Referendum-style Town Meetings: Is it a fad or a trend?

(from Maine Townsman, May 2005)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

For years, townsfolk in the tourist town of Ogunquit along Maine’s southern coast have groused about spending tax money for the visitor information center, which provides answers to all sorts of tourist-type questions that no year-round resident ever needs to ask.

But in the “raise your hand” atmosphere of an open town meeting, voters historically went along with giving $30,000 to the Ogunquit Chamber of Commerce to help staff the center. This year, the town tried a new format for voting and put the entire town budget on a 54-article ballot. The result was a huge turnout of voters, who among other things gave an unsentimental thumbs down to the information center subsidy.

The defeat “was not a surprise to me,” said First Selectman Charles Waite. Waite says the chummy atmosphere at (open) town meeting can intimidate people into voting for things they don’t want or into not showing up at all. “People told me they didn’t want to upset a business or a neighbor, which I think is weird. But that’s how people felt,” said Waite, who supports both the old town meeting format and the chamber subsidy. “...People didn’t want to be seen as naysayers or stick in the muds. It was easier not to go (to town meeting) and complain about it afterward.”

A small number of towns are reaching for the tonic of referendum-style voting to juice up democracy at the local level. To be sure, open town meeting remains sacrosanct in much of small-town Maine. It’s more than an annual gathering to adopt a town budget (and often a school budget). It’s also a neighborly confab, an institution that shapes a town’s identity, and a tangible link to the past. But attendance at these time-consuming affairs isn’t what it used to be. Some people claim they are too busy others say they don’t feel welcome.

At least eight towns have abandoned open town meeting entirely. York adopted referendum voting in 1992, followed by Bradley in 1996, Jay in 1997, Lebanon in 2002, and then Jefferson, Ogunquit, Windsor and Monmouth in 2004. The Town of Berwick uses a hybrid approach and votes the largest items of its municipal budget by secret ballot with the rest decided at open town meeting.

In referendum town meeting, voters are given a ballot – which can be eight to ten pages long – and encouraged to bring notes and “cheat sheets” into the voting booth to help inform their decisions. In contrast, voters at the open town meeting accomplish their task through several hours of discussion, debate, procedural motions, and public votes.

Judging from the turnout, referendum voting seems hugely popular where it has been tried. Voter turnout in Ogunquit tripled after the switch to referendum voting. Jefferson saw a six-fold increase. Windsor doubled its turnout. Lebanon increased its turnout by ten times. For many people, it makes sense: not only is referendum voting more convenient than a four-hour town meeting, but it affords voters the option of absentee balloting. “If nothing else, it increases participation,” said Jordan Freedman of Ogunquit, who helped bring referendum voting to Ogunquit.

The downside of all this involvement is the bull-in-the-china-shop syndrome. Sometimes, the crude instrument of referendum voting inflicts unintentional damage that must be undone at a later date. One year, Lebanon went without town hall services for six weeks (forcing the town clerk onto unemployment) before corrective action could be taken. Likewise, Jay went without its summer recreation program for one year and barely escaped a school shutdown another year. Many towns craft fall-back mechanisms to soften the downside of referendum voting because as Monmouth Town Manager Jason Simcock points out, “there’s a lot at stake.”

ACTIVISTS PUSH CHANGE IN OGUNQUIT

The impetus for abandoning the open town meeting in Ogunquit came largely from a population skewed heavily toward retired professionals from away. These folks have no particular allegiance to local traditions when they get involved in town government. And sometimes they’re not even physically present, as perhaps a third of the year-round population of 1,200 takes off for Florida or other warm places in the winter. Voting by absentee ballot is big in Ogunquit.

Typical of the new breed of voter is Freedman, a retired electrical engineer who moved here five years ago and quickly got involved in the campaign to bring referendum voting to town. “This is not the first town where I’ve been exposed to the town meeting form of government,” said Freedman, who has family roots in Massachusetts. “What I was concerned about really was the lack of representation. We have a population of over 1,000 and we’re lucky if we get 150 to town meeting. From what I saw, a lot [of decision-making] was heavily biased.”

Attendance at town meeting was hurt not just by snowbirds, but by the stay-home-at-night folks, and the shy-to-vote-in-public folks. “We have an elderly population – something like 65 percent of our population is elderly – and people don’t like to go out at night,” said Jack Leary, another prime mover behind referendum voting.

Some folks are just plain uncomfortable voting in public, he says.

“Suppose you’re voting against the police budget and the police chief is sitting right behind you. Call it what you want, people don’t want to raise their hand,” said Leary, who retired here from the Air Force about nine years ago. “Town meeting didn’t seem democratic to me... Town meeting is held at night and you get minimum voter participation.”

