Commentary: The imperiled Weston Annual Town Budget Meeting

weston-typewritier-commentaWithout most of us realizing it, the two recent Charter Revision Commissions may have laid the groundwork for eliminating a form of self governance that has guided Weston since 1787, that is, the Annual Town Budget Meeting (ATBM). Historically, the ATBM has served Weston well. If it is to be abandoned, it deserves a public discussion of its value, not a deft rewriting of the Town Charter to scrub it clean of relevance to today’s world.

It is at the ATBM that town officials are charged with submitting budgets to the people they serve for approval or revision downward. Nowhere in Connecticut do charters permit ATBM’s to revise budgets upwards. Connecticut law prohibits this. Why? Perhaps because a fundamental purpose of any budget plan is to foster living within one’s means.

Weston’s newly adopted mandated referendum, budget voting by machine ballot, is merely a form of an “adjourned ATBM.”  In fact, it is called precisely that in the language of the Wilton Town Charter, one of several town charters the commission reviewed in 2012 as a model for Weston’s Charter. This is important because since 1787 we have required town officials to submit budgets to the people at the ATBM. That was formalized in the first Weston Town Charter in 1967 and reaffirmed by every Charter Revision Commission since.

The latest iteration of the Town Charter, however, may subtly undermine that legally binding charge in an effort to avoid litigation concerning the ATBM quorum requirement, a requirement abandoned in the Charter of 1979 after the town lost a seminal lawsuit in 1974, but newly re-instituted by the recent Charter Revision Commissions. Remarkably, no public discussion of the key Gilson v. Town of Weston lawsuit ever took place when re-instituting the quorum.

Can the town require a quorum to be present before a vote is taken at the ATBM? Some, including the judge in the above mentioned lawsuit, say “no.” The town meeting is a form of direct democracy. In a representative body, such as boards and commissions, whose representatives are required to attend, quorums indeed are necessary and proper. But who is to say that the public must attend an ATBM?  People congregate of their free will; whoever attends, votes. Those who do not attend should not have the power, in effect, to disenfranchise those who do attend and thus render the meeting useless.

Furthermore, the referendum does not change the importance of the ATBM. Rather, by extending voting hours, providing privacy and the possibility of absentee ballots, the referendum modernizes and remedies several inherent limitations of the ATBM. The referendum, or adjourned ATBM machine vote, cannot be construed as a replacement of the Annual Town Budget Meeting, where people can debate the town budget, department by department, and if necessary, line by line. That right is in danger of being taken away.

Protect your rights and reject the imposition of the ATBM quorum in a free, democratic assembly.  Request that the Charter Revision Commission recognize in the language of the Town Charter that the referendum does not replace the ATBM, but is an extension of voting on the town budget, as approved at the ATBM.

Tonight’s (Oct. 17’s) selectmen’s public hearing at 6:30 p.m. in Town Hall is your opportunity to express your support for the Weston ATBM.

The writers are members of the Charter Revision Commission.

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