The Town Meeting held on June 2 was, sadly, a disorganized repeat of the failed virtual town meeting of May 17 that adjourned to June 2. After the virtual meeting, one would have expected our town leaders to hold an organized, tightly controlled, by the book meeting. That didn’t happen. There were several missteps, some preventable, some a function of our Town Charter. We now know that our Charter requires serious review and change as soon as possible.
Per the Charter, at least 250 eligible voters must be present for votes to be cast. This was the first place the meeting went awry. Unfortunately, the Notice and Warning of the reconvened meeting made no mention of or allowance for the parking challenges residents would face. A long walk from the Amity High School parking lot delayed many people from arriving at the fire house by 6:30 pm, the noticed start time. The Moderator acknowledged the parking challenge and authorized more time for people to check in. Shockingly, the Town Attorney attempted to shut down the check-in process notwithstanding the Moderator’s decision. Only due to an outcry from people witnessing this attempt at voter suppression were those latecomers allowed to be counted and the minimum of 250 voters was reached.
There were other games played related to the magic 250 threshold. The most visible were those people who physically left the counting area as motions were raised so they would not be included in the vote total. This was an obvious effort to reduce the total voter count below the 250 minimum and invalidate any vote taken. To intentionally step out of the room to sabotage a vote count is insulting to our town’s democratic process and those who want to participate.
It is clear from these back-to-back town meeting failures that the current method of the townspeople giving our final blessing to the town budget is unworkable. The physical (or virtual) method of counting heads and votes clearly failed. The Charter-prescribed vote on each line item of the budget may have worked in the days of less-detailed budgets, but it does not work now. Further, the line-by-line approach, however unintentionally, potentially pits one group in town against another (for example, advocating for funding for senior activities versus recreation for the youth or public works versus the Beecher budget). The whole process is so complicated that, by default, it nearly guarantees no changes to the budget at the only meeting where people can vote for or against it.
So where do we go from here? Seeing what has just transpired, town leaders would be wise to assemble a Charter Revision Commission to review the annual budgeting process, especially the process for approval. Some parts of the Charter lay out the obligations and timelines of the Board of Finance, including the preliminary budget hearing held in April. The last speaker at the June 2 meeting correctly pointed out that residents have not raised many concerns via the April hearing process in recent years. Perhaps the town should make a better effort to communicate the preliminary budget to the public and allow opportunity for emailed comments rather than limit comment to in-person statements on a specific date and time. For the Republican Town Committee’s part, we commit to sending out email blasts to alert residents to future budget hearings.
Whatever improvements are warranted on the budget comment process, the Charter’s prescribed process for approving the annual budget must be changed. Specifically, the budget approval process must be simplified. We are already voting by referendum for the Amity budget as a whole, so why not do the same for the Town budget? Requiring people to attend a single meeting at a specific time in the middle of the week to vote on the budget is very restrictive. It’s a throw-back to simpler times with a smaller town population, but it needs to be updated. A referendum vote opens the door for many more people to vote and allows for absentee voting.
The bottom line is that voters know their own budgets and how much they can afford to pay in taxes. A total budget vote is a simple way to tell Town leaders if the proposed town budget fits with their own. If we change the Charter in this way we can put the voters back in charge, where we should be.