Preston weighing impact of budget referendums

Preston - Years ago, hundreds of residents would come to town meetings each spring to discuss the proposed annual budget, questioning line items, debating expenditures and maybe after a few hours coming to a vote.

Nearly 20 years ago, that changed - and not for the better, according to Board of Finance member David Cannon - when the town approved an ordinance that stated the town and school budgets automatically go to referendum.

The town meeting is still held to discuss the budget, but Cannon says few people attend. Most of them are members of the boards of selectmen, education and finance, along with maybe a few parents of schoolchildren or certain interest groups with funding in the budget.

Cannon campaigned for election onto the Board of Finance last fall, saying he wanted the return of a meaningful budget town meeting where votes on the town and school budgets would be taken.

The boards of selectmen, finance and education held a joint meeting Thursday to discuss whether the town should ask voters to approve a new ordinance that would call for budget votes at the annual budget town meeting. Residents displeased with the vote could obtain 20 signatures on a petition to take the budget to referendum after that vote.

First Selectman Robert Congdon and Board of Finance Chairman Jerry Grabarek said the Board of Selectmen tried about 13 years ago to change the ordinance, and "we got it handed to us," as residents soundly defeated the effort to return to town meeting votes on the budgets.

"The town meeting is the purest form of democratic governing," Cannon said at the start of the joint meeting. "In use, primarily in New England, for over 300 years and still today it has proven to be a valuable means for the resident taxpayer to voice their opinions and directly affect change in their several communities."

Finance board member Norman Gauthier disagreed with Cannon's premise that eliminating the automatic budget referendum would bring more people to town meetings. He said the ordinance calling for automatic referendum was passed in 1995 because few people came to town meetings, and a few people with vested interests could stack the meeting and decide the budget.

Finance board Chairman Jerry Grabarek said people are too busy to attend town meetings, but he also agreed that if the vote were taken at a town meeting, it would be easy for someone to obtain 20 signatures from residents to force the budget to referendum.

Finance board member Kenneth Zachem suggested changing the ordinance to allow budget votes at the town meeting if a set minimum percentage of town taxpayers attend the meeting. If the minimum is not met, then the budgets would go to referendum.

Members of all three boards liked that suggestion, and the three individual boards will discuss the issue at their upcoming meetings.

c.bessette@theday.com

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