Too many flaws with Groton charter changes

This may be a state election year, but perhaps the most hotly debated issue in these parts is a local one — whether to approve drastic changes to the Town of Groton Charter.

Question 3 on the Groton ballot says little — “Shall the Town of Groton Charter be amended and revised, all as set forth in the November 2017 final report of the 2016 Town of Groton Charter Revision Commission, and as on file with the Town Clerk?” — but it incorporates a lot.

A divided Charter Revision Commission recommended the changes. Its final draft was opposed in two minority reports.

The commission report recommends elimination of the Representative Town Meeting, creation of a Board of Finance, extending the term of office for members of the nine-person Town Council from two to four years, and requiring an annual referendum with separate votes on the education and municipal budgets.

The Town Council rejected the plan 5-4, but supporters persisted, petitioning it to the ballot.

So here we are.

RTM

The idea of getting rid of the 41-member RTM has struck an emotional chord with many who see it as a tie to traditional New England-style government and a check on the Town Council.

We agree with the majority of charter revision members that it is more of an anachronism that tends to tweak nearly completed budgets rather than help form or significantly revise them. Party town chairmen often have to go begging to find enough people to run for all those slots.

If the RTM is eliminated, the minority representation rule would switch to the council, meaning it would have at least three Democrats or Republicans no matter how the council vote went. We’re not fans of that state law — the top vote-getters should be seated — but it is not a reason to keep the RTM.

Board of Finance

The charter changes, if approved, would create a Board of Finance, with one member elected from each of the town’s seven voting precincts. Members would have four-year terms. It would provide a five-year forecast of revenue and expenses, guiding the Town Council and the town manager who works for it. The finance board would provide written opinions on the town budget.

With the RTM eliminated, a fiscal watch dog could be useful. The problem is the board would only be advisory. As many an ignored report demonstrates, advisory only gets you so far. The commission should have given the board some teeth to reject appropriations, requiring a council override if it wanted to ignore the advice.

Four-year council terms

Many folks won’t like this. There are exceptions, but most local selectmen and councilors in our area serve two-year terms. So do state senators and House members.

We understand the argument. Longer terms provide more continuity and a chance to better understand governance. We wouldn’t say “no” because of the four-year terms, but many voters might.

Annual budget referendum

This we don’t like. Every third Tuesday of May townspeople would vote on the budget approved by the council for education and for municipal services. If not winning majority approval, it goes to another vote, and potentially another, and so on.

The council could produce a budget that most people are either satisfied with or consider too low — say 45 percent vote yes and 10 percent vote “no too low” — and it will still be rejected. What then? Increase it? Cut it? Who knows.

Why potentially create such upheaval? Using the equalized mill rate calculation, only 22 towns out of 169 have lower property taxes than Groton. And it has great services.

To force a vote on any other town ordinance requires a petition with the signatures of 5 percent of registered voters. So should it be to force a budget vote. That way, if voters are upset they can petition. Otherwise, let the decisions of the people they elected stand.

Given the flaws with the proposed charter changes — a toothless finance board and a needless, confusing annual budget referendum — we recommend a “no” vote.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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