2011-07-28 / Front Page

Scope of public’s influence on line items unclear

BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN

The Charter Review Committee last week addressed a perplexing wrinkle that emerged during a meeting whose only purpose was the formal adoption of recommendations to the Town Council.

The panel had already decided to advise the council that the issues singled out for attention should be left as they are. Because of revelations brought forward during the meeting, the committee will also advise the council to review the contentious claim that the public has the power to affect municipal spending at the line-item level.

The committee, which met on July 21, will meet tonight to review its draft letter to the council. The panel had been given only a month to consider two major issues: budget-adoption procedures at Financial Town Meetings, and recall procedures, which don’t exist in the Town Charter.

The FTM issue had been raised by the Taxpayers’ Association of Jamestown, which wants the charter to require paper ballots for all voting. The recall issue was raised by resident Arthur Christman, who has concerns about “hidden agendas” among elected officials.

During its July 14 meeting, the committee voted 6-1 against proposing any FTM revisions because, among other reasons, none of the alternative budget-adoption methods in other Rhode Island towns seemed desirable or feasible for Jamestown.

The committee voted unanimously against recall procedures on the grounds that attempts to oust elected officials could take almost as much time as their two yearterms.

During the July 21 meeting, committee member Sav Rebecchi, who also serves on the School Committee, pointed out that School Committee terms run for four years. But the exception to the otherwise two-year terms for elected officials didn’t sway the charter committee to reconsider its decision on a recall proposal.

However, some Jamestown election history unearthed by Rebecchi persuaded the panel that its recommendations should include a topic that had not been part of its charge: budget amendments during FTMs.

The charter allows the public to propose budget amendments exceeding $10,000 – up or down – as long as the town is formally notifi ed that they will be offered at least 20 days before an FTM. Amendments in smaller amounts may be offered during FTMs without the required notice.

However, Town Council president and committee member Mike Schnack has previously argued that, because the charter vests “all powers of the town in an elected Town Council,” the public does not have the right to require the council to change a particular line item – even if a motion to change that line item passes during an FTM.

In that case, it’s still up to the council, Schnack maintains, to decide where the budget will be adjusted by the amount of money specified in the motion.

Jamestown voters seem to have felt differently on Nov. 5, 2002, when one of the ballot questions appeared to propose line-item powers for the general public as part of a Town Charter amendment to specify the 20-day notice required for large budget amendments offered at FTMs.

Question Number 35 in the 2002 election said, “Shall the Charter be amended to require that for any motion which seeks to increase or reduce any single appropriation recommended by the Council by $10,000 or more to be in order at the Financial Town Meeting, such motion must be presented to the town clerk at least 20 days prior to the Financial Town Meeting?”

Asked to provide the Press with the results for Question Number 35 in the 2002 election, town Canvassing Clerk Karen Montoya said the question was approved by a margin of 1,881 to 550 – with the “yes” votes representing 77.4 percent of registered voters and the “no” votes representing 22.6 percent.

The results of that ballot raise two obvious questions. First, are the words “any single appropriation” synonymous with “line item?” Second, if the words were intended to mean “line item,” does that mean the Town Charter must be revised to explicitly say that the public can offer motions to change line items?

Unfortunately, answering those questions will be deceptively diffi- cult because of a mystery surrounding the ballot question: The words in the question, Rebecchi said, deviate from the words submitted to the council by the Charter Review Committee of 2002. In fact, the 2002 panel had suggested language which is precisely the same as the “Town Meeting” language in the current charter.

In 2002, the town passed a ballot question with language that neither the charter committee nor the Town Council recommended. Does that mean that the Town Charter has to be changed to reflect the language of the 2002 ballot question?

That question, said committee Chairman David Long, should be forwarded by the council to Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero. “So, we will recommend to the council that they look at the discrepancy” between the language of the ballot question and the language of the charter.

Rebecchi could not suggest a reason why the wording of the committee’s 2002 recommendation to the council was changed on the ballot question, but “it would appear that the words ‘any single’ were added during the ballot creation process and overlooked when the sample ballot was sent in for review before the 2002 referendum.”

Rebecchi added that, given the large number of charter changes recommended to, and approved by, the 2002 council, “It’s conceivable that those two words could have slipped by the person or persons responsible for checking the accuracy of the ballot language.”

In fact, Rebecchi added, “The 2002 ballot was supposed to have a question asking if the charter language saying ‘there may be a Town Planner’ should be changed to ‘there shall be a Town Planner’ – but that [proposed] change was somehow lost and never placed on the ballot until it finally appeared on the 2009 ballot.” Because the FTM language in Question 35 on the 2002 ballot was supposed to become the language of the charter, “It will be up to the council and the town solicitor to verify which verbiage should be used in the charter,” Rebecchi said.

However, he questions the argument that the council has the final say on line items because both of the Town Charter sections (103 and 208) which say that town powers are vested in the Town Council include disclaimers saying, “Except as provided by this charter or by the laws and constitution of this state.”

The exceptions are relevant because it was a state-law revision that led to the prohibition against councils or FTM voters from changing line items in school budgets, Rebecchi pointed out. He added, “So the argument that [municipal] budgets should not be subjected to line-item changes because school budgets can’t be changed, that way, doesn’t hold water because it was the state – not the town – that decided to protect the line items in school budgets.”

Rebecchi also quoted from a letter submitted to the 1974 council in which Fred Clarke, who chaired the committee, which created the town’s original charter, wrote, “As our meetings progressed, a philosophy developed which is carried forward in this document.”

That philosophy, Rebecchi quotes Clarke as writing, “Is that ‘government should be responsive to the people and that the people should participate in government as much as possible. We therefore retained the Financial Town Meeting and the overall responsibility of the elected Town Council, who will be responsible to the needs of the electorate.’”

Rebecchi maintains that Clarke’s statement demonstrates, to him, that “any powers given to the Town Council are only intended to assist them in their ‘responsibilities’ to meet the ‘needs of the electorate.’”

Return to top