To the Editor:
The Annual Town Meeting (ATM) is now behind us with important lessons to be learned.
The foremost one is that our Town Charter is at its heart based upon a fundamental distrust of the citizens of Wilton.
I can understand why: its drafters were fearful that a small clique of determined citizens could hijack the town budget by making a motion from the floor of the ATM to change the budget, have that motion carried by a vote of those relatively few faithful adherents to their plan who actually attend the meeting, and then have that vote approved by an equally small portion of the electorate who choose to vote.
To avoid that outcome, the Charter was written to require that a minimum percentage of the town’s registered voters (15%) actually appear to vote in order to overturn the budget as found on the ballot. The Charter added a further protection by allowing the budget only to be amended downward (not upward) by motion from the floor of the ATM. Under Roberts Rules of Order applied under the Charter, even more flexibility exists on the downward side: the process allows for testing of multiple reduction amounts, starting with the highest reduction moved and seconded from the floor of the ATM and moving down to the lower proposed reductions stopping only if one of them secures a majority vote.
And the Charter did one more very consequential thing: it provided for the Board of Finance (BOF) to have the final say on what would be presented to voters for ballot approval (absent a successful motion made from the floor of the ATM to move the budget downward, as previously mentioned).
Unlike other town boards that have an odd number of total members, the BOF was established in the Charter at six members with no provision as to what to do if the BOF split 3-to-3 on its budget for presentation at the ATM. The logical result in those circumstances would be to go with the budgets as presented by the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education, but that is — as lawyers say — a litigable issue that would very likely in fact be litigated if it were to happen. The six-member figure dates back to the version of the Charter that existed before the latest revision of the Charter more than a decade ago.
Unfortunately, the result not only creates the risk of a 3-3 split but also creates an autocracy of four — who can all come from one political party under state law rules that limit the size of single party representation on any municipal board. Those four individuals in reality control the most important decision our town regularly makes: what it will spend in a year.
Provision is made in the Charter to move the budget up significantly if 15% or more vote and a majority of them vote “no, too low.” But that result sends the budget back to the same four who made it too low to begin with, to see what they will do next.
The BOF is composed of conscientious citizens who volunteer to serve. I believe they would follow the wishes of the majority of voters by seriously honoring that vote, but to what extent: by just how much? That creates a quandary for those who want to see the cuts restored but who are dubious about the convoluted process that sends the results of a successful “no, too low” vote back to the BOF for a new BOF determination, followed by a reconvened ATM, for the whole process to be gone through all over again.
Is that really what we want: rule by an autocracy of four and a convoluted process to change the four’s determination?
I submit that it’s time to have another go at Charter revision.
Certainly, at a minimum, that should be done to clear up what happens in the event of a 3-to-3 deadlock on the BOF — to decrease the number serving on the BOF to five (with a transition period to accommodate those already on the BOF now) or raise it to seven. Movement in either direction avoids the chance of future deadlocks in the first place. Alternatively, one could explicitly provide that in the event of a 3-3 split, the budgets as proposed by the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education form the town budget for presentation at the ATM.
However, isn’t it also, and much more fundamentally, time to ask if this overall decision-making structure is really how we want to be governed with respect to our most important town decision each year?
Revision on that score could alter the Charter rule that allows only motions for budget decreases from the floor of the ATM to instead allow for motions for budget increases as well, giving equal opportunity for movement in either direction. It could also include a cap on the percentage of the proposed change in either direction to prevent a “runaway” budget revision that would jeopardize town finances.
It should, in any event of course, leave in the “no, too high” and “no, too low” options for voters to express their views on the resulting budget offering on the ballot.
Changes like these could restore much more full-scale democracy to town decision-making.
This is excellent, thanks for posting it; the question of what to do in the event of a 3-3 tie is critical, as it came up last year and could very easily come up again next year.
One concern I do have with switching to an odd number of board seats is that under that system, one party could effectively lock up control of a board for 4 years if they win every seat in the year with the larger number of seats up for election; state law allows one party to hold 4 seats on a 5-member board and 5 on a 7-member one. With an even number of seats, in every election you’re guaranteed the option to at least create an even partisan split.
Another interesting alternative would be switch to a 5-member Board of Finance but elect its members to 2-year terms; the nature of the BoF’s work is such that higher turnover would be much less disruptive there than it would be on the BoE/BoS/P&Z, and it would be another way to make the budget process more responsive to voters.
