Warren Charter Review Commission proposes return of Financial Town Meeting

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 5/26/22

Also included in the potential amendments are changes to the length of terms for Town Council members, changes to the budget process, and a proposal to make certain existing ad hoc commissions part of the official charter language.

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Warren Charter Review Commission proposes return of Financial Town Meeting

Posted

The Warren Charter Review Commission unveiled their proposed amendments to the Warren Town Charter during a special meeting of the Warren Town Council last Thursday evening — the culmination of a process which began nearly two years ago.

Included the potential amendments — which will go before a public hearing during the June 14 meeting of the council — are changes to the length of terms for Town Council members, changes to the budget process (including a proposal to bring back the Financial Town Meeting), and a proposal to make certain existing ad hoc commissions part of the official charter language.

“Our job as a board is to present what we feel should be done,” said Al Galinelli, Chair of the Charter Review Commission. “We don’t make or draft policies, that’s on the elected officials to do that. But we have to give them insights on how we feel.”

Two-year terms for Town Council members
The commission recommended changing the structure of terms for Town Council members to two-year terms, which would replace an existing system that utilizes staggered, four-year terms which members of the commission found to be confusing for voters and detrimental to the town’s democratic process overall — specifically citing a drastic drop-off in votes counted in 2020 for the President of the United States to votes for the two council members on the ballot, who both ran unopposed.

“In my opinion, these four-year staggered terms are really odd,” said commission member Dave McCarthy to the council. “People talk about voter suppression. This is an unintentional sort of voter suppression when you see almost a 45 percent drop-off from President to votes for Town Council.”

Opinions from the council were mostly agreeable to this change.
“I’m not opposed to putting something on the ballot and getting the public’s opinion,” said Keri Cronin, adding that she was in favor of adding term limits to the language. “I think there should be a limit of four, two-year terms…I think that would be a way to keep some freshness and prevent there from being too long a term of service from any one person.”

Councilman Joe DePasquale and Council President John Hanley both bristled at the idea of term limits, but were amendable with the two-year term proposed by the commission.

“I think if the people want to elect you and you want to keep committing, I think you should be able to run,” said DePasquale. “So if pressed on an answer, I’m not in favor of term limits.”

Talk of bringing back the Financial Town Meeting
Galinelli said that the commission spent a greater amount of time on proposed changes to the budgetary process for the town than any other provision within the charter.

Included in the proposed amendments is a procedural change to provide more time for the Town Manager to submit a preliminary budget presentation to the council — from March 1 to March 15 — so that the town can learn what the budget request from the Bristol Warren Regional School District would be. This measure was unanimously agreed upon as a smart idea to enable better budgeting practice.

What is likely to generate conversation during the public process of the proposed amendments is the concept of bringing back the Financial Town Meeting in addition to the various public meetings that precede a final vote on the town’s budget.

“I’m not really sure on that,” said President Hanley on the subject. “I’ve participated on a few as a councilman and a few as an attendee. One time was a very bad experience where a bunch of angry people got up and pretty much put the town in a very bad situation.”

“As far as the transparency and the public aspect of the budget process, we advertise, we have public meetings, formerly known as workshops, we go through every single line of the budget, and the only people who show up —much as tonight where we are discussing some very significant aspects of our town charter — the only people are present are generally the ones who are obligated to be here,” said Cronin, who was opposed to bringing back the financial town meeting. “I don’t know, it seems a little bit of a romantic notion to put something back just to get public participation that should be happening anyway.”

Responding to Cronin’s opinion that the town had failed to reach a quorum to hold a financial town meeting in the past, Councilman DePasquale said that he felt failing to reach a quorum was not necessarily indicative of a failure of public participation.

“I like the process because I don’t see the lack of a quorum as a failure,” he said. “The lack of a quorum is a success by the council or creating a budget that the town has accepted. And by not attending, they’re showing their acceptance because there’s nothing they oppose.”

Ad hoc commissions
An interesting amendment proposal included the concept of formalizing the Warren Arts and Culture Commission into the charter, rather than leaving it as an ad hoc board, and formalizing a Climate Change Action and Sustainability Task Force into the charter as well.

The council discussed back and forth whether or not it would be best to leave such boards in an ad hoc status, so that changes could be quickly deliberated and handled via council action rather than requiring changes to the charter.

Ultimately, all of the proposed amendments went through to the public process in June, which is where they will ultimately be decided upon.

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