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Transparency resolution fails

October 22, 2013

At last night’s Fall Town Meeting, I, in my capacity as a Town Meeting Representative for Precinct 4, submitted a non-binding resolution asking for the Town Administrator and School Superintendent to post their respective budgets (municipal and school) online in a more comprehensive fashion than they currently do.

The Town Administrator already posts the municipal budget with line item summaries on the town website, with year-to-year comparisons, and this is excellent. But it is not enough in my opinion. This resolution (the full text of which is below) asks that, in order to give a more comprehensive picture to taxpayers, this online posting of the budget should be expanded to include descriptions of each line item, as they appear in the printed form of the budget that is not currently posted online.

The annual budget is about 170 pages long, not including the school department, and is distributed in print form to town officials and is also available for review at various town offices. The version of the budget posted on the website is simply a summary of each line item, without descriptions.

One example of what I am talking about is this:

In the town budget posted online, you will note that Line Item “520302” in the DPW: Highway Division budget is simply described as “Equip. Repairs-Storm Drains” and indicates that $60,000 is being expended on this for FY 2014. No other information is provided online as to what these repairs are or why the money is needed.

The only way a taxpayer can find out more information about this line item is by asking at Town Hall for a copy of the printed version of the budget. In that print version, it describes this expenditure as: “Contracted catch basin cleaning per 2013-2015 contract @ $20 per basin. Equipment repair of all hig(hway) catch basin cleaning includes the removal and disposal of all generated materials from townwide dra(ins).”

This description, if it was more accessible through being available on the town website, gives taxpayers a more in-depth look at where their money is going, from the convenience of a computer.

The more information we can provide online, for free, to the taxpayers, the better.

This resolution was a transparency initiative, not an information initiative; meaning that town officials were not being asked to spend time to have to obtain information that is not already available. They were simply being asked to put the entire budget document on the website, rather than just summaries of the line items as appear on the website currently. The budget is ALREADY typed on a computer – how difficult is it to simply save it in a format that can be put on the website? And if it is not easy, then perhaps it is time to type the budget in a different format (look at other communities and how they do their budgets.)

The Town Administrator, when asked at Town Meeting, said that he could not give an estimation of the time that would be required to upload the content to the website as requested in this resolution.

If passed, this resolution would be non-binding so the Town Administrator and School Superintendent could choose to ignore it. Nevertheless, Town Meeting sets the budget each year so this resolution was an opportunity for them to take a stand on how they want it presented to the taxpayers.

I also want to note that, in this resolution, it also asked that the school department, line-by-line budget, also be posted online in the same manner! The school budget line item summaries themselves are NOT even presently on the website, so this resolution would have been a major transparency improvement considering this is 2/3 of the town budget.

Unfortunately, my resolution failed on a voice vote, though it was not a decisive vote. It was fairly close.

Ask your Town Meeting Representatives when they are up for re-election whether they supported this very simple transparency initiative:

It shall be resolved that, beginning with the FY 2015 budget cycle and continuing every budget year thereafter; at least two weeks prior to the start of Spring Town Meeting, the Town Administrator will include in his regular annual posting of his proposed town budget on the town website, descriptions of each line item, as they appear in the actual budget that is made available to the public in printed form at various town offices. This shall also include line item descriptions for the school budget.

This will be done at least two weeks before Spring Town Meeting, so that the public may review, from the convenience of a computer, all line items and understand the reasons behind each one.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2013 1:50 PM

    I agree with your resolution Sam and supported you last night. It was good to finally meet you and I hope we have the opportunity to work on more issues together in the future. We need more younf people like yourself to reignite town meeting into what it should be, an opportunity for us as representitives of our districts to have an open and frank discussion with town officials vs just being a rubber stamp.

  2. Tom Driscoll permalink
    October 22, 2013 4:01 PM

    Sam – Good job. As with Ted Cruze I have respect for those who try and don’t succeed and not those who never try. Those who try do have wins. The arrogance of Gallagher was incredible by saying a positive vote would be overturned by the selectmen.

  3. Tom Bowen permalink
    October 23, 2013 6:55 PM

    Sam,
    It is great to see you at town meeting trying to make a difference. It is difficult for a rational mind to comprehend not wanting information to make informed judgements. Not even sending it to everyone but just making it available to those who care.
    Also hard to take the cost concern seriously as there is no cost to creating a PDF of already existing documents and attaching to the website.
    Keep up the effort.

    Also I agree with Tom Driscoll, I have never actually seen such arrogance at town meeting from elected officials saying they would ignore TM if they said to provide public information and to say they would do what the want on the roads no matter what town meeting said. The elected town meeting members should give serious thought to what happened Monday night.

  4. Allan permalink
    November 1, 2013 3:56 PM

    Dear Sam,
    I like the idea of more transparency at TM. I think all RTM should have their votes recorded and the results posted in the press. The voice vote is efficient but it allows for anonymity. I expect most people in town do not even know the names of their RTMs, never mind their political views. I was shocked to learn that an RTM I voted for twice is totally opposed to what I view best for the town. Is this something you would consider bringing to TM? I’d appreciate it.

    • November 1, 2013 9:02 PM

      I agree with you. I would like more roll call votes as well. Unfortunately it is very time-consuming and most RTMs don’t want it, or will run for the exits when it occurs. Just look at the way that many RTMs wanted to move through the Fall TM as quickly as possible, constantly shouting “move the question” and “point of order” when others wanted to talk. RTMs have very little patience.

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