2017-06-29 / Editorial

Budget approval fine the way it is

Representative democracies take different forms in different parts of the country. The town hall-style meeting, such as our financial town meeting, is a historical New England method that dates back hundreds of years.

In an effort to what they believe is modernizing the system, the charter review committee last year recommended having a paper or electronic ballot to approve town, school and combined budgets at the annual meeting or an all-day referendum. They also proposed having all warrants exceeding $50,000 be conducted via secret ballot.

Proponents cited several rationales for the change, including the potential effect of people being intimidated by public voting or being disenfranchised because of the small window a financial town meeting offers people to be heard.

While having as inclusive a democracy as possible is something we always will support, we believe the current process provides those opportunities.

First, a paper ballot – as illustrated at this year’s meeting – is an option if a mere 20 percent of the qualified attendees support it. If enough folks have the courage of their convictions to oppose parts of either budget, that’s not a high bar to clear and far less than the 50 percent needed to actually defeat an item. Jamestowners also should be proud of the high level of decorum displayed at public meetings, and we don’t believe anyone should feel intimidated or ostracized for exercising their right to be heard.

Second, there are myriad budget meetings conducted by the town council and school board on their spending plans. Any resident can express their views/concerns at those hearings, and if not satisfied with the result that single individual can request a warrant to amend either budget for an amount of at least $10,000. An open, public discourse on any topic that rises to the level of a warrant should be welcomed by all.

Third, the financial town meeting allows for a nuanced discussion on individual items, especially if a warrant is presented, that can help the council or school board understand the residents’ priorities. An all-day referendum presents a binary choice – yes or no. If a budget was rejected, the rationale for the electorate’s decision may not be clearly known, whereas the financial town meeting allows the opportunity for dissenting voices to elucidate their positions to the very elected officials in a position to do something about it.

Finally, the cost of an all-day referendum would be about $3,500. Since the town and school budgets rarely are controversial, that seems to be an expensive solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.

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