Looking Back: Not a rubber stamp

The New England Town Meeting was not intended to be a rubber stamp.

It was started by New England Yankees as an antidote to fiats or what we now see in countries like Russia, China & (soon) Turkey wherein the people’s “representatives” simply rubber stamp what is presented for approval. Never is there a negative vote. The “fix” is in before the meeting, the outcome a foregone conclusion. It only has propaganda value. It is simply for show.

Begun in 1633 “The informal, majority-rules forum became a foundation of early American democracy and they are still used throughout the country today.” Source: smithsonianmag.com

“A town meeting is a form of direct democratic rule [one man, one vote], used primarily in portions of the United States — principally in New England — since the 17th century, in which most or all the members of a community come together to legislate policy and budgets for local government.” Source: participedia.net

That’s the historical background.

Otherwise what comes from the leader(s) of the Town Meeting becomes a “Dictat [...] This technique hopes to simplify the decision making process by using images and words to tell the audience exactly what actions to take, eliminating any other possible choices.” Source: en.wikipedia.org

And that is exactly what happened at this year’s Town Meeting.

Our Town Charter, Section 10-1 (c) stipulates:

The annual capital and operating budgets of the Board of Education and 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 item, but it may not increase or add to any line item or establish any additional line item. Source: Town of Ridgefield, CT Finance and Taxation

But that didn’t happen. It was “interpreted” by town counsel, and transmitted by the First Selectman, that the only way a registered voter at the Town Meeting could offer a motion to reduce the $90 million school budget (which would require discussion and a vote) is by referring to a line item in that budget.

But just look at the April 20th, 2017 issue of the Ridgefield Press budget presentation. You will note that there are line items for the town side of the budget but not for the education budget. The school budget is presented as a whole.

State statutes do not permit anyone — even BoS or BoF members — to reduce any educational line item. The only people who can address line items in the school budget are members of the Board of Education which is appropriate.

So when one member of the audience at this year’s Town Meeting offered a motion to reduce the school budget as it was presented (i.e. as one of the seven line items of the entire budget) it was ruled out of order. Whether you agree with a reduction or not, the motion was never allowed discussion nor vote by the voters present at the Town Meeting. This is what is known as a catch-22 and undercuts the historic intent of the Town Meeting.

Does this make sense to you? It doesn’t to me because it means the Town Meeting vote has been reduced to a diktat and has nugatory value and is a total waste of time. At this point it should be abolished and end the New England tradition that began in 1633. Is that what you want for Ridgefield? I don’t.

What should happen is that the Charter should be amended to indicate that voters at a Town Meeting can offer reduction or deletion motions on any item presented for a vote.

This, then, would obviate any interpretation which might become politically suspect and would maintain our long held tradition of direct democracy.