Finance Committee fails Acton Town Meeting

At last night's Annual Town Meeting (TM), my friend Charlie Kadlec proposed an amendment to the town funding warrant article to transfer $1 million from our reserves to lower next year's tax rate, which would have saved the average taxpayer around $125. The average single-family property tax bill would still have increased to $10,988, a 2.77% increase, but would have stayed under $11,000. His amendment was defeated by about 160-110. So that means Acton's average tax bill will climb 4% next year to $11,121.

Of course, I supported Charlie's amendment and was once again distressed to hear some arguments against his amendment that were not given the chance for a full rebuttal. So Town Meeting, our town's "legislative" body, is once again making decisions based on incomplete or erroneous information. But today's article is not about this particular issue or how to fix Town Meeting (I have written about that extensively before) but is about our legislative process and FinCom's failure in that process.

The reason, in fact the only reason, we have a Finance Committee (FinCom) and all those dedicated volunteers attending all those meetings is to represent "taxpayers," or more broadly, to advise "Town Meeting." And FinCom publicly admitted last night that they are no longer performing that role. While I have long been concerned that FinCom is not doing what it should, I believe this is the first time they have publicly admitted it.

What FinCom said was that they voted 5-3 not to support Charlie's amendment because, in part, some members felt this would violate the working agreement they have at Acton Leadership Group and to respect the decision made by the three boards in the "ALG process." (The Acton Leadership Group is a committee made up of leaders of the three boards and staff members who discuss spending and revenues and reach a consensus about spending plans for the following year, which is then presented in the budget information at Town Meeting.)

Now really think about this. Our "independent," "watchdog" Committee is not reviewing an amendment at Town Meeting on its face. In other words, it is not giving Town Meeting an unbiased analysis of what a Town Meeting member proposes in an amendment from the floor.

As a student of "process," I find this appalling.

Fincom's role as I understand it is to consider all warrant articles at Town Meeting and render its advice to Town Meeting prior to the vote. If FinCom actually feels its role at Town Meeting is to support the consensus reached behind closed doors with the two "spending boards" (School Committee and Board of Selectmen), then why are they there?

Both spending boards spoke publicly against the Kadlec amendment. Do we need a third board, supposedly independent, to echo what the other two boards say?

Of course, they are free to agree or disagree with the other boards. But taking those behind-the-scenes roles into account is not valid. They are not supposed to be "political." Their makeup as appointees of the Town Moderator is supposed to insulate them from political pressure.

Where in the Town Charter or By-Laws does it say that Fincom's role is to support the ALG consensus at Town Meeting? (Don't bother looking...the ALG does not appear in either of those Town documents.)

I have long objected to the too-cozy relationship among these three Boards (and staff members, who also sit on the ALG and "help," but have the same "votes" as the elected representatives) but what FinCom said at Town Meeting has made this crystal clear:

When a question comes before Town Meeting, FinCom will consider how it's opinion will affect the working relationship and agreements to "work together" and "seek consensus" and "support the ALG process" before it considers its Town Meeting advisory role or duties.

Therefore, its advisory opinion is no longer independent. Therefore it is superfluous.

If that is the case, then I propose we dissolve FinCom and just let the two spending boards do what they want (with Town Meeting approval.) This will save time, but more importantly, it will remove the appearance that Acton has an independent board watching out for taxpayers, and those TM voters who up to now have assumed that somebody is speaking or watching out for them will no longer be under that illusion. Maybe TM will then be a bit more skeptical about automatically supporting the warrant articles because they assume the system used to produce them is trustworthy.

Alternately, FinCom could realize its mistake, continue to participate in the ALG process but expressly reserve its right to act independently at Town Meeting, and move to reconsider last night's amendment and revote its decision not to support it, with its members agreeing to act independently and not kowtow to the ALG.

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First, the reasons set forth

First, the reasons set forth for fincom's divided vote not in support of Charlie's amendment were not just because of an ALG agreement; some members also felt that excess reserves should be used for capital items. Others also felt that we shouldn't be spending that much in reserves, given the projected deficits of the upcoming years. And others supported the amendment.

