October 28, 2007

Chartering Citizen Negotiations

Justin Katz

I see that the Tiverton Charter Review Commission, formed to take a closer look at the town's practice of financial town meetings and propose changes on the November 2008 ballot, has also taken up a possible change that I pondered last month:

Another suggestion would have the town return to partisan elections.

According to that line of thinking, "the American system benefited from the party label and we were being foolish at the town level not to recognize at least two parties," Leonard said.

He said he "didn't notice any lack of activity by the political parties" in the last election.

"Both Democrats and Republicans worked to support their candidates," he said, even though party affiliation is not listed on the ballot.

Unless partisan organization is to be banned for these elections (and good luck with that), it makes no sense to hide the affiliations of those whom the public chooses.

Unfortunately, it isn't agreement that is leading me to consider adding this commission's meetings to my "to attend" list. It's this:

... legally binding labor contracts with school and municipal workers and other long-term financial commitments necessary to run the town's affairs mean that the voters don't have any real discretion over much of the budget, Leonard said.

For example, Leonard said, "the amount of money allocated for heating oil is variable," but there is now a contract for that too.

"The purpose of the Financial Town Meeting has dwindled as more and more things have developed in a contractual manner," he said.

Of all the trends that need arresting, the burgeoning "what can we do?" excuse of politicians may top the list. With contracts discussed at sparsely attended meetings and decided in executive sessions, with straight-armed public participation amounting to disgruntlement at negotiations' length and momentary reactions when deals are announced, any opportunity for citizens to throw wrenches in the budgetary clockwork ought to be preserved.

In some ways, a charter review may be thought of as residents' opportunity to negotiate a new contract between themselves and their local leaders. Somehow, I don't expect them to invest as much time and energy into the process as the town's employees and service providers do their own negotiations.