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Town charter is left unenforced and ignored

July 25, 2012

Every single Walpole citizen who didn’t get a chance to watch Monday night’s Special Town Meeting on T.V. or in person should call up their RTMs this week and ask them this fundamental question: “Did you vote to enforce the town charter or did you vote to trample on my right to participate in public hearings on Town Meeting articles?”

On Monday evening, Town Meeting upended the town charter, rejected years of precedent, and showed that political expediency trumps giving the public a fair chance to weigh in on an issue.

Precinct 6 Town Meeting Representative Cliff Snuffer made a motion that Town Meeting – which was held to appropriate the override money approved at the polls on June 2 – be rescheduled to next week because the Finance Committee had missed the deadline mandated in the town charter to hold a public hearing on the meeting warrant.

The charter stipulates that “the Finance Committee shall hold one or more public hearings on the proposed [town] budget not less than three days prior to the session of the Town Meeting at which it is to be submitted for adoption.”

Last Thursday’s Finance Committee meeting had been canceled because a quorum of the committee failed to show up, so it was rescheduled to just minutes before Town Meeting on Monday.

Town Moderator Jon Rockwood rejected Snuffer’s concern, citing the 1939 Mass. Superior Court case “Young vs. Westport.” The crux of that ruling was that if a town charter does not include an enforcement mechanism specifically preventing Town Meeting from taking a vote unless a Finance Committee hearing has been held, the Town Meeting vote can go on.

A majority of RTMs, many of whom had reportedly been pried from their vacation homes to attend and didn’t want to have their time wasted with another meeting, were satisfied with Rockwood’s interpretation of the court case, and Snuffer’s effort failed on a voice vote of Town Meeting. The meeting proceeded as scheduled.

RTMs basically had a simple choice: enforce the charter through their own ability to postpone their meeting, or ignore the charter. Those who won out, and voted to effectively ignore the charter, set a truly dangerous precedent.

The whole point of the provision requiring Finance Committee public hearings several days before Town Meeting is to allow the public to have time to weigh in on articles set to come before the body. During Town Meeting, no non-RTMs are permitted to speak on an issue without approval of the Moderator.

The override as a whole had never been brought up in a public hearing until the hearing held thirty minutes before Monday’s Town Meeting. Even though the initiative had already been approved by voters, Town Meeting still had ultimate authority to decide where the money should go – and there had never been a single public hearing during the spring before the election about why municipal officials wanted most of their share of the cash to go to the DPW or why officials had laughably low-balled the cost of a new police officer at only $45,000 per year.

The fact of the matter is that town residents were denied the right – given through the town charter – to speak their mind on an issue before Town Meeting, and RTMs did nothing about that. Plus, the town charter was left unenforced, and the RTMs did nothing about that.

Even worse, Town Meeting showed that bylaws can be ignored if considered inconvenient. The Finance Committee learned that it can fail to hold timely public hearings on Town Meeting warrants and get away with it. That sets the disturbing standard that the public can be effectively shunned from Town Meeting decisions in the future.

Let’s face it: the override appropriation was going to happen anyway. There were many pro-override RTMs who both publicly and privately expressed concern before Town Meeting that there was some conspiracy afoot among the conservatives to derail the override and send it back to the ballot box. These paranoid RTMs seemed to have missed the memo: pro-override forces control Town Meeting by an overwhelming margin, after the June 2 election swept many of them into office. There was no chance that Town Meeting would reject the appropriation. Indeed, multiple motions by conservatives during Monday’s meeting to change the appropriation or send it back to the ballot box were each defeated resoundingly, as would be expected.

Barring the fact that the RTMs would have had to drag themselves back, during the dog days of summer, to vote on the override appropriation a week later, there is no reason why Town Meeting could not have simply postponed their meeting until a proper Finance Committee public hearing was held.

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