Charter revision: Commission split over quorum issue

weston-gavel,officers,meetingThe Charter Revision Commission is divided in regard to whether there should be a quorum requirement at the Annual Town Budget Meeting (ATBM).

The seven-member commission, appointed by the Board of Selectmen to address some issues that came up in the first year of a newly approved town charter, met on Wednesday, Aug. 7, and spent much of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting discussing the pros and cons of requiring a quorum in order to allow voters at the ATBM to lower the school budget or line items in the town budget before the budget goes to a machine referendum.

Ultimately, three of the commission members — Republicans Nina Daniel, Woody Bliss and John Stripp — voiced opposition to requiring a quorum at the ATBM. The four Democrats on the panel — Chairman Ken Edgar, Mike O’Brien, Arne de Keijzer and Denny Brooks — were in favor of keeping the quorum requirement while clarifying how it is calculated and when it is called at the ATBM.

New charter

A Charter Revision Commission met over the course of nearly a year during 2011 and 2012 and essentially rewrote the town charter that had existed before. The revised version was overwhelmingly approved by voters at referendum in November 2012.

One of the changes made to the charter was a requirement that 2% of qualified voters be present at the ATBM in order for voters there to reduce any budget line items before sending the budget to referendum. In the past, the ATBM could vote regardless of how many people attended.

At the ATBM this past May, the first held under the new town charter, there was confusion on several fronts.

First, it was unclear — and the charter offered no guidance — as to when the quorum should be called, and if it could be called at different points throughout the evening (the ATBM typically takes place over a few hours).

Secondly, when it was determined there was not a quorum present, it was unclear as to how the ATBM should proceed with regard to “approving” a budget to send to referendum, and whether even discussion of various line items should be allowed.

Following the ATBM, the Board of Selectmen decided the issues were significant enough that the board apponted a new Charter Revision Commission and tasked it with addressing the quorum question, as well as several other topics that have come up since the new charter has been in effect.

The new commission was constituted in June and was asked to present the selectmen with recommendations in time for them to go on the November ballot for a vote.

Mr. Edgar said he believes the “we should give the voter-approved charter a chance to operate as it was designed before making major changes.”

He pointed out that the previous Charter Revision Commission held extensive public hearings, interviews with public officials, and received “significant public input” before making changes to create what he calls a “comprehensive and nuanced approach to the budget approval process.”

Especially given the time constraints, Mr. Edgar said, “it is difficult to make major changes to approaches that were comprehensively debated, agreed to, and approved by voters last time around.”

Mr. Bliss agreed it would not be easy, but said he believes the commission must make changes to the quorum requirement. “The topic of the quorum at the ATBM begs for more substantive review and, ideally, reconciliation of divergent viewpoints which are held not only by the members of the commission but, importantly, also by the public at large,” Mr. Bliss said.

Mr. Bliss said the commission should consider three things in particular: the need for a quorum at the ATBM; if recommended, the size it should be; and if recommended, when it should be called.

He questioned the wisdom of requiring a quorum, saying it “offers an unfortunate opportunity for, and may even encourage, manipulation of voter participation, whereby special interests discourage voter turnout with the intent to prevent a valid vote. People have already observed this happening at the Weston ATBM. It is not conducive to the democratic process.”

If recommended by the commission as a whole, however, Mr. Bliss said he would prefer a fixed number of 50 voters to the current 2%, which he believes is too high given typical voter turnout at the ATBM.

And, if the quorum requirement were to remain, Mr. Bliss suggested calling it just once, at the start of the meeting just after the moderator completes introductory remarks, even though this is slightly different than what is allowed under Robert’s Rules of Order.

Nina Daniel agreed with Mr. Bliss that the quorum issue needs to be changed sooner rather than later. “To those who say we must continue to give it more time — to fail?— I would suggest it would be folly to repeat the same exercise next year and expect a different result than in 2013,” she said.

Ms. Daniel also agreed with Mr. Bliss that requiring a quorum at all is a bad idea, and she said she is concerned about the future of the ATBM if it is allowed to remain in place.

“Sadly, a quorum requirement means that a valid vote for those who attend the ATBM will be denied by those who choose not to attend, truly a perversion of the democratic process.  We already … noted at the 2013 ATBM the attempt to thwart the rights of others by special interests who would manipulate and suppress attendance to avoid reaching the quorum. The temptation is great and truly corruptive of the civic process of voting,” she said.

In addition to denying those in attendance the right to vote, Ms. Daniel said she predicts the end of the ATBM all together if the quorum requirement is allowed to remain, since lack of a quorum — something easy to engineer and manipulate, Ms. Daniel said — means the ATBM simply adjourns to referendum. This would render the ATBM “a useless exercise and a waste of time to attend, not the unique public arena for debate and the exchange of ideas that it traditionally has been,” she said.

At the Aug. 7 meeting, the Charter Revision Commission voted 4-3 in favor of keeping the quorum requirement in the charter. Mr. Bliss, Ms. Daniel, and Mr. Stripp voting against.

Following that vote, the commission voted 4-3 in favor of making the quorum 2% of registered voters, a change from the current wording which states it must be 2% of qualified voters (which can be harder to calculate since certain property owners, who may not be registered voters, are qualified to vote at the ATBM).

Mr. Bliss, Ms. Daniel, and Mr. Stripp voted against, favoring instead a fixed number of 50.

Three members of the public were present at the meeting, as well; all spoke against a quorum requirement.

The Charter Revision Commission was scheduled to meet Wednesday, Aug. 14, at 7:30 p.m. in the Meeting Room at town hall, after The Forum’s press deadline.

A public hearing on the charter has been set for Wednesday, Aug. 28.

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