Tiverton canvassers okay alternative budget

Town voters to get choice of two budgets at FTR

Tom Killin Dalglish
Posted 5/1/19

TIVERTON – A nearly two-hour budget battle in Town Hall last Thursday evening came to an end when the Board of Canvassers unanimously voted 3-0 to place an alternative petitioner's budget, proposed by Sanford Mantell ("the Mantell budget"), on the ballot for the all-day Financial Town Referendum (FTR) on Saturday, May 18.

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Tiverton canvassers okay alternative budget

Town voters to get choice of two budgets at FTR

Posted

TIVERTON – A nearly two-hour budget battle in Town Hall last Thursday evening came to an end when the Board of Canvassers unanimously voted 3-0 to place an alternative petitioner's budget, proposed by Sanford Mantell ("the Mantell budget"), on the ballot for the all-day Financial Town Referendum (FTR) on Saturday, May 18.
The canvasser's decision means that voters will have two budgets — the Budget Committee's (Budget #1) and petitioner Mantel's budget (Budget #2) — to choose from at the upcoming FTR. (See Insert, comparing the two proposed budgets.)
The two budgets will be discussed and compared publicly this Thursday, May 2, at 7 p.m. at the Financial Town Hearing (FTH) in the High School Auditorium. Proponents for each budget will present and defend each (a budget committee member, presumably standing in for the recently resigned former chairman Jeff Caron, for Budget #!) and Sanford Mantell (for the Mantell budget, Budget #2.)
The three regular members of the canvassers who were unanimous — two Republicans and one Democrat — were Chairman Bobby Harris (R), DeEtta Moran (R), and Paul Amaral (D). Alternate member Andrea Sousa (D) could not vote, but took an active role in the debate, and was allowed to speak and ask questions. Alternate member Christopher Borden was absent.
Unlike budget committee and town council members, who are nominally non-partisan, the five members of the board of canvassers are all explicitly party-affiliated, and are chosen by the two respective parties to sit on the board. Three are regular members, and two are alternates.
The main item on the canvasser's agenda last Thursday — and what drew the crowd — was the task of certifying the "elector petition signatures" and the ballot budget proposals and resolutions that voters would face at the upcoming FTR on May 18.
Speakers at the debate
Anyone who wanted to could speak — Chairman Harris was generous in throwing the meeting open to speakers for and against either budget.
Since the budget committee's budget (Budget #1) by law automatically holds a place on the ballot, the only open question on the floor was whether the alternative (or petitioner Mantell's) budget would qualify, or not qualify, for the ballot, and in the end, it did.
Only two speakers — Town Solicitor Giovanni Cicione and Town Council Vice President Justin Katz — spoke against Mr. Mantell's proposed budget, for pretty much identical reasons. Their comments emphasized claims of arithmetic, numeric, or format errors.
But it appeared clear that the canvassers were not of a mind to elevate any of such claims to a level that would disqualify the budget from going forward and being placed on the ballot.
The mantra from speakers, several times repeated during the debate, was "let the voters decide," and that is what the canvassers decided, They made no findings of fact, delivered no opinion, they just voted, and that ended it.
It was pretty much a free-for-all for speakers, as one after another took a turn at the microphone.
Among the speakers were lawyers (Fausto Anguilla, representing Mr. Mantell, and Vicki Bjema, representing the Tiverton School Committee).
Moments before the meeting began, Mr. Cicione distributed a 13-page "Memorandum," dated the same day of the meeting, listing what — he claimed — were "deficiencies," fatal or otherwise, such as misstated percentages, incorrect totals, unclear distinctions in expenditures, inadequate documentation, alleged failure to show or failure to include this or that, all claims that Mr. Mantell disputed.
Mr. Mantell analogized the differences in presenting his budget, which he said met all the charter requirements, to the difference between taking Route 6 to get to Providence instead of 195.
Mr. Cicione's memorandum, after five pages of legal argument, included a spread sheet showing detailed comparisons between the budget committee's proposal and Mr. Mantell's.
Several canvassers objected to being given such a memorandum at the very beginning of the meeting, with no time to study it.
Claiming that the deficiencies are "in violation of the basic requirements of form and content," Mr. Cicione contended in his Memorandum that, "Because of these defects, and because the electors who signed the petition did not have the benefit of an accurate petition on which to base the decision to sign, I am of the opinion that the [Mantell] proposal must not be certified and should not be allowed on the FTR ballot."
Board member Andrea Souza, however, made the point that "according to our charter as long as the requirements of Section 301(b) (A through E) are met" ... meaning that the dollar amount is shown appropriate to the school department, appropriate to the municipal budget" and she named other A-through E requirements, and that "50 qualified signatures" exist, "that's it ... Those are the only requirements."
Mr. Anguilla, Mr. Mantel's lawyer, who said he'd been a municipal attorney for many years, disagreed with Mr. Cicione, saying that what he was saying was "just not accurate."
It's not the function of the canvassers "to determine if it's a good budget or a bad budget," Mr. Anguilla said. It's not Mr. Cicione's function to go through the math. It's only to certify the budget to the ballot as having met charter prerequisites.
The discussion went on, including a discussion about the degree of mathematical specificity required of petitions that people are expected to read during signature gsthering, and whether Mr. Cicione had a math background.
The Budget Committee's municipal budget (Budget #1) came in for criticism for including a budget item of $316,000 for the "School Department Capital Requests," that was said by numerous speakers to be flatly illegal.
"I'm getting a terrible headache from this," said Patti Sousa Cooper at one point. "The purpose of tonight is to decide, did he [Mr. Mantell] do everything right? Did he hit all the points? Yup, he did. Okay, let's put it so it can pass through and everybody gets to decide which budget."
"I'm a little uncomfortable," she said. "that the solicitor and that councilman are very focused on all the little nitty gritty problems that they're finding with the alternative budget. This is like ripping apart a budget to keep it from getting to people to see it," she said, to loud applause"
Comments in the aftermath
"I'm happy that the petitioner's budget was approved, despite complaints from some that there were details that were inaccurate," said Petitioner Mantell, whose budget will now be Budget #2 on the ballot.
"It's not the board of canvasser's duty to rule on any of the allegations made by the objectors," he said. "The board's job is to make sure all the steps in creating the budget were completed and were on time, and that's what it did."
Council Vice President Katz, who along with Solicitor Cicione spoke against Petitioner Mantell's proposal, objected to what he considered to be the canvassers' inconsistency: one year deciding "fine points of legal interpretation" and the next not checking "simple addition."
"Whether a lawsuit is the best way to find that clarity, or what form the lawsuit should take, I'm not sure at the moment," Mr. Katz said.
Mr. Katz said he three concerns about the outcome: the accuracy of the numbers used by budgeteers; the consistency of the standards used by the canvassers in allowing or denying access to the ballot; and "the behavior on display from people in the audience and from town officials," which he said (without specifically identifying any) "was simply shameful, particularly with the gratuitous insults against Solicitor Cicione ...." 

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