Sunday, October 28, 2018

Three Great Loopholes In the Groton Charter Revision

I have been writing a series of articles about the proposed charter revision for Groton, Connecticut. This article gives a good understanding to start from if you are not familiar with the issue.

There are three crucial loopholes in the proposed charter for Groton, CT, which are exacerbated by the increase of their term from two years to four.
  • The Town Council can effectively ignore the referendum results
  • Mill rates are set after the budget is approved
  • Emergency allocations without check
Ignoring the Referendum
The voters hold the final authority through the budget referendum... or do they.

What happens if the voters fail the budget? In the new proposed charter...
9.12.6 Should either budget fail to be approved by a majority of those voting thereon, the Council shall, within seven days after a failed referendum, recommend a revised budget for each rejected budget, which may be less or greater than the failed budget, as the Council shall deem appropriate based on the results of the referendum.

Image result for ignore ballot
The Groton Town Council is normally comprised of
good, honest people looking to serve the people, but the
Charter must be written to prevent abuse by those who
might act poorly. Bad rules encourage bad behavior.
I bolded a key word in that section. It says "may" not "shall." That means that they Council can return the same budget in the next referendum, as Stonington did recently when they put up a budget that was rejected and then put up the same budget which was accepted.

But what happens if the budget fails three times? Interim Budget and Fixing the Tax Rate In case a Budget is not approved by June 30, the budget submitted by the Town Council per Section 9.10.3 shall be utilized as an interim budget until a new Budget is approved by referendum. Within three (3) business days after an interim budget is approved goes in to effect, the Town Council will set a mill rate that shall be sufficient, with the income from other sources, to meet the estimated expenses of the Town for the next fiscal year. 

If the Town Council puts up a budget in May, and it fails, it can put up the same budget in June. When it fails, it can return the same budget to the voters a third time to be voted down a third time.

It is now June 30th, the original budget which has failed in referendum three times now becomes the "interim budget," and the Town Council sets mill rates based on it. At this point, the Town Council can simply keep sending out the same budget every two weeks until either it becomes the next year or the voters give up an accept it.

The check on this is that the Town Council can be voted out in the next election... except that the terms are now four years, so if they do this early in their term, it is likely it will be long lost to memory when an election finally comes around, meaning there is really no check at all.

The Mill Rate Is Set After the Referendum
The first thing that this means is that voters do not know what tax rate they are voting on. This is like buying a car knowing the sale price but not knowing your monthly payment. You're not paying $119,000,000, you're paying your share of taxes, but that's a mystery until the Town Council chooses it.

While there are guidelines to what they should do, they have quite a bit of latitude, which becomes important when you consider the power of Emergency Allocation, which was previously checked by the RTM, but will be checked by no one at all under the proposed revision.

Emergency Allocation Loophole
After the budget passes, the Town Council sets the mill rate. This means that, when the voters vote, they do not actually know what the budget will give them in terms of a tax rate. It also means that the Town Council could choose to add a small margin of safety into the mill rate to make sure it will cover all expected expenses. They could do something modest, say 1%. That's just prudent budgeting, right?

Oh, what's this?

9.15.2 The Council may make Emergency Appropriations not exceeding one-hundred thousand dollars ($100,000), by a vote of not less than seven (7) members of the Council, provided a public hearing, at which the public shall have an opportunity to be heard, shall be held prior to making such appropriations. The notice shall be made in accordance with Section 9.19. Such hearing and notice of hearing may be waived if the Council by an affirmative vote of not less than eight (8) of its members, shall decide that a delay in making the Emergency Appropriation would jeopardize the lives, health, or property of citizens.

Image result for emergency spending
Seven Councilors will have the power to determine any
emergency and act on it... unless it's over $100,000.
Then we're just out of luck.
With the agreement of 7 Councilors, they can agree that anything they like is an emergency, and many issues can be spun as emergencies. The police department is dangerously understaffed. Hiring another officer is an emergency. That road is a hazard, paving it is an emergency. That building is about to collapse. Fixing it is an emergency.

Under the present system, all such transfers must be approved by the RTM, requiring accountability and giving a check in which the transfer could be prevented.

Under the proposed charter, items that could not get approved in the referendum approved budget, could be slipped back in as "emergencies," and there's no one who can stop them.

