Tonight, the Portsmouth Town Council and about fifty citizens engaged in lively discussion around a proposed revision to the Charter to convert the Financial Town meeting to a petition and referendum with all-day voting, but the nearly 3-hour meeting produced no final decisions.
Just wanted to get the 5Ws and an H up there, so anyone who wants to punch out can hit the snooze button. It's been a long time since I wrote news copy in J-school, so that's probably not as tight a lede as Wims or Macris or Rodrigues would come up with, but then, none of them were there. My initial gonzo impulse would be something more like:
For nearly three hours tonight, the Larry Fitzmorris Show (already in progress) took center stage at Portsmouth Town Hall, as the self-proclaimed expert "practitioner of the Town Meeting" demonstrated his contention that "Democracy is always decided by those who show up."
But that fails to do justice to the other folks in attendance, who did their best to represent a balanced perspective. Am I biased? Really? Here's how Fitzmorris kicked off:
"I believe the Council has a deep conflict of interest. The Council does not like the [tent meeting] process, and the Council is now involved in truncating that right. We only have a Town meeting, on average, once every 12 years."
(The Edward Tufte part of my brain can't help but remind us all that you can't take the span from 1983 until now, divide by the number of town meetings, and utter anything but patent bullshit.)
Len Katzman reminded Fitzmorris that the Charter revision was initiated by a citizen, Sal Carcellar. "You yourself, Mr. Fitzmorris, have said that you are no fan of the tent meeting. An all-day ballot would be a better process. This does not prevent redress of any budget issues."
The tack Fitzmorris took then was to argue that a petition-referendum process "dilutes opposition to the budget" because it provides a number of different petitions to vote on, and could result in a plurality of votes carrying the status quo. Since there has, historically, only been one group that ever mounted such a petition, this felt like a straw man to several respondents.
"The existing meeting has a stated requirement for public debate," said Fitzmorris. "An election is not a practical venue for debate."
"If we have a petition with actual numbers," Katzman responded, we could have an actual debate. We could tell the public what we would do, what we would have to cut."
Sal Carcellar got up to speak to the process. "I love the idea of being able to challenge the budget." But, he said, the Tent was undemocratic: non anonymous, not everybody got to vote. "To assert that we have an inclusive process is fiction. This proposal is not perfect, but better. We will turn out more voters with this process than with the tent. I'll put money on that with anyone who wants to bet."
Added Kathy Baker, "I challenge the PCC to say what this is truncating. I've been a voter since I was 18 years old, and I resent the fact that I was not able to exercise my democratic right. I have no idea why the PCC objects to opening this up to more voters."
There was some technical discussion about the RI legalities that box the process. In terms of timing, because the RI State budget is rarely fixed before mid-June, there is a tight timeframe to accomplish a special election without running into candidacy filings in the spring, or general elections in the Fall (and a definite need to resolve a budget so that tax bills can go out.)
Also much discussed was the so-called "Paiva Weed" tax caps, which limit the amount of tax increases by a decreasing percentage, starting with 5.5% next year. That number, it was pointed out, is inclusive of growth. That is, if your growth is 2%, then your tax rate caps at 3.5% "You're going to be in a whole different tax regime," warned Town Administrator Bob Driscoll.
Alan Shers found that particularly troubling, and urged action at the state level. "The issue is that we need more money. Under this law, if we grow, we don't get a benefit. That doesn't make business sense. I'm a member of the redevelopment committee, and we are trying to create tax-positive property. If that's not going to benefit us, what are we doing?"
Karen Gleason kept trying to get her proposal — which was, coincidentally, remarkably similar to one also proposed by Larry Fitzmorris — on the table. After a brief recess, the group picked that one up.
Gleason started by reaming the town solicitor, Kevin Gavin, who had not prepared her version. "I'm terribly disappointed in you." But she described a process of tent meeting, which she is committed to retaining, plus an automatic special election if the approved budget exceeds the state cap.
The Fitzmorris version, of course, went further. Based on the Mass Prop 2.5, it triggers a special election with only one question, up or down on the budget, with a down vote reducing it automatically to the maximum Paiva Weed rate.
Carcellar spoke to this proposal. Since it's based on the tax cap, it "protects not the taxpayer, but rather against the growth of government. What if the DEM put a moratorium on new building until we put in sewers and we had to redistribute that tax burden from undeveloped properties? Or if Carnegie Abbey comes on line and blows the cap? This is not like MA Prop 2.5 which doesn't stifle the real growth of townships."
Fitzmorris got to the nut of the matter: "The purpose of this provision in the charter is an opportunity to limit taxes." [Damn, I should have had that in my lede.]
I got up to point out the item in Fitzmorris's last graf that said no town or school officials would have authority to change, appeal, or alter the results of the election. "Is this specifically meant to preclude a so-called Caruolo action?" [I got hissed before I made it to the podium; wow, I thought, they care enough to hate me. Sweet.]
"Do you think it would make sense to have the Council overriding the process?" said Fitzmorris.
"Are you suggesting we put something in the Charter," said Jim Seveney, "which intends to override state law? Not two months ago, we on this Council took an oath to uphold State law."
Fitsmorris muttered about the state legislature making the laws, and moved on to his other proposal, recall of elected officials.
"No sir, it's not part of this agenda," said Seveney.
"If we truncate the Town meeting, you guys get more power, and the recall is a check."
"We're not going to deal with it tonight," Seveney was firm. It was not included in the agenda, and therefore was out of order. Two nights in a row, Larry was on the wrong end of Robert's Rules.
I haven't even mentioned the delaying tactics invoked by several PCC supporters who want to gear up a full Charter Revision Committee. It's clear that this was only the first round in what promises to be a protracted and painful saga.