Freedman and Leary might have been content with poorly attended town meetings were it not for their strong disagreement with a particular outcome of town meeting – support for the information center. Tourists are the mainstay of Ogunquit’s economy and the town does a fair amount to support them. Local taxpayers fund four public bathrooms, a beach-sweeper, seasonal police officers to supplement the year-round force, and a large cadre of seasonal “community service workers” who staff parking lots, patrol the Marginal Way footpath and answer the basic questions of the tourists. But the information center was too much to ask from taxpayers, according to Leary and Freedman. The town had once staffed the center itself with town employees, but ended the practice and instead gave the chamber a flat $30,000 to start its own service. When a first year payment became a second and a third year payment, that’s when Leary and Freedman decided to act.

“They [the chamber] said it would be the last year of [town] support, then they denied ever making the statement. I felt like ‘gee, what’s going on here’” Freedman recalls.

A group calling itself – Voter Involvement Project – organized an initiative petition campaign, consulted with towns that had tried referendum voting and eventually carried the day.

When the votes were counted on April 2 following the first town budget referendum, three times as many people had voted (579 people) as had done so at the most heavily attended recent town meeting (180 people), according to Town Clerk Judy Shaw-Kagiliery. Significantly, more than half the voters (308) cast absentee ballots, she said. On the crucial question of whether to continue referendum voting in the future, voters agreed by a 2-1 margin, which was all it took to convert former skeptic Waite into a referendum supporter.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” said Waite. “People liked it. When you have 70 percent of the voters telling you one thing, you know who your boss is. ... If that’s what Ogunquit wants, that’s what I want.”

ANTI-TAX FLAVOR

As Ogunquit’s experience suggests, the movement toward referendum voting is not strictly about increasing voter participation or any of the other high-minded arguments brought to bear on the question. Invariably, it’s also about reversing an unpopular spending decision or rolling back taxes.

Many referendum proponents style themselves as taxpayers’ watchdogs battling “special interests” perceived to dominate at town meeting. “In my opinion, people who showed up at town meeting were people who had a vested interest in the schools or the fire department,” observes Wayne Parlin, leader of the Jefferson Taxpayer Information Network, which spearheaded referendum voting in that town. “If there were 60 people at the meeting, 30 of them would be firefighters, friends or family. You vote your group, which is not a good way to run a town.” Parlin was involved in the 2004 Palesky tax cap initiative and the group’s website contains links to several taxpayer rights groups.

Similarly, the 1997 petition calling for referendum voting in Jay is a classic (though misspelled) manifesto of taxpayer rights: “The [secret ballot] eliminates the FACTION SENERIO, which has been prevalent in the last several years at Jay town meetings,” it reads. “The select few, such as teachers, and special interest groups, will no longer be able to crowd the meeting for their self interest goals.”

In York, referendum proponent William Layman takes delight in telling the story of how the charter commission fought the school board, the board of selectmen, and “three newspapers” all the way to the Maine Supreme Court to bring referendum voting to the residents.

In Windsor, referendum champions Dale and Lynn Allerding are described by Selectman Jerry Neault as “certainly representing the taxpayer side.”

SCHOOL BUDGET REFERENDA

Taxpayer anger is also fueling the switch to referendum voting on school budgets, according to James Rier of the Maine Department of Education.

“Taxpayers are frustrated. They think they can have more of a say [in referendum voting] than they could at district meetings,” Rier said. “School boards hate referendum voting.”

Fueling taxpayer anger are school boards that drag their heels in meeting the spirit of referendum voting even after it has been adopted, said Rier. “When a budget is defeated at referendum what often happens is the school board may try the referendum route once or twice, then it bring it back to a district meeting, load it with supporters and get it approved,” he said.

The word about school budget adoption by referenda definitely seems to be spreading. Some 33 of 75 regional school districts – double the number 15 year ago – now vote by referendum on school budgets. SAD 51 (Cumberland and North Yarmouth) is the latest school district to consider the switch.

The State Board of Education devised a solution for school budget voting that combines an open district meeting with a follow-up “validation vote” held by secret ballot referendum within three days. Under the new model, called the “cost center summary budget” model, budgets must be developed according to a prescribed process and then submitted to an open meeting – where they are subjected to the usual discussion, modification if necessary and an up or down vote. Whatever budget is approved at town meeting is then subjected to a second “validation vote” – in a secret ballot referendum – within three days. Defeat at referendum automatically sends the budget back to open meeting and a subsequent validation vote.

To Rier’s knowledge, only three districts have adopted the “validation vote” model – SAD 22 in the Hampden area, SAD 43 in the Rumford area, and SAD 63 in Poland. “The school side was very resistant to the change,” said Rier.

CUTTING SERVICES

Cuts to government service often follow referendum voting. Lebanon first abolished its five-member police force by referendum voting in 1991, and used the referendum ballot for major town issues until 2002 when it did away with the open town meeting entirely.

“As long as we have referendum balloting, the police force is never coming back,” predicts Lebanon Selectman Tom Potter, a proponent of both open town meeting and the police force. “We need it [police force] because we’re gradually losing the state police and the sheriff’s department.”

In Ogunquit, not only did voters end the subsidy to the information center, but they also refused to fund the clean up following Fourth of July fireworks that draw thousands to town.

