Thursday, October 8, 2009

Select Board Seeks to Remove Safety Valve

From the looks of the Town Meeting warrant, the Select Board seeks to make some major changes to the freedoms currently afforded to the public:

Article 6: Change the date of the Annual Town Meeting to an unspecified date to be set by the Select Board.

Article 7: REMOVE the ENTIRE Referendum Procedure from the Town Charter.

The Referendum is a little-used procedure. It is a safeguard. It states, in part: "No final vote of a town meeting on any warrant article, except:(...); shall take effect until after five days from the dissolution of the town meeting. If a petition seeking a referendum vote on any article is not filed with the select board within the said five days, the votes of the town meeting shall then take effect."

What does it mean? If Town Meeting voted to institute Stupid Bylaw X, then 3% of the voters could petition to have that decision placed on an election ballot. Then, if voters who voted at an election decide to scrap Stupid Bylaw X, they can. If they want to keep it, they can.

Without that referendum procedure however, the Select Board removes a valuable and much requested check & balance. As Clerk of the Charter Commission, I kept detailed notes on our deliberations. Among them include the following.

"Charter Commissioners noted that the number [of Petitioners required to start the Referendum] needs to be high enough to prevent abuse, yet low enough as to be attainable should Town Meeting vastly underestimate the will of the non-attending public" (10-29-03)

Two members "expressed concern that the town voters might use the opportunity to reconsider Town Meeting decisions at the ballot box too frequently." (3-9-04; see also 12-17-03). Clearly that has not happened.

Others called it a "safety valve" (10-29-03, 11-5-03, 12-17-03 )

"Reasons for including the referendum in the charter: no one at the hearings indicated that they disliked this procedure; they were asking questions to clarify it because it is something new. Since Massachusetts General Law requires Special Town Meetings be held if only 200 voters petition for one, the town needs a different safety valve that allows for more people to vote, even with absentee ballots. Special Town Meetings do not allow for absentee ballots. The Referendum procedure is in place to “compete” with, or serve as an alternative to, Special Town Meetings. If the town tried to live with this provision for a few years and decided that it doesn’t work as anticipated, the town could remove this provision" (12-17-03, emphasis mine).

How common are referendum procedures elsewhere? "
Marilyn Contreas (Senior Policy Analyst for the Dept. of Housing and Community Development) ...said that they are very prevalent." (11-12-03, emphasis mine)

"It is the ultimate check on a town meeting run amok" (7-23-03, emphasis mine).

SO WHY does the Select Board want to REMOVE this important right of the people?

According to the warrant, "By deleting this section, the Town gains more time for budget deliberations and to enable the annual election to be conducted before the end of the school year."

This is NOT a good reason, since nothing in the referendum procedure prohibits the election from happening before the end of the school year. Referendum elections may be held as special elections or as part of a general election. No law requires them to be held with a general election. Town leaders have connected the one time a referendum was used with a general election, but that was a choice, not a requirement. The Select Board's reasoning attacks a problem with the wrong weapon.

The Charter Commission set the date of Town Meeting for "the last Tuesday in April"....Perhaps the Select Board would like to have Elections come AFTER Town Meeting, so they cannot be held accountable by the voters for their actions/inactions at Town Meeting?

Who knows....what does matter however, is that the Select Board would like to take away a hard-won right of the people to protest stupid decisions that do not represent the voters.

In addition to Articles 6 and 7, Article 8 also aims to gut the Charter's protections for access to information. By cutting in half the time requirements for descriptions of items on the warrant, the Select Board shortens the public's time to review the items they will vote on.

What to do? Well, voting NO on these articles SAVES our freedoms.

Respectfully submitted,
Rebecca M. Townsend

No comments: