The idea of requiring a quorum — a minimum number of voters — at the Annual Town Budget Meeting (ATBM) was never a good one. Last week’s ATBM, the first since the new charter made a quorum necessary, demonstrated just a few reasons why.
The ATBM is a long and proud New England and Weston tradition. When the Charter Revision Commission re-wrote Weston’s entire charter last year, the majority sentiment was that it should be preserved, even though all agreed a smoother, clearer path to a mandated referendum (machine vote) on the town and school budget was the main priority. In tweaking the ATBM procedures, the charter changes actually complicate the process and create new problems.
The first problem with the quorum requirement is a procedural one, and it was made clear at last Wednesday’s ATBM: The question of when voters are counted for a quorum check is not specifically addressed in the charter. The town attorney — who was not at the ATBM, but whom the first selectman had asked about this prior to the meeting — said Robert’s Rules of Order say a quorum check is done once only, just before the voting process takes place.
At the ATBM, many votes are normally taken: each line item in the town budget, the bottom line school budget, the capital budget, and the debt service budget. So a few people asked if a count could be taken again as the evening progressed. The problem was not so much the answer — which was No — but the fact that this was not made clear beforehand; then the moderator and registrars appeared unsure and were unclear, which led to further confusion.
Another problem with the quorum requirement is that it takes away the voice of those voters who do bother to attend the ATBM. With no quorum, they are not able to reduce any portion of the budget. That part is clear.
Yet another problem, however, is that what’s unclear in the new charter is what DOES happen when there is no quorum. Does the budget automatically pass as presented? This is the assumption, but the charter does not, in fact, actually say this. Is there a vote anyway? At last week’s ATBM, voice votes were taken on the bottom lines of the school operating, town operating, debt service, and capital budgets. But this is odd, because even a unanimous “No” would still be a “Yes” with no quorum. Really, what’s the point?
The quorum was ostensibly put in place to prevent a small minority of voters from “hijacking” an ATBM and voting to lower the budget. In fact, the meeting can now be “hijacked” by budget supporters who stay away, thus making it impossible to lower any portion of the budget at the ATBM.
There are two positive things to keep in mind, though.
One is that the first selectman has said she is going to call for a reconvening of the Charter Revision Commission to re-open the charter and address some of these problems.
The other good thing is that the referendum — taking place today at the middle school from noon to 8 p.m. for those who did not cast ballots after the ATBM — still allows all voters, no matter how many show up, to vote on the budget once and for all. And their votes will count.