In York, one referendum-inflicted budget cut forced the school department one year to lay off 14 people, a cut unimaginable in town meeting days, said Layman. “They were cut bad. It would never have happened at town meeting. My God, no.”

In Jefferson, referendum voters nixed the same social service agency requests two years in a row. “I find that very disturbing,” said Selectman Rosa Sinclair. “Head Start, WIC, heating oil help. [That agency] covers a multitude of services that people want and need. In an open meeting, these things would have been discussed and more clearly understood.”

RECONSIDERING THE CHANGE

In Jefferson, a contingent of current and former town officials are trying to resurrect open town meeting after a two-year trial with referendum voting. On April 28, selectmen received a petition with the requisite number of petition signatures asking for a revote on the referendum question. It came less than a month after referendum voters defeated the school budget and purchase of a new $250,000 fire truck. The question may be on a June ballot along with the school articles.

“I believe in tradition to a certain extent,” said Sheridan Bond, who fits almost anyone’s definition of a town-hall insider. The former selectman is currently fire chief, Lincoln County Commissioner and husband of the town clerk and treasurer.

There’s no reason for a town of 2,600 to abandon the open town meeting, he said.

“So far this whole operation has done nothing but cost us,” said Bond, ticking off the expense of purchasing a voting machine, which he says needs to be reprogrammed every election to the tune of $1,000.

He’s particularly critical of the necessity of having to revote the school budget, which entails a new round of review, postings, a public hearing, and the expense of holding another referendum. “We’ve gone to all this expense when it all could have been done in one evening, or one afternoon,” he said.

Bond calls referendum voting “a lazy man’s way to run a town.”

“There’s a certain element in every town, as long as they’re doing okay ... they don’t care about anybody else,” he said. “It’s very dangerous when everyone is allowed to vote when they don’t fully understand it.”

Parlin said he takes the criticism in stride. “People are going to be upset. I see no difference whether you vote [at] town meeting or [by] referendum,” he said.

FALL-BACK MECHANISM

Unlike most referendum towns, Jefferson has no fall back mechanism should a budget be defeated. If that happens, there’s zero money to run that department. Selectman Rosa Sinclair said consideration was given to creating an option to revert to last year’s budget, but a legal opinion helped sway selectmen who were already predisposed against it. Sinclair said she’s skeptical voters would ever vote for this year’s budget if they are given the choice of adopting last year’s budget. “I think they’d do it year after year after year.”

Defeat of a budget in Ogunquit automatically restores last year’s budget.

Monmouth gives voters the option to revert to last year’s budget. “What could happen is they don’t support the fire department and also don’t want last year’s budget. I think the fire department would face a zero operating budget,” explained Town Manager Simcock. He calls asking for permission to revert to last year’s budget “insurance”. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to operate at least at last year’s budget. There’s a lot at stake.”

In Windsor, instead of an up or down vote on each budget, voters have a choice of following the recommendation of the selectmen or the budget committee. Windsor also gives voters the option of adopting a “continuing resolution” to keep the town running on last year’s budget until a new referendum can be scheduled.

Jay had a few close calls with running on empty and decided to move its voting back several months. “It came right down to school starting and no school budget,” said Jay Town Manager Ruth Marden. Jay votes in April. “That way, if you have to have two votes, you have time.”

EDUCATING VOTERS/OTHER ADVICE

Even proponents of referendum voting concede that it won’t work without extra effort to educate voters. Referendum voting comes with none of the compulsory education that is part of the open town meeting experience. (You can’t vote until the moderator has explained the article and called for debate.) To compensate, selectmen usually hold extra hearings and send out voluminous mailings explaining each article.

“The one [opponents’] argument that has any validity is that referendum voters would not be informed, they would not be exposed to the give and take of town meeting But that’s really not quite true,’ said Ogunquit’s Freedman. Ogunquit selectmen, for example, “did an excellent job” mailing out voter education pamphlets in advance of the vote and scheduled two informational sessions, each of which was rebroadcast on local access cable channel three times in advance of the vote, he said. “The last informational session, people were getting up yelling, arguing. That was democracy,” he said.

Referendum voters aren’t as easily swayed as town meeting voters, observes Jerry Neault, selectman in Windsor. “At town meeting, you have informal leaders. If you play to them, you’re all set, which is not necessarily a bad thing,” said Neault. Windsor published a tabloid-sized newspaper guide to ballot questions, which was mailed out bulk rate to all registered voters. “You’ve got to go out of your way to educate,” said Neault.

The other bits of advice veterans of referendum voting offer are: keep the ballot to a manageable length so voters don’t lose patience, and purchase a voting machine because counting ballots with 40 or more articles would be prohibitively slow without them.

“We went from 80-some odd articles to 44,” said Jay Town Manager Ruth Marden. “It was more a matter of ease of balloting. We thought people would get so tired after 80 articles that they would just vote “no, no, no.” She said now it takes 15 to 30 minutes.