Second, there is valid reason for supporting the ALG consensus. If we say we support something at the negotiating table (after months of negotiating), and then turn around and not support it at Town Meeting, then we lose some credibility at the negotiating table. Now, we may choose to do this if enough members feel that the matter at hand is important enough. Last night, there were not enough members who felt that way. Doing away with the ALG process may be something we as a town should be debating, but as of now, that is the process we have, and as Fincom chair, I want to be able to have an effective voice at that negotiating table. This year, for instance, Fincom was able to negotiate away using nearly all of the $985000 unused tax levy capacity, which would have increased taxes even more. The final amount that the town is using is $75,000. We stood firm in our belief that the town should not be using the unused tax levy capacity. We also negotiated with the schools so that they would use more of their reserves as revenue sources. And finally, through our "Point of View" document and the discussions that ensued from that, we put pressure on spending, and so the budgets ultimately landed in a place much lower than originally proposed. I think those are good outcomes for the Acton taxpayers. However, ultimately, Fincom is not an elected body. If Acton residents want lower taxes, this needs to be reflected in whom they vote for and what they communicate to their elected officials, the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee.

Third, ALG is not a "closed-door" process. ALG meetings are public, and there are often members of the public that attend, and minutes are published. Indeed, as you said last night, Charlie nearly always attends these meetings. However, you were mistaken in implying that somehow Charlie had proposed this amendment to ALG and that it had been considered and debated. As I recall, Charlie informed ALG at our very last meeting at the very end of the meeting that he was thinking about proposing an amendment that would propose using more reserves, so there was no time and nothing concrete to even be discussed and debated. It was only after ALG negotiations and meetings were finished that the amendment came forth.


FinCom fails to defend its actions at Town Meeting

1. If you read my article, I explained (at the end) how FinCom can continue to participate in ALG while still representing taxpayers. The answer is easy. They agree to reach and support a consensus that is brought to Town Meeting. That was done this year. But once Town Meeting begins, if other issues come up, FinCom MUST be able to act independently and consider whatever issue comes up on its own merits. That is, by definition, the only way it can effectively advise Town Meeting.

Let me make this a bit clearer. If FinCom agrees to support some compromise spending article, and then a Town Meeting member proposes an amendment to raise the number, FinCom has "done its job" during the negotiation and must review the proposed amendment independently, without regard to their previous consensus agreement. Otherwise, they are "representing" ALG and not Town Meeting.

If you are arguing that FinCom should be a behind-the-scenes volunteer group to help the two spending boards find common ground, then don't sit on the Town Meeting stage and act like you are an independent board. You can't have it both ways.

Having an independent board participate in the ALG process is already very suspect, but it clearly must remain "independent" once it goes to Town Meeting, otherwise there is no reason for it to be there.

2. If ALG chooses to prevent the public from speaking at their meetings until the very end, then Charlie had no choice but to announce his intentions at the end. If ALG then chooses to disband prior to discussing Charlie's proposal, then it is choosing not to consider and debate it. You cannot then criticize Charlie for failing to speak when ALG restricts him as it does. But this is really a red-herring because Charlie is a member of Town Meeting and does not have to take anything to ALG. I only mentioned that he attended ALG because a previous speaker implied that this was somehow a surprise motion that had not been considered.

3. I can't recall ever seeing a citizen who was not serving on another board attend an ALG meeting. Not once. So if that has happened in the last 10 years, you can let me know when and who was there. And therefore, this is a "de facto" behind-closed-doors group.

What gives ALG the right to meet and make decisions anyway? It isn't even in the Town Charter.

4. If any FinCom member considered the ALG consensus or the ALG process when making his decision to vote against Charlie's amendment, it doesn't matter what else occurred. That taints the process and requires a re-vote. And in that re-vote, the members should be advised by the Chair NOT to consider the ALG process as part of their decision-making analysis. Think of a judge instructing a jury to disregard some testimony that was out of order and ruled inadmissible.

5. There are very valid reasons for supporting the ALG consensus up to Town Meeting. Once Town Meeting starts, FinCom is either an independent body supporting and advising Town Meeting, or it is a member of ALG, there to report back on what ALG decided, and back up the other two boards on whatever consensus was reached.

You can't serve two masters.

Last night, FinCom made it clear that is served the ALG. Is that going to be FinCom's role going forward?

6. I agree that Acton taxpayers could elect different representatives. Likewise, the Moderator could appoint different FinCom members. That is completely beside the point. This isn't about Charlie's amendment whatsoever. This is about FinCom's role as an advisory body to TOWN MEETING.

The FinCom members have a unique background and perspective. They can opine about whether taxes are too high, too low, or just right. They can advise about the use of reserves and what the reserve levels should be, in their opinion. Town Meeting can take their advice into consideration as members vote.

But what FinCom can't and shouldn't do is pretend that it has independently looked at these issues and its advice to Town Meeting reflects that independent review.

Clearly, that is not the case.

Margaret, I strongly urge you to have FinCom reconsider your vote, and if Charlie was not invited to make a presentation to your group, have him do so.


Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and is an Associate Publisher of Acton Forum.