Procedure and protest dominate Annual Town Meeting debate

Motion, amendment, reduce the school budget — out of order. Question, point of order, challenge the chair’s ruling.

Spending skeptics gave local democracy a workout at Monday night’s Annual Town Meeting, but came away with no budget reductions.

Despite questions, procedural challenges and speeches, the meeting sent uncut versions of the town, school, and road maintenance budgets to the Tuesday, May 9, referendum. The 2017-18 operating budgets total $141.5 million.

The meeting also approved over $1.3 million in smaller capital spending items — trucks and mowers, roof and dam repairs. And it sent four questions to Tuesday’s referendum on nearly $3.9 million in additional capital spending for larger purchases and projects — renovations to the fuel depot, water damage in the recreation center walls, purchase of a new school phone system, and a Branchville redevelopment plan.

A trio of veteran budget critics — Jan Rifkinson, Ed Tyrrell and John Early — tried to hack their way through a thicket of adverse procedural rulings to get spending reduced, or at least force a vote on a spending cut.

No cuts made it to the floor.

“There is no reason for us to vote. This is like a circular firing squad,” a frustrated Rifkinson said.

The meeting in the Ridgefield Playhouse was attended by 119 registered voters — as well as a few non-voters — and lasted two and a half hours.

Contested ruling

Rifkinson’s remark came after moderator Sharon Dornfeld ruled that a motion to reduce the school budget — before sending it to voters at the referendum — was out of order.

Early had proposed sending referendum voters an amended version reduced to “$90,374,229, exactly the same number as last year.”

Early displayed charts showing education performance and spending levels for different nations around the world.

“There is virtually no relationship between spending and performance,” he said. “The U.S. is the third biggest spender, and its performance is below average.”

But Dornfeld ruled the amendment out of order, based on First Selectman Rudy Marconi’s testimony that the town attorney had said the town charter allows the meeting to reduce the budget only through motions addressing specific line items.

The debate focused on charter language:

“The annual capital and operating budgets of the Board of Education and the Board of Selectmen as recommended by the Board of Finance shall be brought to the Annual Town and Budget Meeting for discussion and then sent to referendum. The meeting shall have the power to decrease or delete any line items, but it may not increase or add to any line item or establish any additional line items.”

Marconi said the town attorney had ruled this language prohibited a motion to reduce the entire school budget.

“If there is a motion to decrease, it must be on a line-item basis,” Marconi said.

‘They do not exist’

Early objected, referring to the finance board’s legal notice on the budget in the April 20 Ridgefield Press, where the school budget appears as a single line, with no spending breakdown provided.

“There are no line-item details below that could be amended. They do not exist,” Early said.

Tyrrell, seconder of Early’s motion, seconded his objection as well.

“The Board of Education budget is a single line item,” he said.

“There’s been a ruling by the town counsel that this is not a line item,” Dornfeld said.

“I’m going to rule this is not a proper amendment, based on an opinion of town counsel, as reported by Mr. Marconi.”

“Madam chairman, I appeal the decision,” said Early.

“I think we don’t have the town counsel’s opinion,” Rifkinson objected, “we have it related to us.”

Marconi said that just that afternoon town counsel David Grogins had advised unambiguously that a motion to reduce a budget’s total should not be accepted as proper.

He said, ‘Absolutely not. It has to be on a line-item basis,’” Marconi said.

“I’m not making that up,” he added.

RIfkinson argued that the ruling left the school budget, in effect, locked away from adjustment by voters.

“Can you tell me when I have an opportunity to vote on individual line items?” he asked.

Dornfeld said numerous public hearings had offered citizens the opportunity to discuss the budget in detail.

“That’s different than voting,” Rifkinson said.

“The speakers are obfuscating the issue,” protested Susan Cocco, the former Democratic town chairwoman. “I respect the opinion of town counsel, and I respect the ruling of the chair. I’d like to support what the chair has done and move this meeting forward.”

Fair and square

Dornfeld, however, gave the critics a chance. She threw it to the meeting to decide whether her ruling was appropriate.

Dornfeld’s ruling was upheld on a vote in which people held up bright green squares of paper that had been given to registered voters as they entered the meeting.

The vote was 57 “aye” in support the moderator’s decision — that an amendment to reduce the school budget was out of order — and 17 “nay” against it.

Spending debate

The meeting also debated on the substance of spending issues.

“We’ve put in 39% more real revenue into our school over the last 13 years. Did we get anything for it?” said John Early. “Our SAT scores are basically flat — no change.”

Tyrrell argued for a budget reduction by pointing to Redding and Wilton  — one with no increase and the other with a budget that went down slightly.

“They responded to falling enrollment by decreasing union employees,” he said.

Ridgefield hasn’t translated years of falling enrollment into reduced staff or lower budgets, Tyrrell said, with the school enrollment decreasing 591 students over a dozen years, as the staff increased by over 77 positions.

(Tyrrell later said his statement was based on the years from 2004-05 to 2016-17, when enrollment fell from 5,494 to 4,903, and staff grew from 645.9 to 722.3.)

“We have to take matters into our hands, as our charter allows,” Tyrrell said.

“...The Board of Education can live with a zero increase.”

Pro-school speakers also made points.

I deeply respected the time and energy that went into making a case against the school budget,” said Rayda Krell  — but she disagreed, as the mother of an eighth grader and a 10-year-old.

“They’re getting an excellent education, but it’s not fancy,” she said.

“Our teachers are out there every day to meet the needs of our kids,” she said. “It takes investment, it truly does.”

She added, “Many of us moved here because of these schools.”

Melanie Pearl supported School Superintendent Karen Baldwin’s decision-making on the budget.

“She’d tried to keep money in the classroom,” Pearls said.

Tom McManus said budget critics were misguided in comparing Ridgefield’s budget increases to the national inflation rate of about 2% as reflected in the Consumer Price Index — there’s a school-specific inflation measure that focuses on education.

“It’s not a Ridgefield issue, it’s a national issue. Education is costing more,” McManus said.

“The CPI for elementary and high school education has been rising about 5% a year, and Ridgefield is not out of line.”