Regarding voice votes, I think it’s important that voter-initiated changes to the budget *not* require in-person attendance, since that both disproportionately suppresses turnout among parents and has the potential to lead to more random/extreme changes with so few people voting. My proposal from last week (https://goodmorningwilton.com/letter-a-more-sensible-proposal-to-change-how-wilton-sets-school-budgets/) was that instead of voters being able to lower the budget by an arbitrary amount by a voice vote, they could lower or raise it by a fixed percentage from a menu of choices on the paper ballot, with the final number being the highest/lowest one that commands a majority. (that menu of choices could also include an option to approve the original BoE/BoS budget, to avoid a situation where the BoF would cut/raise the original budget by more than the maximum amount by which the ATM was allowed to change it)
We should also consider adding accomedations for remote voting and speaking access to the town meeting as this would make it easier for many who do not have 3+ hours to attend a town meeting in person to have their voices heard. I relize that will not be easy to conduct a hybrid zoom and live town meeting but it seem to me an idea whose time has come.
What would have happened is under the current rules a NEGATIVE 1.4 million reduction was proposed? Are negative numbers disallowed in the current charter? Or would that have been a backdoor way to restore the budget?
Steve, as always, I enjoy your thinking process and that you focus on fairness and taking an intelligent approach. While I don’t always agree with you, I feel that if we have have enough people who take an intelligent data driven approach, we could do a great deal to do more than just tinker with existing methodologies. The problem is that there is a small but vocal minority who attempt to derail reasonable efforts by reasonable people. It should be crystal clear to everyone in Wilton, that at least 4 of the 6 members of the Board of Finance strongly support and vote based upon the wishes of the majority of Wilton voters. As Lynne pointed out, we had survey after survey, performed by different organizations, and prior votes, all clearly indicating that the wishes of the majority were to keep funding great schools and town services at prudent expense levels. A vocal and small minority, presented no data whatsoever at town meetings but instead used inflammatory language (“disgust”?) to support their views that Wilton was underspending relative to surrounding towns. All data points in the opposite direction; that Wilton has been spending more per student than many surrounding towns, and those towns have great schools which are higher ranked in academic performance than Wilton, including Darien, and New Canaan. Perhaps it is time for the BOF to provide, and GMW to print detailed data so that some of the ridiculous empty “data free” claims of this active and vocal minority have an opportunity to supply their data to support their claims, including the claim that the majority of the BOF can’t be trusted to vote the wishes of the majority which is clearly inaccurate and an insult to the integrity of hard working volunteers, including three Republicans and one Democrat. For years, the local DTC has repeatedly offered no data supporting their claim that taxes and spending are too low, and that Wilton residents are “willing” to pay more for even better schools. By a margin of 5 to 1 on this week’s vote we have yet another data point that that claim by the DTC is wrong, no matter how many DTC members speak at town meetings deriding the BOF majority vote as “disgusting” while offering no data, no town survey, or town vote results to support their words that it is they who support the views of the majority of the electorate; they don’t. I don’t like Donald Trump either, and I abhor the justices who overturned Roe v Wade, but that doesn’t mean that I would blindly agree that we needed to raise taxes in Wilton this year by 5-6% to achieve excellence. It shouldn’t be a political party issue. The DTC also didn’t mention that their leadership in Hartford took away enormous amounts of grants to Wilton for next year which was previously used to add headcount at the BOE, while student population was decreasing during the pandemic. People were misled into thinking that the BOF “cut” the funding for those resources while in fact it was your friendly Democratic Party. They said the funding was no longer needed in Wilton and other “Rich towns”. They also didn’t mention that they want higher real estate taxes from Wilton taxpayers, so that their leaders in Hartford can push the cost of the significantly unfunded and mismanaged Hartford run Teachers’ pension plan to Wilton and other “rich towns”. Wilton constituents may not share that sentiment. Write and call your local elected representative, Ceci Maher and Keith Denning and ask them what they are doing to protect our funding and fight against this threat of pushing pension expenses to Wilton. Ask them why funding to Wilton schools was taken away and redirected, and why they haven’t done anything to support keeping that state funding, like many other school districts. Is it because everyone in Wilton is so rich per their definition?
The next diversion to take your eye off the fact that the local DTC initiative to raise your local property taxes failed because the town came out and voted against it five to one, is the new culprit, the town charter. For the record, I am in absolute agreement with you Steve, we should be able to vote as a democracy to increase or decrease our taxes, and I look forward to working with you and the RTC and DTC to achieve the support of our local elected representatives both in Wilton and in Hartford. Consistent with your argument, the fact that we need to lodge our say in Democracy in Wilton with only two representatives is absurd. Give us the democracy and the ability in Connecticut to vote for higher or lower state taxes. The status quo is not Democracy. Maybe everyone in Wilton can discuss whether we trust our elected officials to execute on the wishes of the majority in Wilton, just as your colleagues, that vocal minority did here during the budget vote, only in this case the stakes are much higher.
Let me add that when good and reasonable people like you turn a blind eye to the insulting and demeaning behavior of your compatriots in their desire to achieve a political goal, and disregard all data that opposes your arguments, you potentially not only lose a bit of your integrity, you also potentially lose a bit of the respect from people who admire you, because they expect more from you. This goes for all who disregarded all available data and three prior surveys and rudely and relentlessly made personal attacks on the skills, judgement and worst of all, attacks on the integrity of the BOF members who clearly were steadfast in best represented the views of the overwhelming majority of the town.
