In the early days of America, residents in small New England communities would gather for “town meetings” to make spending, infrastructure or investment decisions, as a community. Those …
In the early days of America, residents in small New England communities would gather for “town meetings” to make spending, infrastructure or investment decisions, as a community. Those are the origins of Barrington’s annual “Financial Town Meeting,” a tradition dating back hundreds of years.
The spirit of the town meeting is to give residents and taxpayers a chance to review, ratify, change or influence the town’s financial choices. It is a core practice in Barrington governance. It is a basic right for every taxpayer in this community.
This year it was grossly undermined by the top official in town government.
Taxpayer and resident TR Rimoshytus followed proper procedure and submitted a written motion one month prior to this year’s Financial Town meeting. He called upon the town to create a dedicated fund for the improvement and maintenance of natural grass athletic fields, and to seed it with $1.5 million.
A week ago, this paper interviewed Rimoshytus about his motion and published an article about it. The next day, Town Manager Phil Hervey called Rimoshytus and warned him about what might happen if the motion passed. Rimoshytus withdrew his motion.
The town manager’s warning was grounded in logic. Per state law, municipalities cannot raise their property tax rates more than 4% annually, unless they appeal the Rhode Island General Assembly for relief. Because the town’s proposed budgets, both school and municipal, would already push the tax rate close to the 4% cap, the Rimoshytus field fund would put the town in a bind.
That’s the logical analysis. But withdrawing the motion was not the only solution here. First of all, Hervey could have called Rimoshytus and asked him to amend the motion to a lower dollar amount. If the motion passed, it would have created a foothold for the fund and set a foundation for future field investments.
Second of all, Hervey and others could have warned taxpayers at the meeting about the ramifications of a “yes” vote. If taxpayers ignored those warnings and passed the motion anyway, creating a binding obligation for the town to finally invest in athletic facilities after years of neglect, the town would still have choices. It could cut from other budgets. It could petition the General Assembly for relief. Either way, it would be following the will of the voters.
By pressuring a private citizen to withdraw a motion before it even saw the light of day, the manager trampled on the spirit and procedures of Town Meeting. It is one of the most egregious examples of government overreach we’ve seen.
It also sets a terrible precedent for the future of Town Meeting. Since the local government typically submits budgets that press against the 4% cap, they leave taxpayers only two options at Town Meeting: rubber-stamp their proposals, or cut. Taxpayers could never make their own investment choices for their community.
Of course, why should private citizens be trusted anyway? Here in Barrington, the government knows best.