On the other hand, let's also hope there's never a real emergency that requires more than $100,000, because there's no provision for doing so.

Who's Empowered?
In summary, the Town Council, which now has 4 year terms, has the ability to force a budget around referendum objections, and gets to set the mill rate after the budget is passed.

This Charter Revision definitely empowers someone, but it's not the voters. So, if you're planning to vote Yes on this revision because you think it will empower you as a voter, you may find yourself somewhat disappointed.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Thoughts on Representative Town Meeting, Applicable to the Present State of Groton

Image result for thoughts on government1. A single Assembly is liable to all the vices, follies and frailties of an individual. Subject to fits of humour, starts of passion, flights of enthusiasm, partialities of prejudice, and consequently productive of hasty results and absurd judgments: And all these errors ought to be corrected and defects supplied by some controuling power.
2. A single Assembly is apt to be avaricious, and in time will not scruple to exempt itself from burthens which it will lay, without compunction, on its constituents.
-John Adams, Thoughts on Government, Applicable to the Present State of the American Colonies
In 1776 John Adams was asked for suggestions on the form that the new colonial governments should take, and he responded with a treatise called Thoughts on Government, Applicable to the Present State of the American Colonies, in which he discussed the importance of having a bicameral rather than unicameral legislature.

American government is based on the principle that voters with incomplete information will make choices to elect flawed human beings to represent them, as all humans are. Systems of checks and balances are created throughout the system to counterbalance the natural limitations of humans in roles of leadership.

Image result for thoughts on governmentThe Founding Fathers worked with the idea of the Few and the Many. The Few constitute the influential, the monied, the connected, those who are familiar with the gears and levers of government. The Many constitute the the general population who simply wish to live their lives, raise their families, and pursue happiness.

Our state and federal government were created as they are so that one house (the Senate) might represent the Few, while the other (the House) represented the Many.

In Groton, we see in structure of our town government an absolutely beautiful example of bicameral governance on a local level. In Groton, there is a Town Council of 9 members elected at large, and a Representative Town Meeting (RTM) of 41 members elected among 7 districts.

Members of both bodies volunteer their time for the good of their community, but Town Councilors are expected to spend 15 hours and more every single week for what is ultimately a very thankless job. The RTM, by contrast, spends a few hours per month in meetings, except for during the month of May when they spend considerable time poring over every line of a 250 page budget.

Naturally, the pool of potential Town Councilors, individuals who have the talent to serve and the willingness to invest hundreds of unpaid hours, is quite a bit more limited than the pool of those who might serve on the RTM. The result is a difference in the character of the two bodies.

Town Councilors tend to be people of greater political involvement in the town and its history, which is multiplied once on the Council as they work closely with staff throughout the town. This is both an asset and a hindrance. It is an asset as their familiarity allows them to better understand the inner workings of our town. It is a hindrance as their increasing familiarity may cause them to overlook errors and inferior solutions, much as one ceases to notice a creaky step in their house after many years of living there.

41 regular citizens coming together for the benefit
of their community and their neighbors. There can be
no better representation of true republican democracy than
the New England town meeting.
Covering this blindspot is the relative enthusiasm and inexperience of the RTM members. For any given issue, some of the members are encountering it for the first time, giving them the opportunity to approach it with fresh eyes, possibly asking questions that have not been asked before, while others have decades of experience in government giving them a seasoned outsider perspective.

In the most extreme circumstances, the RTM can come together and even reverse actions of the Town Council or initiate their own actions. These tools are rarely employed, but their existence weighs into every decision that the Town Council makes.

All of the meetings of the Town Council and the RTM are recorded by Groton Municipal Television and uploaded to YouTube. Watch a couple Town Council meetings and contrast them to RTM meetings. Much of the work of the Town Council is done behind the scenes in caucuses and planning meetings. Their meetings are quick, efficient, and orderly, which is good for the conduct of business but often fail to allow the viewer to fully grasp the function of the government.

The RTM, by contrast, contains many members who are effectively members of the general public coming forward to serve their neighbors. They may have little more involvement in government affairs than anyone else living on their street, so the questions that they pose to the Town Manager, the Superintendent of Schools, or any other staff who come before the RTM are the questions of their neighbors. The RTM gives voice to every citizen, both through direct citizen comment and though their representatives.

