Town Council with a recommendation on a requested adoption of procedures to recall elected officials. The Jamestown resident who requested the procedures, Arthur Christman, was invited to explain the reasons for his proposal.

Most of the deliberations focused on voting procedures in the Town Charter, which says paper ballots may only be held if 20 percent of the voters present at Financial Town Meetings vote in favor of them. The language is specified by state law, but the Taxpayers’ Association of Jamestown petitioned the council for charter changes requiring “secrecy” for every vote. It was this petition that led the council to reconstitute the commission.

Two of the commission members – Chairman David Long and Susan Little – were unable to attend. Vice Chairman Dan Wright, who filled in as chairman, noted that Town Moderator Jim Donnelly had submitted for the first of the commission’s meetings a letter saying the rules for paper ballots are “a matter of state law” and can’t be changed by amendments to the Town Charter.

Commission member Bob Ullrich asked if, instead of changing the charter, the town could adopt paper ballots by offering the idea to the town as referendum, and requiring at least 20 percent of the voters to support it.

Wright, who is an attorney, replied that he didn’t think a referendum would satisfy the law, adding, “My suspicion is that the moderator is right. We can’t just contravene the state rules. So, we could scrap the Financial Town Meeting, but we won’t be able to have secret ballots by default” if the ballots are not mandated by state law.

As part of its research for the meeting, the panelists and Town Clerk Cheryl Fernstrom looked into various data and documents to inform the discussions. The research revealed, among many other things, that attendance at financial town meetings in the state is not strong.

One of the documents discussed during the meeting was sourced from the Planning Division of the state’s Office of Local Government Assistance. The document, which points out that 14 towns have “abolished” such meetings, breaks out the 2008 attendance numbers for the other 17. Of those, the towns with the highest percentage of registered voters going to its meeting were Tiverton (population of 1,744) and Little Compton (2,849), each of which had 7 percent attendance. Block Island (1,461) followed those towns in the rankings with 6 percent attendance.

Three towns tallied 4 percent; four towns (including Jamestown) tallied 3 percent; one town tallied 2 percent; and the others all came in at 1 percent. This year, there were 389 registered voters at Jamestown’s FTM, or 7 percent of its year-round population of 5,400.

The numbers, said commission member and Town Council President Mike Schnack, “are astounding,” noting that Jamestown’s meeting used to run 20 minutes until “small groups politicized them and they became divisive and ran all evening. That’s one of the reasons to get rid of them.”

Commission member Sav Rebecchi responded by asking if Schnack was proposing a “severe” reaction to the petition, or “do we want to come up with solutions” for meeting problems.

“I’m not advocating that we get rid of them,” said Schnack. “I’m saying there’s a perception among some people who say, ‘Let’s just forget it if the meetings are going to be hijacked like that,’ especially when so few people participate. But it’s interesting that more people participate when [meetings] become politicized because the political issues resonate with people and bring out more of them.”

Last year’s meeting was politicized by animal control officer supporters whose misbehavior dominated both the meeting and the town moderator. This year’s meeting didn’t have a controversy as divisive as the ACO issue, but there were “a lot of questions in people’s minds as to whether or not the [voting] procedures were properly followed.”

Nevertheless, there were fewer procedural problems at this year’s meeting, and Rebecchi attributed the improvement to the Board of Canvassers, which had agreed to count any and all nonpaper ballots, which were previously counted by the moderator.

Rebecchi suggested the possibility of assigning more procedural responsibilities to the canvassers, prompting Wright to wonder if that would improperly wrest some authority from the moderator. Nevertheless, added Wright, “We should look into it.”

Discussions on the adequacy of Jamestown’s efforts to notify residents about the budget recommendations before a financial meeting, along with some commentary on the budget-adoption procedures in towns without meetings, led commission members and former Town Council President Julio DiGiando to say, “The only thing that’s broken with our FTM is the voting process. It’s a cumbersome process. I don’t think people want to sit through a four-hour meeting when they know there’s a hockey game on TV.”

Wright pointed out that, after further “digestion” of the procedures in towns with and without meetings, “We can recommend tweaks to what we’re doing. But, if our recommendations require an interpretation of state law, we can send the recommendations to Peter Ruggiero. We could also invite him to sit in on our next meeting.”

Although the meetings of the Charter Review Commission are open to the public, they are not open for public comments. In the case of discussions on a recommendation for procedures to recall elected officials, however, the panel made an exception and invited Christman, who had sparked the commission’s charge with his inquiries, to address the members.

“I don’t have any qualms with this [Town] Council,” Christman said. “They’re doing a good job. My problem is ‘back-door’ politics. What I would like to do is make [the criteria for a recall] more stringent. Not [just] felonies, or whatever.”

He continued: “I see a lot of ‘I’ problems, ‘me’ problems, and ego problems, and I want to get rid of that. I think that recall [procedures] are needed not just for elected officials, but for members of all committees because everyone on those committees has an agenda. I’m looking out for the silent majority. That’s the problem. The silent majority is silent. Give the voters a chance to vote on [a charter amendment for recall procedures]. If they shoot it down, I’ll take the loss. But give them a chance to vote on it.”

Asking for clarification, Rebecchi said to Christman, “What I think I hear you saying is not necessarily that there’s a person [on the council or a town committee] that you would like to see go, but you’d like to see recall procedures in the future so people know that if they don’t do their job, they can be removed?”

“Absolutely,” Christman replied. “There’s got to be checks and balances.”

Christman later repeated that “there are a lot of conflicts of interest on the committees,” singling out the Harbor Management Commission as an example. Schnack replied, “Just to interject, I served on that commission when I was the council liaison, and I had the thought that it is one of the most inherently conflicted commissions on the face of the Earth, and if you look at the way its rules are written, it’s by design.”

Rebecchi said that, when he first started attending town committee meetings 10 years ago, he, too, observed “self-interest and personal agendas” among the members. “But, as time has gone on, I started to believe that it’s OK for people to have agendas because they’re forced to be involved in other decisions [beyond those affecting their agendas] and that makes them better committee members and less agenda driven.”

Nevertheless, the commission’s charge, Wright pointed out, is limited to elected officials, so only members of the council and School Committee, along with the town moderator, would be subject to any recall procedures that the panel recommends.

At this point, the recall proposal hasn’t gained traction among commission members because their brief review of the procedures in 15 towns with recall procedures indicates that some of the procedures, such as those in Middletown, aren’t even available to town residents until six months before town elections, which raises the question, as Schnack said, “Why waste your time?”

There is agreement among the panelists that in cases of egregious or criminal behavior, the town would initiate whatever steps were necessary to remove the offending officials. However, in cases that don’t rise to that level, “Maybe people should just pay close attention during election campaigns,” Long said.

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