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Lawson, Fisher get it wrong

August 13, 2012

Forgive me, but I’m confused. I thought the town election was over.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column (and accompanying blog post) questioning the wisdom of our Town Meeting Representatives in allowing the July 23 Special Town Meeting, to appropriate the override money, to proceed as scheduled.

The town charter stipulates that the Finance Committee “shall” hold a public hearing on the town budget at least three days before the start of any Town Meeting at which that budget will be voted on. Before the July 23 Town Meeting, the only Finance Committee public hearing that took place was just thirty minutes beforehand. The previously scheduled public hearing, on July 19, had been canceled because the Finance Committee couldn’t get a quorum.

At its core, my argument on this issue, as offered in my column, was about good government. It’s really black and white. It is indisputable that a public hearing was not held three days before Town Meeting. Town Meeting Representative Cliff Snuffer was doing the sensible thing when he made a motion that Town Meeting be postponed for a week, to enforce the charter. When Town Meeting voted his motion down, after the town’s legal counsel informed them that the 1939 court case “Young vs. Westport” gave them legal standing to do so, they set a dangerous precedent that the town doesn’t need to follow the charter anymore.

For the override supporters, it’s as if election season never ended. In just about every public statement they have made about Snuffer’s sensible Town Meeting motion, and in response to my column, the RTMs and town officials who helped shoot down Snuffer’s motion have portrayed the whole affair as nothing more than sour grapes.

“In a democracy, people are sometimes unhappy with the results of a particular election,” wrote Finance Committee member and RTM Susan Lawson in a letter to the editor last week, responding to my column. “What should have been a fairly brief and straightforward Town Meeting devolved into a rancorous, strident, angry protest against the fact that the STM was being held and that the override had passed,” she wrote.

John Fisher, Chairman of the Walpole Board of Assessors, labeled Snuffer and myself as “a few disgruntled individuals,” who have been engaged in an “attempt to discredit the vast majority of RTMs, Fin Com, our moderator, town counsel, and the Walpole voters.”

Yeah, that must be it. Those of us who think we should enforce the charter are only doing it because we’re bitter.

Actually, when he presented his motion, Snuffer never mentioned his opposition to the override. In my column I never suggested that Town Meeting should have overruled the will of the people. I can’t speak for Snuffer, but I do not believe he saw his motion as a means to derail or otherwise affect the inevitable override appropriation that the voters had approved in June. If Snuffer’s motion had won and Town Meeting had continued on another night, it would have had absolutely no effect on whether the appropriation occurred or to which part of the town budget the override money would have gone.

It is insulting for Lawson or Fisher or anyone else to suggest that those of us raising this issue are doing it merely out of lingering bitterness over the election. If I had been in favor of the override, I would have been fighting about this issue as strongly as I am now.

In their explosive rants published side-by-side in last week’s Times, Lawson and Fisher completely missed the point of my original column and offered very little in the way of serious counterpoints to what I had written.

Lawson wrote: “Obar claims that ‘Town Meeting showed that provisions of the town charter can be ignored if considered inconvenient’. However, Obar has presented not one shred of evidence that this is the case.”

If I didn’t provide any evidence, then what, pray tell, was my column about?

The town charter clearly requires that a Finance Committee public hearing be held three days before Town Meeting. RTMs voted to proceed with Town Meeting anyway. It certainly seems to me that a provision of the town charter was ignored when considered inconvenient, because as Lawson pointed out, the RTMs “wanted to take care of the business at hand.” Town Meeting evidently saw the public hearing requirement as an obstacle that they tossed aside so that they could keep going.

The whole point of my column was that a precedent had been set where the town charter can be ignored. The nature of a precedent is that as soon as it happens, it becomes an example that can be repeated. Before Town Meeting on July 23, no RTMs or residents would ever think that Town Meeting could ignore the charter as they did in this case. Now that they have done it, they know they can do it again and get away with it. Even if neither Lawson nor Fisher can envision it happening under this particular Moderator, Finance Committee, or Town Meeting body, future town officials can look back on this Town Meeting and realize that public hearings on the town budget really aren’t necessary after all.

Even Moderator Jon Rockwood, in a 180 interview shortly after Town Meeting, conceded that a precedent has been set and public budget hearings could conceivably be never again held, even if this doesn’t happen in the immediate future.

Lawson wrote, “a review of the facts indicates that members of Fin. Com. attempted to hold a public hearing not once, but twice.”

Nowhere in my column did I dispute that more than one attempt was made to hold a public hearing. But my review of the facts seems to contradict Lawson’s.

There is a difference between attempting and actually doing. Someone may “attempt” to climb Mount Everest, but if they don’t make it to the summit they didn’t actually climb it. The town charter makes no mention of “attempting” to hold a Finance Committee public hearing. Instead, it makes clear that a public hearing “shall” be held at least three days before Town Meeting.

Was a Finance Committee public hearing held on the warrant article at least three days ahead of Town Meeting? The answer is no. The only possible conclusion one can draw from this is that the charter was not followed. It doesn’t matter whether an attempt was made or not. It’s as simple as that.

Lawson also suggested in her letter that a public hearing was unnecessary because “only two members of the public were in attendance.” The number of people who show up is irrelevant and shows that Lawson is once again completely missing the point. Just because no one shows up to the public hearing does not mean the charter should be ignored. This is akin to saying that if no member of the public shows up to a meeting of the Board of Selectmen, the state’s Open Meeting Law doesn’t need to be followed and that Selectmen might as well meet in secret.

