To the Editor:
Regarding Michael Salit‘s letter, “Disappointed In My Fellow Residents Who Didn’t Show Up to Vote”, I find it somewhat ironic to see this sentiment expressed by somebody who favors reducing the Board of Education budget, when the group that is generally the least well represented in Wilton’s budget process is working parents like myself who tend to favor school budget increases. We don’t have the time or energy to attend all of these meetings, and even if we did, the process seems to be designed to make it impossible for us to put forward the changes we actually want.
Instead of badgering residents into attending the Annual Town Meeting and shaming them for failing to do so, the goal ought to be to find ways to enable more residents to participate in the process, whether in person or not.
To that end, I would like to suggest the following changes for future Annual Town Meetings. I’m not exactly clear which of these items could be done immediately by the town boards versus requiring a revision to the Town Charter and/or relevant state law, but if the goal is, in fact, to increase all residents’ involvement in the budget process — rather than merely assembling enough like-minded cranks to reject the budget as too low and send it back to the Board of Finance for further cuts — I believe all of these would go a long way towards achieving that end.
- Don’t schedule the town meeting on a weeknight. Seven o’clock on a Tuesday evening is dicey even in the absence of any specific scheduling conflicts — many of us have children who go to bed before the meeting is over — and if you throw in sports games or theater rehearsals or what have you, it becomes absolutely impossible for many families. Most civilized democracies hold their elections on weekends, and we ought to do so as well; a town meeting held at, say, 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon (in May, so it’s not conflicting with anybody’s NFL viewing) would likely see much better attendance.
- Allow the town meeting to increase budget items as well as decrease them. I can pretty much guarantee that if that had been an option this year, we would have seen robust turnout from Wilton Public School parents and a reversal of the Board of Finance’s cuts to the Board of Education budget request; it’s much easier to justify letting your kids stay up too late or rescheduling a piano lesson if you’re doing it to help their schools.
This obviously would have to have some guardrails — for example, the increase might be capped at no more than the original budget request from the relevant board — but it would avoid the situation where every year the school budget is presented as a depressing too-low compromise that we are powerless to do anything about.
- Allow for proxy voting on budget changes proposed at the meeting; those who cannot attend in person could designate another voter to act as their proxy. This has been a great success in the United States Congress (used heavily by members of both parties) and there’s no reason it can’t be done here too.
Direct online voting could also work; these are not secret ballots, people make their votes in public in the in-person meeting and there’s no reason they could not likewise make them publicly via Zoom without any concerns about compromised/hacked votes. To ensure only registered voters could participate in this, voters could be assigned unique voter ID numbers in advance to display in their Zoom nicknames or could validate their voter status with the registrars on Zoom as they logged on.
- Alternatively, or in addition to, proxy/online voting, add new items to the paper town meeting ballot to approve or reject changes made to the budget at the in-person meeting so that people who cannot attend in person still have a chance to weigh in on them.
While it’s obviously not possible to print new ballots at the last minute, it seems like it would be no great difficulty to add two ballot items: “approve/reject changes made by the Annual Town Meeting to the Board of Education budget,” and “approve/reject changes made by the Annual Town Meeting to the Board of Selectmen budget,” which would simply go unused if there were no changes made to those budgets at the meeting.
- Treat “reject the budget because it’s too low” and “reject the budget because it’s too high” as separate, standalone items so that it’s not possible that by voting to reject a budget because it’s too low, one might actually end up sending the budget back to the Board of Finance to be cut further. The budget would only be rejected if “too low” or “too high” itself earned a majority of votes, not simply if the two options together did. (If 1/3 of voters think a budget is too high and 1/3 think it’s too low then it seems like the proper democratic outcome would be to approve the original budget)
I don’t imagine that any of these changes have a realistic chance of happening at present since the interests of the Republican majority on the Board of Selectmen are well-served by the current system and its hostility towards working parents/solicitousness towards budget cuts, but I see no reason to take complaints about poor Annual Town Meeting attendance seriously when the town refuses to take simple, obvious steps like these to improve it.