2017-06-22 / Front Page

Town mulls secret ballots for budgets

Process would be more inclusive, less combative, proponents say

Although his colleagues seemed unsure at first why the issue was on the agenda, Republican Councilman Blake Dickinson’s appeal stimulated a passionate debate about the financial town meeting.

Dickinson had asked to put the issue on the Monday night’s agenda because this year’s financial town meeting was in the rear-view mirror. According to Dickinson, the charter review committee recommended a handful of changes in 2016, and while nine amendments were approved during the November election, the councilors decided to put one looming question on the back burner.

“We need to move forward or reject it,” Dickinson said.

The issue surfaced when the committee presented its recommendations to the town councilors in June 2016. In the report, the panel indicated it reviewed alternatives to the financial town meeting, but instead chose to unanimously support a resolution.

The members “strongly recommended” the implementation of a paper or electronic ballot to approve town, school and combined budgets through an annual meeting or an all-day referendum. Also, warrants exceeding $50,000 would call for a secret ballot.

Sitting on that committee, which was disbanded following the presentation, was Dickinson, Arlene Petit, James Rugh, Edward Gromada, Anthony Antine, John Pagano and Mary Lou Sanborn. Councilwoman Mary Meagher was a non-voting member. Pagano was at Monday’s meeting to defend the committee’s plan to terminate the antiquated standing votes.

“It’s the year 2017,” he said. “This type of system was in place in 1898. It’s time to do a real vote.”

Gary Girard, a Republican on the board of canvassers, said public voting can be unsettling because his neighbors know which way he leans on certain issues, which can lead to confrontations.

“Look around,” he said. “Many people are intimidated and would rather have the privacy of their vote.”

Bill Munger, owner of Conanicut Marine, agreed with Girard. When Dickinson called for a paper ballot three weeks ago at the financial town meeting, 20 percent of the registered voters in the audience had to support the motion. The nod for paper ballot passed by standing vote, with Munger being one of those electors. Three voters sitting next to him, he said, asked why he stood.

“It didn’t bother me because I have thick skin,” he said. “But there were a lot of people in that room that don’t have thick skin. I don’t see the downside. I’m a traditionalist, but it’s time to move forward.”

Another argument was that a financial town meeting disenfranchises taxpayers because it only provides a small window to vote. Conversely, an all-day referendum allow residents to vote in the morning, afternoon or night, whichever is most convenient.

Council President Kristine Trocki took exception to that argument.

“I don’t think it’s fair to categorize the town meeting as non-representative,” she said. “If it’s important to you, you’ll come.”

A final argument was that if 2,500 registered voters attended the meeting, the Lawn School gymnasium would far exceed its capacity. Trocki, however, said there are measures in place to deal with that. Moreover, that hasn’t been a problem in the past.

“Until the day comes when that gym can’t hold it, then we can talk about what comes next,” she said. “That day hasn’t come. You’re a dog in search of a problem.”

Meagher recommended a “big discussion” on the issue, while Vice President Mike White said he “doesn’t really care one way or another” and Councilman Gene Mihaly supported the status quo with Trocki.

“I’m very proud of the process,” Trocki said. “Sorry if I’m being defensive, but I think it’s quintessential Jamestown.”

Ultimately, the councilors voted to schedule a special meeting dedicated to the practices and procedures of the annual budget meeting.

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