Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Whither Democracy

Whither democracy? Are town meetings a vestige of the past?
We are fortunate to live in New England where town citizens have a degree of control over the local taxes they pay that is unprecedented in other parts of the country.  We decide how much we will be taxed in town meeting.  A group of citizens is appointed by our elected town councilors or select board to serve on warrant committees to review proposed budgets for our communities, make recommendations to our elected officials and to the greater public at town meeting.  This is a position held seriously as a component of New England democracy.  Those who serve attain greater insight into how monies are used, how monies are saved, and how their respective communities plan for future long term needs. Warrant committee members get to know department directors as they explain details of budgets.  Warrant committees also meet with the local school boards, school principals to better understand school budgets and encourage savings.
As Island warrant committees meet they soon learn structural constraints on what the committees can do. The county portion is fixed; so too is the high school budget.  An irony of the reorganization of our schools is that we were fortunate enough to retain the ability on the island to choose elected boards for our individual schools, but we limited our ability to share resources to save money.  Even though the warrant committees are unable to make changes to the county budget, the process for determining that budget is indeed democratic.  The County Budget Committee is composed of citizens and elected officials from throughout the county.  When it makes a recommendations by at least a 2/3rds vote, the county commissioners may override the recommendations only by a unanimous vote of the three Hancock County Commissioners. 
As crowds have thinned in our Island town meetings, some have openly wondered in the value of a town meeting given these constraints.  They should wonder even more considering a tiny change in wording of the warrants in Southwest Harbor.  At the town meeting citizens discovered that no longer could the Warrant Committee recommend citizens appropriate a higher amount than the Select Board. A recommendation by the Warrant Committee to appropriate $25,000 more for capital improvements clearly printed in the annual report was for naught.  The wording of all the warrants had been changed since last year to prohibit any spending over and above what was specifically stated in the warrant by the select board.  Many warrants in Maine read something like, "To see what sum the Town will vote…"  In the new Southwest Harbor warrants, the amount is specifically stated.  This means that once the selectmen make a decision in January during their meetings, the town meeting becomes a plebiscite.  What if you voted no?  It's true someone on the floor could amend the warrant to a lower amount but not to a higher amount to be raised.  Now it may be a little bit odd to be in a position to want to raise more revenues--that is raise your own taxes, but at times we have done just that.  Southwest Harbor citizens decided to appropriate more money for the library than recommended by the Select Board and the Warrant Committee one year.  I bet other towns on the island have done so as well. 
Many years ago the Select Board members would make a recommendation and then the Warrant Committee would do so and move the question.  Now the Select Board makes a recommendation after the warrant committee and moves the question.  It is a very subtle difference.  The earlier way asserted more authority to the citizen committee; the newer asserts the control of the select board.  At the time I could see that either position might be argued as correct.  But the change this year is in the wrong direction.  The purpose of a warrant committees is to review and make recommendations. It is another set of eyes on the budget.  It was very likely that the Town would have agreed with the Select Board's recommendation and not the higher amount.  The Warrant Committee has applauded the work of the town manager to improve budgeting for the town and reduce the budget.  Yet if the town of Southwest Harbor continues with this wording of its warrants, and other towns adopt this approach, then it is not worth having a warrant committee nor a town meeting.  A little more of New England democracy goes by the way side.