Grumbling to Power
Well, exhausting schedule notwithstanding, I’m at the Tiverton School Committee meeting because a concerned citizen is on the agenda to raise questions about the superintendent’s use of public resources to invite interested citizens to vote for higher taxes at the last financial town meeting.
Speaking of which, I see the town council is taking careful steps toward undermining the year-long efforts of the Charter Review Commission to come up with a potential alternative to such meetings:
“We need to let the citizens weigh in before we nix any of these proposals,” said council Vice President Donald Bollin, even though he and others said they would not support the main question that would ask voters if the annual financial town meeting should be replaced with an all-day referendum.
Council President Louise Durfee said that question is so “fatally flawed” that she couldn’t even bring herself to vote to have it heard at a public hearing.
If voters do not approve the budget at the all-day referendum, the proposed process calls for the previous year tax levy to be adopted and increased by a percentage equal to an indexing factor of no more than 4 percent.
Durfee contends that a “no” vote could have a chaotic effect on the town — “the likes of which we have not seen.”
Just in case your jaw didn’t drop, let me repeat that Town Council President Louise Durfee “couldn’t even bring herself to vote to have it heard at a public hearing.” The “fatal flaw,” apparently, is that citizens could limit budget increases to around four percent — which is about what state law will soon limit them to, anyway. It would seem that Ms. Durfee doesn’t take the state cap very seriously. (She must think that the small-government contingent in town has now been noticed and can be squashed as a matter of course in the future.)
To remedy this “fatal flaw” of citizen activism, the council proposed its own change to financial processes in the town, taking our government in completely the wrong direction:
A counter amendment to replace the annual financial town meeting was submitted by Councilman Brian Medeiros and calls for the Town Council to adopt an annual town budget, including the School Department budget. Any resident not happy with the budget could petition for a referendum that would have voters decide the dollar amount.
So the system would shift from a regular, expected, meeting at which everything in the budget is available for change to a representative-only decision that citizens would then have to petition (with signatures in the hundreds, probably) to vote on.
One can only hope that a goodly number of Tiverton residents will prove unable to bring themselves to return a majority of council members to their offices as election cycles go by.
ADDENDUM (8:00 p.m.)
The meeting is back in session. Rob Coulter will be taking the microphone after some regular business. The delay may prove to have been worth the time, though, because it gave some worthy candidates who’ll move the town government in the right direction a chance to gather signatures to appear on the ballot. Among those candidates were Rob, for Budget Committee, his wife Danielle, for School Committee, as well as a gentleman name Tom Parker for Budget Committee.
ADDENDUM (8:20 p.m.)
The difference between summer meetings and school-year meetings during teacher contract negotiations is palpable. It’d be nice, though, if the citizenry were sufficiently engaged to keep the meetings lively year-round.
ADDENDUM (8:35 p.m.)
Rob: “The morale of the town is pretty low, and this is an opportunity for this body to address what did or did not happen.” The council seems skeptical that “the town” is upset.
Denise DeMedeiros (chairwoman): “A group is upset, I’ll give you that.”
Rearick: “I think the confusion, if there is any confusion, is that a letter may have gone out on our letterhead that was not signed.”
DeMedeiros: “In my opinion, the more people that you get in that room at the financial town meeting the better.” Of course, especially if those voters might be inclined to “redo” the will of voters at the previous meeting.
Rob noted that the language of the committee’s messages suggested that the budget cuts should be “avoided.” DeMedeiros explained that it’s the school committee’s job to advocate for the school, and a budget cut is part of that.
The committee’s lawyer cited state law suggesting that the school committee communicate with the public. “Where public bodies get into trouble when they go out and hire a PR firm.” It’s the political campaign, he suggests, “to maximize the troops” that is contrary to policy and law. One wonders how a last ditch effort to undermine citizen unrest isn’t an effort to “maximize the troops.”
Committee member Leonard Wright has moved for Supt. Rearick produce a report on the use of town resources. Other members seem content with this current conversation.
DeMedeiros is trying to close the meeting. “This isn’t a public hearing.” Boos from the crowd.
Jeff Caron, of the Budget Committee, pointed out that school resources have been used to distribute PTO advocacy.
ADDENDUM (from home):
I’m no constitutional scholar, but it seems to me that the school committee admitted that the PTO frequently uses school resources, and it was an “oversight,” but not a travesty, that the group managed to send some of its advocacy out on official school letterhead. Be opinions on that as they may, no doubt the next budget cycle will see small-government groups permitted to send messages via school children also “offering information” to parents with regard to the need to vote on budgetary matters. Surely letterhead in the name of “Tivertonians for Non-Crushing Taxation” would be acceptable… so long as the message didn’t advocate a vote in any particular direction.