The Kaleidoscopic Arguments Against Democracy
Last week, in Tiverton, the committee tasked to create an alternative to the financial town meeting (FTM) held a hearing on its proposal. Basically, the budget process would follow the same steps, with the Town Council and School Committee submitting budgets to the Budget Committee, which puts together a final request for the consideration of the electorate. However, rather than having a few hundred voters (many with direct financial interest in the outcome beyond their tax bills) gather together in the high school gymnasium and offer amendments before voting on final approval by a show of hands, residents would be able to stop by a polling place for an all day referendum during which they would vote on the budget using a private ballot.
The Town Council and School Committee could place alternatives in front of voters, as could any resident, with the signatures of at least 50 people. If no option wins a majority of the vote, either a run-off referendum would decide between the two highest vote getters or the previous year’s budget would remain in effect for another year, depending which version of the proposal the current Town Council and special-election voters approve.
Not surprisingly, the most interesting aspect of the hearing was the series of objections offered by members of the Democratic Town Committee, most of whom have been active advocates of the policies that have doubled property taxes in the past decade. Joanne Arruda — a former Town Council member, current Budget Committee member, and plaintiff in a lawsuit apparently intended to punish the leader of a local taxpayer group for his civic activities — complains that (in the reporter’s paraphrase) “anyone could get 50 signatures and put a budget before the voters.” (Over course, with the FTM, anyone can do the same without any signatures.) And current Town Council member Brett Pelletier thinks it should remain the job of elected representatives to prepare the budget. In short, the referendum would be too democratic.
Meanwhile, Carol Herrmann, currently a member of the School Committee (and herself a public-school teacher, in Westport, MA, I believe), complains that voters will only be able to vote on the budgets as presented on the ballot. That is, the referendum would not be democratic enough.
My favorite commentary is in the “not democratic enough” wing of the attack and comes from former Town Council member Louise Durfee, herself a plaintiff in the aforementioned lawsuit:
“There’s an elephant in the room and no one is talking about it,” she said. “Both of these proposals give the Town Council power over the budget that it has never had before.”
By eliminating the FTM, she said, just two members of the council would have veto power over any budget that goes over the cap, a possibility she saw on the horizon as pension contributions squeeze town and school budgets.
“Despite all the claims that this [referendum proposal] can increase participation, unstated and not disclosed is the other fact that under these proposals the budget control passes to the town council,” Ms. Durfee said.
The only reason that’s even arguably true is that her Town Council used every trick in the Rhode Island insider playbook, with some help from connections in the state bureaucracy, not to follow the plain meaning of the tax cap legislation. The referendum would close the loophole that allowed the Town Council to squeak by without taking the required 4/5 vote to exceed the tax cap, so the town would have to follow state law. In Durfee’s political view, that constitutes a power grab.
The best part is that her justification is a professed need for future money grabs: She expects the pension crisis to drive tax increases well above the state cap and wants as few hurdles as possible to ensuring that residents, not the town government, have to downsize their budgets.
With a referendum, Durfee and her crew would have to dominate town government or at least gather 50 signatures to place a massive tax increase on the ballot, persuade a majority of residents to vote for it, and convince six of the seven sitting Town Council members to let the people’s vote stand. With the FTM, as currently practiced, they can just follow their annual strategy of scaring a couple hundred town employees and heavy users of town services into taking a couple of hours to force their will on the other 15,000 of us.