2011-07-21 / Front Page

Panel advises no changes in FTM voting

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Charter Review Committee has decided to advise the Town Council against changing the voting rules for the annual Financial Town Meeting and developing procedures to oust elected officials. Town voters would have the final say on any such proposals, but it’s highly unlikely that the Town Council will offer them now that the panel has declined to propose any changes to the status quo.

The committee’s seven members, who met on July 14, voted to end their discussions on FTM revisions by a 5-1 margin. (Council President Mike Schnack, who is serving as the council’s liaison to the panel, is ineligible to participate in votes.) The motion to end discussions on recall procedures passed unanimously.

The committee will meet this evening to formally adopt its recommendation letter, which will advise the council to consider streamlining FTM procedures. But the advice falls short of the change requested by the Taxpayers’ Association of Jamestown, which had petitioned the council for a charter revision to require paper ballots for all FTM voting, as opposed to hand or voice votes.

The association had argued that the threat of intimidation had kept some people away from last year’s FTM because they didn’t want to reveal their positions on the controversial issue surrounding the animal control officer, or the 18 budgetcutting warrants that the group had proposed. Consequently, the association petitioned for a charter change requiring “secret ballots” for every vote.

But the association erred in its understanding that the charter could be changed by petitioning the council to put a requested change on the ballot in a special election or the general election held each November. In fact, the public may seek to amend or create an ordinance through a petition process, which leads to a public vote if certain criteria and thresholds are met. But there isn’t any process for the public to change the charter short of electing councilors who promise to support the changes.

While a council is free to ignore a petition for charter changes, Schnack said that any council which dismisses a non-binding charter petition with thousands of signatures would do so “at its own peril.”

Another problem with the association’s petition is that Rhode Island law governs, and preempts all local attempts to change, FTM voting procedures. Because the law does not govern budget votes held in frameworks other than FTMs, the committee reviewed the procedures in towns, which have abolished their FTMs.

The documents describing the procedures in those towns reflect “every permutation of the budget process known to man,” said committee member Bob Ullrich. However, all of the panel members felt that Jamestown’s FTM didn’t deserve to be scuttled and replaced with any of the other methods for budget votes.

“I didn’t see any procedures I’d want to adopt,” said committee member Dan Wright. “Charlestown converted its FTM to a budget meeting, but I don’t see any benefit in doing that because it just drags out the process if a budget is voted down.”

Committee Chairman David Long said, “I don’t think the other towns are doing anything better than we are, and there haven’t been any problems with our FTM except the last couple of years.”

Susan Little was the only committee member to vote against the motion to end discussions on the FTM piece of the panel’s charge. Saying she has “never been a fan of the FTM process,” Little said a change was warranted because, among other reasons, “I’m concerned about the lack of participation in our meetings. People I talk to like what North Kingstown does. If 5 percent of the registered voters sign a petition opposing something in the budget, the petition goes to the town council and, if the council doesn’t resolve the issue, they hold an all-day referendum.”

The participation argument didn’t sway the other committee members because an all-day referendum, which is likely to increase participation, would need default procedures to follow if a budget was voted down. However, given the July 27 deadline for the committee to finish its work, a majority of the members decided that there wasn’t nearly enough time to draft those procedures – which led to the motion for an end to the FTM discussions.

Before the members voted on the motion, they also discussed an ongoing controversy over demands for line-item adjustments during FTMs. During the 2009 meeting, a voter offered a motion to restore the funding for a full-time animal control offi- cer; and though the motion failed to pass, the council does not believe it would have been obligated to adjust the ACO line item if it had.

Section 103 of the Town Charter, Schnack pointed out, states: “All powers of the town shall be vested in an elected town council.”

“And the council is responsible for the budget,” Schnack said.

But committee member Sav Rebecchi disagreed. He said that there have been three occasions in the past decade when an FTM motion was offered for specific, line-item adjustments, so “it is my belief that [the passage of] a motion can cause a change in a line item,” Rebecchi said.

In response, Long said it struck him as unfair that the council could go through months of public hearings before recommending a budget – only to see a line item cut by as much as $9,999 (if the motion is offered on the night of the FTM) or $10,000 and up (if the intended motion is announced 20 days before the FTM).

Said Long, “If the Town Council can’t tell the School Committee what to cut and what to spend, how can one individual tell the council what to cut and to spend?”

Committee member and former Town Council president Julio DiGi- ando defended “someone’s right to say, ‘I want to cut $9,999 from the ACO budget, or the harbormaster’s budget,’” but expressed the view that the council wouldn’t have to cut any funding from those line items even if the motion passed.

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero, who was attending the committee meeting to answer legal questions, said the “problem is the way [Section 1106 of the Town Charter] is worded where it talks about increasing or reducing an appropriation recommended by the Town Council because it doesn’t specify overall budget or line item. There is some ambiguity there, and if you want the electorate to have the right to [propose] a line-item [adjustment], you can give them that. There’s no prohibition. But if you want to restrict them to the bottom line, this should probably be cleaned up.”

Schnack pointed out that “stretching the definition [of budget motions] to include line items would get rather messy,” and the idea didn’t have nearly enough traction to be included in the panel’s pending recommendations. Ideas that will be included in the forthcoming letter to the council are:

• Providing a printed agenda for everyone who attends an FTM so there isn’t any confusion about the evening’s proceedings. However, Ruggiero pointed out that under state law the town moderator has absolute authority over the proceedings; therefore, he or she wouldn’t be legally required to follow the printed agenda to the letter. Rebecchi said, “This year, the moderator agreed to some [vote-counting] changes before the meeting.” Long then asked the group, “What town moderator would object to an agenda?”

• Providing at least four voting machines, which would speed up voting drastically. This year it took 45 minutes for 389 voters to cast their paper votes on the taxpayers’ association budget amendment.

• Providing “better information” on the recommended budget and voting procedures before each FTM.

• Codifying FTM procedures by adding them to the Code of Ordinances.

The second of the committee’s charges – providing a recommendation on recall procedures – elicited far less discussion than the FTM debate. The recall charge was sparked by inquiries from resident Arthur Christman, who explained his position at the previous meeting by saying he was concerned about hidden agendas among elected officials.

During last week’s meeting, Rebecchi said, “I tried to see things from Arthur Christman’s point of view, and I think what motivates him and other long-time residents to be afraid is that there are people elected that he doesn’t know. Politics here used to be done at the deli, but that is going away, and I believe he’s afraid of people who come here and get elected without anyone knowing much about them and what their hidden agendas might be.”

But the committee members felt, as Wright has previously said, that the time to ferret out hidden agendas is available during the election process. If an unwelcome agenda emerges after the election, a recall process could require as much, or more, time than the time remaining in the official’s term. Consequently, the members decided to end their discussions on this charge without recommending any action by the council.

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