The RTM is one of the most incredible tools of democratic engagement. The question may be posed as to whether the RTM has been employed to its best potential here in the town of Groton, but it is like any tool. It must be employed by motivated and skilled hands to create a beneficial result.

There can be no doubt that the mere capability of the RTM to veto an ordinance has caused the Town Council to give a second thought to a flawed ordinance.

There can be no doubt that items of the budget have been refined and cut prior to coming to the RTM, knowing that the RTM would reduce it if the Town Council did not.

There can be no doubt that the ability of the RTM to inquire has brought sunlight to many functions of our town.

There can simply be no doubt that the town of Groton, Connecticut is a better governed town because of the powerful direct influence that the RTM allows the common citizen to have on the government process.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Groton Charter Revision In Brief

On November 6th, Groton, Connecticut will vote on a proposed revision to the Charter which governs the structure of the town.

Presently, Groton has a 9 member Town Council and a 41 member (1 per 1000 residents) Representative Town Meeting. The Town Council is the seat of primary authority in the town. They have the power to create ordinances, develop the budget, and make contracts with employees among other powers.

The Representative Town Meeting reviews the budget line by line, approving or reducing the Town Council's proposal. They can also restore funding if the Council cut the Town Manager's or Board of Education's recommendations. The RTM has the power to veto ordinances of the Town Council and even the Power of Initiative to create their own.

It is effectively a bicameral legislature, with the Town Council as the upper house and the RTM as the lower house, with diminutive authority but providing a check on the power of the Town Council.

Groton's Right to Vote is the political action committee advocating for this revision, and you can find a summary of their arguments on their web site.

What's Changing
The main thing that the charter revision will do is eliminate the RTM and create a Finance Board and budget referendum. Rather than the Town Council creating a budget to be reviewed by the RTM, the Finance Board will work with the Town Manager to create a budget recommendation. The Town Council will then take that recommendation and craft the actual budget. This budget will then be voted on in a referendum.

The GRTV web site summarizes this as follows:
  • Gives citizens the right to vote on our annual budget, like they do in the City of Groton and the Towns of Stonington, East Lyme, Guilford, Clinton, Madison, Newtown, Cromwell and many other communities in CT.  Town and Education budgets are approved separately.
  • Greatly simplifies Town Government by eliminating the RTM, no other Town in Connecticut has a Town Council and an RTM like Groton has. 
  • Provides for a Board of Finance, a stand-alone elected body, to support the Town Council in financial matters and keep the public informed.
  • Provides for a transparent annual budget development process with many opportunities for citizen input including mandatory budget guidance by the Town Council.

What's not Changing

  • Maintains the Town Council/Town Manager form of government. Town Council, sets policy for the Town, elected at-large, stays at 9 members. Town Manager executes policy and runs the town. Virtually no change to the core of our town government.
  • The seven voting districts will remain as is.   No changes.
That might sound pretty good to some, but is it really?
All that sounds pretty good, doesn't it. I mean, who doesn't want the "right to vote?"

It's a little more complicated than that. In future articles, I'll be going into great depth on a number of these topics, but let's just spend a few moments on each of these points.

The Right to Vote
Image result for voting
Sprague just recently passed a budget after four months of
revotes. North Stonington once required 9 elections to pass
a budget. Groton could see similar problems.
They do indeed have budget referendums in many other towns, most of them smaller than Groton, and if you speak to people who live in those towns, you will find that most of them are quite disappointed with the results of this system. A town official from a local town explained that about ten years ago, there was a wave of charter revisions replacing town meetings with referendums, and almost without exception, the towns that have undergone such transitions regret their choice to do so. The election process creates uncertainty and unnecessary expense in the municipal governance process. Recently Sprague, a town of 2,900 people (compared to Groton's 41,000), took four months to pass a budget. North Stonington once took 9 votes to finally approve a budget. In small towns, a budget referendum only costs a few thousand dollars. In Groton, each vote will cost $20,000-$25,000

Massachusetts, which has town property taxes on average 1/3 what they are in Connecticut, has a town meeting in every town, but a referendum for any tax increase of more than 2.5%. This is called a Prop 2 1/2 Override. Thus, they are able to have an efficient and representative system of budget creation with a check against excessive tax increases. To many, this would seem to be a more reasonable, less costly form of a budget referendum for Groton to adopt, rather than the extreme version being proposed.