First off, while Michael Kaelin ran for the Board of Finance in 2019 as a Democrat, he ran for the Board of Selectmen in 2015 as a Republican, and previously served as chair of the Wilton Republicans. And I’m pretty sure if he runs for anything in 2023, it will not be as a Democrat. So the “3 Republicans and 1 Democrat” thing is maybe a bit of a stretch.
Your rant about state politics is irrelevant whataboutism, but to be clear, neither Denning nor Maher has actually been in office long enough to vote for a budget, so I don’t know what you’re upset at them specifically about. My understanding is that much less wealthy towns than Wilton are also in line to get far less school funding than they would like, so I don’t think in this year’s budget at least that Wilton and other wealthy towns like it are a particularly big target, the problem is more that the state is doing less for education in general. (though I’ll admit that discussions on that are fluid and I may have missed something)
I’m glad to see you endorsing the idea of charter reform at least; hopefully everyone can come together on that one.
As far as data: you continue to hang your hat on a very specific set of numbers that you can spin in a way that’s helpful to your cause; you go on and on about enrollment declines, ignore or attempt to spin away or play the “you’re doing it wrong” game with inflation, and are constantly comparing our per-student spending to other towns with very different populations and differently-structured school systems than ours. You also keep harping on our academic under-performance despite Wilton literally coming in #1 in the state on the Next Generation Accountability rankings this year. And you talk an awful lot about surveys, when, aside from the obvious problems with a survey that asks people with little context whether or not they’d like their taxes to be lower, it’s pretty clear in comparing this year’s and last year’s “no, too low” numbers that there’s a big shift in sentiment there that your much-vaunted survey totally failed to capture.
(you also seem to be trying to claim “yes” votes for your side – mine most certainly was not! – while simultaneously bemoaning the fact that people didn’t trust the BoF to honor “no, too low” votes)
And even as you insist that the BoF makes decisions based not only on economic conditions but also on whether or not the school district is spending its money efficiently, you consistently refuse – and Republicans have, for years, refused – to actually get into the details of the BoE budget that you claim is so wasteful; I don’t believe any member of the BoF identified a single item in the year-over-year budget increase that they actually objected to. (this is of course also a preferred tactic of the national Republicans you’re trying to distance yourself from; claim we’re spending too much money in general but refuse to take responsibility for actually cutting anything) Indeed it appears that you basically came up with a number that you liked the sound of and then asked Dr. Smith to propose reductions to meet that number; none of the items on his list looks wasteful or unnecessary to me, so if there is waste in the budget, either they’re taking great pains to conceal it or they don’t consider it waste.
So not only are you wrong on the numbers and wrong on voter sentiment, you also refuse to actually do your job properly; you don’t set out budget guidance in advance according to any sort of a consistent framework, and you don’t actually get into the details of the budgets you insist are wasteful and must be cut. You come up with these numbers in a lazy, half-baked way, without taking the time to understand the actual factors driving them, and then nevertheless demand that we take your decisions seriously.
If you really think you have a case that Wilton is spending too much money relative to neighboring districts, where’s that spending? Where’s the waste? What are we spending so much more money on than they are? (once again, please don’t insult everyone’s intelligence by saying coaches – neighboring districts have plenty of those too) What portions of this year’s proposed budget increase do you consider unnecessary, and why?
You’re on the Board of Finance; if you can’t be bothered to actually do the nitty-gritty work of understanding Wilton’s finances, then perhaps you should find another volunteer opportunity that’s a better fit for you.
I just want to compliment the 20% who did turn out to vote on this crucial issue in our most amazing town!
I just want to encourage tax & spend to no end Mr. Hudspeth to write a generous check to fund whatever he wants others to pay for. Sensible, eh!
Excellent, thought provoking (as always) and perceptive letter, Steve. Though I now live on Cape Cod, I can’t seem to stop taking an interest in Wilton and reading GMW (And wishing there was something even half as good here in Barnstable).
Personally, I have thought for some time that a Town Meeting form of government is outdated. It may have been very appropriate for a small CT town in the 19th century, even OK for most of the 20th, but definitely less than optimal in the 21st.
Once a charter committee is formed it can change anything. I would encourage the commission to look at changing Wilton’s form of Government to Town Council. New Canaan has a Town Council of 12 elected officials who serve 4 year staggered terms. They determine appropriations, including the annual Town budget.
A Town Council system is a very interesting idea; assuming that it had the power to override Board of Finance budget recommendations in both directions, it would take most of the messy politics out of their hands and put them in the hands of another body specifically elected to decide those issues. So the BoF could go back to being a mostly executive body like the other two boards, in charge of managing the town’s financials rather than Ouija-boarding the will of the voters concerning school budgets.
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