Judging by Lawson’s flawed reasoning, it seems that whenever the charter includes the word “shall,” town officials can simply interpret that word as “shall attempt to.” For instance, where the charter stipulates that “Selectmen shall give notice of Town Meeting … by publication in a locally distributed newspaper and by posting attested copies of the warrant … in at least two public places in each precinct and not less than seven days before the day appointed for such meeting and not less than 14 days before any Special Town Meeting,” Lawson would evidently argue that just an “attempt to” send out Town Meeting warrants to residents will suffice as a substitute for actually sending them.

If Lawson is actually arguing that the word “shall” is the equivalent of “shall attempt to” in the context of the town charter, we are going down a very dangerous path indeed.

I am also not disputing that the RTMs who voted to proceed with Town Meeting had legal basis to do it. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t set a bad precedent. The main emphasis of “Young vs. Westport” is that if a town charter does not include any enforcement mechanism to specifically bar Town Meeting from occurring without a Finance Committee public hearing, there is nothing to stop Town Meeting from going on anyway. The point I argued in my column was that Town Meeting had a chance to create a makeshift enforcement mechanism, as it were, by voluntarily rescheduling Town Meeting.

The reason I argued that the rest of the charter can be effectively ignored in the future is because there really aren’t any enforcement mechanisms for other provisions in the charter. Basically, if a court case can essentially override this provision in the charter, doesn’t that mean our charter really doesn’t actually have any teeth to it?

In his own letter, Fisher claimed that “there are at [least] four or five different ways a non-RTM member can be properly recognized and speak at Town Meeting.” In my column, I never disputed that a member of the public can attend and may speak at a Town Meeting. But the charter still requires a public hearing three days before Town Meeting.

Although the town charter requires that Town Meeting permit members of the public to speak at Town Meeting, judging by the way that Town Meeting decided on July 23 that the charter does not need to be enforced, I don’t think the right of non-RTMs to speak during Town Meeting is sacrosanct at all.

Fisher also claimed that the override was discussed “throughout the winter and spring at numerous public meetings of the various boards.” This is an irrelevant detail. There is no provision in the town charter that permits the public hearing requirement to be waived under any circumstance. The Finance Committee never held a public hearing three days before Town Meeting, and that is a fact that can not be disputed.

Fisher’s argument seem to boil down to this flawed conclusion: the part of the charter that requires a Finance Committee public hearing three days before Town Meeting doesn’t need to be strictly followed to a t as long as similar types of previous public meetings about the override have been held or as long as the local newspaper has reported on it.

But even if a court case says it’s acceptable to proceed with Town Meeting because there isn’t any enforcement mechanism in the town charter, I believe our charter should mean something and not be ignored.

Fisher also concludes in his letter that “for the Times to print another column filled with misleading statements from a columnist suggests an increase in editorial oversight should be considered.”

Just because Fisher disagrees with the opinions expressed in a column does not mean it is “misleading.” He has provided no evidence whatsoever to back up his claim that any of the statements in my columns are “misleading” or inaccurate.

The only reason why an increase in editorial oversight might be considered at the Times is because both Fisher and Lawson were permitted to write letters to the editor that were well beyond the 500-word limit that is generally required by the Times. If I had written a column that was even 2/3 as long as Lawson’s letter, editor Keith Ferguson would have rightly sent it back and told me to cut it down. Both Fisher and Lawson took up valuable space on the page with what amounted to nothing more than an attack on myself and the RTMs who wanted to do the right thing and supported Snuffer, and an insulting rant about the fact that the RTMs were not able to go home from Town Meeting early and instead had to take precious time to listen to a very much-warranted discussion about the town charter.

I ask again: what harm would it have done to simply reschedule Town Meeting for a week and allow a public hearing? Arguing that “a court case says we can keep going” just doesn’t cut it for me. We have a town charter. I think it should be obeyed. Why would anyone disagree with me on this?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Julia permalink
    August 13, 2012 11:32 AM

    Less then halfway through both letters I understood they were just rants with no merit.
    I thought to myself that it was a shame that they went on for so long down the wrong path.
    “much ado about nothing”

  2. My name doesn't matter permalink
    August 14, 2012 8:06 AM

    Can’t one say the same thing about “ignoring the charter”? Seems like a lot of smoke and mirrors to me, just giving Sam, Snuffer and the like something to carry on about. There was legal precedent, there was an opinion by the town’s attorney, who (1) is paid to do that, and (2) is an expert on muni law, and there was an opinion by the Moderator, also an attorney. As one of the letter writers, the dissenters don’t understand the use of precedent, which is understandable, as they have not attended law school. It was a sad night for town meeting, but not because the meeting was held.

    I would also say the same thing about Sam’s column that you just wrote– just a rant with no merit.

    Sam might say that he “thought the election was over”, but he’s not letting it go. Give it a rest already.

  3. Tom permalink
    August 17, 2012 10:59 PM

    One doesn’t need to go to law school to understand English, In fact is seems law school may inhibit understanding of the English language.
    SHALL. Not confusing, does not require legal interpretation.


    simple to understand, unless you are to simple to understand.

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