Greatly simplifies Town Government by eliminating the RTM
Simple government is not necessarily better government. The RTM provides an opportunity for ordinary citizens to participate in the government process. Whether a town has a council or board of selectmen, the close involvement of the town leadership with the day to day workings of the government can induce a form of groupthink, sometimes causing them to overlook obvious solutions or problems that an outsider might spot at once. The RTM is a simple and effective solution to this problem, allowing 41 engaged citizens to take a second look at all the major activities of the town.

Image result for founding fathers
The founding fathers intentionally created complexity
in government called checks and balances to ensure a
balance of power which would create stability and fairness.
Eliminating the RTM makes town government simpler and smaller in one way, but our government is intentionally built on a system of checks and balances. The President requires Senate approval for appointments. Congress must get a Presidential signature to pass a bill. The Judiciary may review the actions of either. In the same way, the RTM provides a check and review on the actions of the Town Council. Take away the RTM, and 5 members of the Town Council (a simple majority) have a lot more power with no check or balance.

Board of Finance and Transparent Annual Budget Process
An argument of GRTV is that the early part of the budget process is behind closed doors, led by department heads, and that by the time the budget reaches the Town Council and the RTM, much of it is already set. The GRTV supporters argue that the new charter will create public hearings earlier in the process as the Board of Finance has meetings to create the budget. However, the truth is members of the public can speak to the Town Council and RTM anytime, all year long, and the Council holds a public hearing on the budget before the budget process begins. It’s not so clear anything the BOF does will be different.  Furthermore, the BOF in Groton has no actual power or authority. They are “advisory” only. Groton will be the only town in the state with a BOF with no actual power or authority. In every other town that has a BOF, they have actual power.

Image result for contract negotiations
The RTM, along with the Town Council and Board of
Education can control staffing costs by reducing
positions, as they have done in the past.
The GRTV group argues that because the Town Council approves employee contracts, the RTM doesn’t have authority over the 80% of the budget that is employee costs.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Most of the budget is made up of personnel costs, and those are based on contracts approved by the Town Council prior to the budget process. Only the Town Council and Board of Education approve contracts, and that won’t change with the new charter.

But, all three bodies, the Council, BOE and RTM can control overall employee costs (80% of the budget) by reducing positions, which has been done over the past two decades.  Many positions have been eliminated. Again, nothing will change in this regard, with the new charter. The claim that the RTM can’t act on 80% of the budget is inaccurate.

Virtually no change to the core of our town government
It is a bold statement to suggest that the elimination of a 41 member elected representative body constitutes "virtually no change to the core of our town government." The RTM not only reviews the budget, but reviews ordinances, financial transfers, and other town activities. Beyond the official powers of the RTM, the RTM creates a method for 41 additional members of the community to be involved in their town's government, and to provide oversight of every activity of the town. That's 41 more sets of eyes to notice potential cost savings. 41 more people to spot errors or even malfeasance. 41 more people keeping an eye on the cookie
jar. Many of these people become interested enough to go further and later run for Town Council or Board of Education. We lose the valuable learning opportunity for residents who want to be involved but cannot necessarily commit to weekly meetings all year long.

41 citizens getting involved, providing oversight, creating
solutions, identifying problems, and keeping an eye on
the cookie jar.
In the next few weeks leading up to the November 6th vote, I will be writing a series of articles to provide additional background and information on various aspects of the proposed revision.

You see, I came to this issue at first with not particular interest one way or the other, but the more I researched and studied, the more I found that our current system of government, while not perfect (what system is?), has an incredible elegance in its system of checks and balances. I have found the proposed charter revision to be unrefined, unfinished, and undesirable for the future of our town, and I believe that as I share what I have learned with you, you will come to agree with me that this revision should be rejected.

Groton's charter is not perfect, and revisions may be needed, but this revision, the one before us in November, is not the right choice for Groton.

Michael Whitehouse presently serves a representative on the Representative Town Meeting from the Fourth District. His opinions do not represent any official stance of the town of Groton. His opinions are his alone, but he hopes that you may find them compelling enough to share them.