Published February 19. 2014 11:00AM Updated February 19. 2014 11:48AM
Sitting as a mixed group, Representative Town Meeting (RTM) members nevertheless voted along party lines when it came to reinstating language allowing a citizens’ petition process to put items on the call.
Last legislative session, when Democrats and Republicans literally sat on opposing sides during RTM meetings, the then-Democratic majority voted to repeal the 2009 RTM adoption of a citizens’ petition process.
Now, with the 2013-’15 session well underway (including the Republican majority’s introduction of mixed seating), the citizens’ petition process has been reinstated, thanks to a 20-7 vote Feb. 12.
Preceding the vote was a debate in which Democrats reiterated why the process wasn’t needed and Republicans described reasons for allowing it. Minority Leader Chris Sullivan (D) said citizens have always had the right to draw up a petition and deliver it to the RTM. He further noted that current RTM Moderator Dennis Flanigan (R) has stated there is an “open-door” policy during his term, which means seeking the RTM’s attention via petition wouldn’t be necessary.
However, the difference with the language reinstated on Feb. 12 is that all petitions, if they carry at least 50 citizens’ signatures, will be considered by the RTM. That has not always been the case. As longtime RTM member Frank Twohill (R) explained, as far back as 2006-’07, “there were issues brought before this ordinance was put in place [and] it was entirely up to the RTM moderator whether the items should be sent to the committee or not. And it was at their discretion, solely, whether or not we had the relevance to do anything about it. So some people thought that was abuse, and that one person shouldn’t have the power to decide whether an issue or idea should come to us.”
By the same token, as some Democrats pointed out on Feb. 12, of four petitions brought to the RTM prior to the vote to repeal the process, three were initiated by the same citizen, which can be seen as another type of abuse.
On Feb. 12, Rules & Ordinances (R&O) Chair Richard Greenalch (R) reported that a vote to recommend or not recommend the full RTM reinstate the petition process did not make it out of R&O, due to a 3-3 stalemate. However, he asked the full RTM to vote on the matter, saying the petition process is simply something the town’s citizens want.
“I think last year [during the RTM session], a lot of people voted to slam that door, and paid the political cost for it. I think this is an important thing to have, if we are doing our job properly,” said Greenalch, adding, “and, as Representative Sullivan says, with the open communication policy of the moderator, we may not need to use the petition process. But it’s a good thing to have.”
Among those speaking out against the idea was Rep. Maggie Bruno (D), who said she felt the process was “exempting town representatives from their duties” with regard to RTM members’ responsibility to bring issues to the moderator on behalf of their constituents.
“If people feel they cannot approach the representatives, we’re not doing our jobs,” said Bruno. “It should go through the process of being spoken to with the RTM members and then dealt with at that point. It is almost saying, ‘You guys can’t do your job.’”
Rep. Maryanne Amore (D) agreed with Bruno, saying it reverts the RTM a “town meeting”-type structure. Amore also noted that, at least in the case of the Walsh Intermediate School (WIS) noise-reduction petition introduced by a group of parents last term, “It wastes time.”
In that case, the petition, submitted to the RTM as an end-run around the Board of Education (BOE), ended up being addressed by the parents and the BOE before it could reach an RTM committee.
“There would have been a 60-day lag for that to get done, when in fact it got done directly,” Amore noted.
In his support of re-instating the process, Twohill also mentioned how much work went into crafting the original RTM language regarding the petition process, adding the language was put there “to give average citizens a guaranteed avenue, if they put the time in [and] collected 50 names…it would be placed on the call, and that it would be assigned to a committee,” which could then determine whether the matter could be acted upon by the RTM.
“So that’s why it was put in place,” said Twohill. Residents “can still approach their RTM representatives, and they should, but if they want to do it this way, if they’re in a church fair or on the Green [with a petition]…it’s another avenue. If they want to go that way, they should be able to.”