Rumford Charter Commission continues work to resolve budget voting procedure

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RUMFORD — Charter Commission members spent two hours Tuesday night trying to determine how best to resolve the current budget voting procedure. Vice Chairman Chris Brennick ran the meeting.

The dilemma wasn’t resolved, but the group did gain better insight into the pros and cons of different options presented, Chairman Kevin Saisi said Tuesday evening by email.

“I am very pleased with the progress we made tonight,” Saisi said. “This is a difficult topic, and all commission members interacted in a respectful manner.”

Currently, if the Finance Committee and selectmen make different recommendations, voters must choose one recommendation or neither one. This method enables the “neither” vote to trump recommendations by town officials, despite being less than the combined affirmative vote for selectmen and the Finance Committee.

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Last year, this method forced the town to return to the ballot box four times to approve some budget items, costing thousands of dollars for each session.

Since Rumford doesn’t have open town meetings, the town follows the secret ballot vote process at the polls. At a previous meeting, Charter Commission members voted to keep that intact.

Initiated articles are handled differently than budget articles. With initiated articles (requests from organizations for donations), voters are asked a “yes or no” question to fund the article. If they vote yes, then they would choose between the Finance Committee’s and selectmen’s recommendations.

Tuesday night’s dilemma drew spirited discussion as advocates for two viewpoints faced off over the budget-voting procedure, Saisi said.

Some members proposed that the entire budget be decided under the same process as initiated articles. Others advocated that only one number be placed on the ballot, which would require a change in how the number is decided, he said.

Currently, the town manager presents a budget to selectmen, who review it with department heads then make recommendations. The budget is then sent to the Finance Committee, which does the same.

Saisi said one proposal presented Tuesday night suggested that either selectmen or the Finance Committee be removed from the process, made advisory only or be required to reach a compromise with the other board.

This, he said, would place only one number before voters, to either be voted up or down.

If the amount was voted down, the budget would revert to the current budget year amount, less as much as 15 percent.

At times, Brennick had to intervene to keep the meeting civil.

“Chris did an awesome job handling the meeting,” Saisi said. “It is not easy when members feel so strongly about their positions.”

At one point, a commission member became frustrated and stood to leave the meeting, but Brennick de-escalated the situation and convinced the member to stay, Saisi said.

Brennick was assisted by commission member Amy Bernard, who serves as town manager of Paris. Bernard used her skills to assist in maintaining decorum and facilitating a better understanding by all, Saisi said.

“Sure, there were times Chris had to bang the gavel, but it was mostly because the discussion had become too unstructured to be productive,” he said. “I am really proud of the entire commission for the way they were able to discuss without arguing.”

Frustration was also voiced that the commission has met eight times since being formed, but has yet to resolve any issues with the charter. Some questioned the process.

Saisi said it was suggested that the group start on the first page and review the charter line by line. But it was explained that such a sequential review had already been tried unsuccessfully and that the group had decided to tackle the toughest issues first.

Many of the first few meetings were spent gathering input from the public and municipal officials, which Saisi said was essential.

The commission agreed Tuesday night to continue with the process, but to ask the chairman to help provide direction by identifying more specific agenda items such as “Voting Procedure” rather than “Budget Process,” Saisi said.

The commission also plans to better use visual aids to help members better understand the various options.

tkarkos@sunjournal.com

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