Town Meeting -- 04/26/00

Rhode Island is a New England state, still doing thing the old way, still using the Town Meeting as a key part of local government.

In New York State, where I grew up and lived until moving to Rhode Island late in 1995, voters get to choose among candidates for public and sometimes vote on the school budget (This depends on the type of school district in which they reside -- "city" districts do not submit their budgets to the voters.) but that's about it. There are no town meetings.

Rhode Island has a simpler governmental organization than I am used to. That description may surprise many Rhode Islanders who decry the subdivision of the state into so many towns but it is the way it appears to me. Back in New York, outside of the major cities, counties are important governmental units with county highway departments, courts, jails, sheriff's dept, etc. and, depending upon the population and urbanization, there might even be a county police force, a community college, an airport commission, etc. And the county would be divided into towns (whose major tasks would be the town roads and possibly a town constabulary) and within the towns you might find cities and villages with their own governments. School districts might lie within the borders of a city or they might be consolidated districts covering multiple villages and towns or pieces of towns.

Counties don't mean much in Rhode Island. The only function of a county that I can see (other than lines on a map) is within the court system. Towns were not important in New York but in Rhode Island, outside of the urban core area around Providence, the town is the important unit, combining roles that in New York would have been assigned to the county along with the roles of town and village and school district. The village of Wakefield, for example, the most urban like area within South Kingstown, is really just a label on a map, a post office name, it has no village council, no mayor, no village police department... all that stuff is done by the town. The school system is also a town responsibility. There is an elected school board (called the School Committee) that runs the school system, draws up a budget, etc., but then they have to turn to the town government to request that money. And the town government, in turn, has to turn to the voters at the annual Town Financial Meeting.

Yes, we still have Town Meetings. The one last night was a big one, one dealing with contentious issues of development and land use and debates about town planning and urban sprawl. It got statewide coverage. In fact somebody told me today that they caught a reference to it on national tv because of the tie-in with the currently popular discussions about urban sprawl.

A developer has a plan to build a multi-use complex right off U.S. Route 1, restaurants, clothing stores, a multiplex cinema, plus apartments and condominium units. Over the past several months there have been a number of debates over this in the town council, the town planning board, the town zoning board, etc. The development was approved, after changes regarding the design and appearance, what kinds of signs may be used, how many trees will block the view of it from the highway, etc. A group of citizens has been very upset with this; they are vehemently opposed to this development for a variety of reasons: the impact on the school system of more population growth, the impact on existing local business of this new competition, the increase in traffic, etc. and opposition to increasing urbanization of this area. They gathered signatures on a petition to increase the town budget by a half a million dollars to be used as a possible down payment in an attempt to purchase the land or the development rights to the land from developer (with the understanding that the land is worth much more than that and that additional funding from a variety of sources would be needed if this were to pass). Those opposed to this either welcomed the new development or felt that although they did not want the development there was no chance of this proposal succeeding in its goal so it was a waste of time to attempt it.

The Town Financial Meeting -- Tuesday night -- the purpose of the meeting is for the town officials to present the proposed town budget to the voters, have discussion, and then the people vote on the budget. [The proposed budget is $46 million, about three quarters of which is for the school system, but it also includes adding six more members to the police department and buying another ambulance/rescue vehicle.) The town meetings long ago outgrew the town hall and are usually held in the high school auditorium. It was obvious that attendance would be higher than the usual several hundred people so it was scheduled for the high school gymnasium instead. (The school parking lot was full, as were the streets around the school; I had to park more than two blocks away.)That was a good move because more than a thousand people packed the gym. I was impressed with how well-organized everything was. There were tables set up in the lobby where they could verify that an attendee was a registered voter. Once you were checked off on the voter list you were given a small blank ticket that you had to hand to to an usher at the entrance to the gym (getting your hand stamped as you entered, something that made me smile, thinking of high school dances).

The gym was filled with people. The bleachers were all occupied as were the folding chairs that filled the floor area. It was not exactly a cross-section of town demographics. This is a majority white (European - most with ancestors from England but also from Scotland and Ireland, France, Italy, Portugal) area and the crowd reflected that, but there were members of the various ethnic minorities there, including a number of chadar-wearing Muslim women. No, the big imbalance was not ethnicity but age. There were so many senior citizens there that I felt relatively young. There were a lot of middle aged folks as well. But there were very few young people. It was difficult to find people under age thirty or so. They were there but there were far fewer of them than their slice of the demographic pie chart would warrent. (Yes, I know, my daughter was at the Met Cafe in Providence listening to rock groups with friends instead of at the meeting, but she is not 18 yet and would not have been eligible to vote.)

There were two microphones set up for people who wished to address the meeting and long lines of people waiting to speak. The topic was the proposed addition to the budget requested by the petition. One speaker, obviously against the petition, began a statement with "If you believe that..." followed by a skeptical and negative description of what the pro-petition people wanted that ended with "... then I have some swamp land I'd like to sell you." An audience member, obviously thinking of the many problems caused by ground water in the basement of the new police/fire building last year, called out "I think we already bought it!." Despite the fact that some people (on both sides) were somewhat emotionally involved, most people had kept their sense of humor (and proportion).

The discussion went on for hours. Finally, about 10:30, came the call for a vote on this proposal. This could be done as a voice vote or by paper ballot. If twenty percent of the meeting requests, then it has to be by paper ballot. When the question was put to the meeting more than two hundred people stood, so we went to paper ballot. Section by section people were requested to come to the front, find the appropriate table (grouped by first letter of last name), get your name checked off in the voter list and receive a paper ballot. The ballot was a cardboard rectangle divided in two -- one part said Yes and one part said No -- just rip it in half and put the piece that corresponded to your vote into the ballot box and the other half into a trash barrel (guarded by the police). Fortunately the section where I was sitting was among the earlier sections called to vote. At this point, knowing that there were hundreds more voters waiting and that it would take time to tally the vote, I left, stopped at a supermarket to pick up some milk, and got home before midnight, skipping the rest of the meeting.

The final was some five hundred (plus) to three hundred (plus) against the proposal. (Obviously some two hundred or so did not vote.) Then the meeting had to consider the proposed town budget. The voters approved the budget. The meeting adjourned around 1:30 a.m.

My vote? I voted in favor of adding the $500,000 to attempt to buy the land although I felt it had almost no hope of actually succeeding. It was more of a protest vote against the development. I personally feel the town council was wrong to have approved the development. I fear that this development will, indeed, lead to increased traffic, increased population (thus straining the local school system -- which is one of the best in the state), harming the environment (both ecologically and aesthetically), and hurting local businesses. For example, a local guy owns what was a two screen theatre in Naragansett. He purchased the historic but run-down cinema in Wakefield (in fact, it had been closed as being a fire-hazard) and put a million dollars into fixing it up and adding a third screen to each of his two theatres. If not for his theatres we would have to travel fifteen to twenty miles to see a movie. He is a local businessman who has invested time and money into his businees. If this eight screen multiplex opens we will gain a national chain standard cookie cutter opportunity to watch first run movies. They local guy could be forced out of business because he may no longer be able to book first-run showings of movies. The big distributers prefer to deal with multiplex chains rather than small local people, so he could be shut out of the chance to show a lot of films. Okay... I'll stop now before this turns into a rant. *grin*

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