There were no happy choices for Oak Bluffs voters last week. So, faced with Proposition 2.5 override questions that added up to nearly $500,000, voters said no.
Or as newly elected selectman Walter Vail put it, “The town said, ‘we don’t care, figure it out’. We go back to the drawing board.”
Gymnastic fiscal options for town officials have dwindled to nearly none. It’s time for them to do the things that voters elected them to do. The broadly based town committee selectmen have asked the voters to help them make a plan, but time’s running on, and the selectmen need to lead and speed the effort.
“What the town decides is going to be the right thing, by definition,” town administrator Michael Dutton said on the eve of an earlier override vote. What the town has decided and delivered as a message to the selectmen is that leaders must lead, and the first step is to trim substantially the cost of town government and do so intelligently and without delay.
Although the voters have sent messages before, Oak Bluffs town officials have not heard them, or if they have they’ve not listened. Indeed, the process that led to last week’s voting was murky, clumsy, and deeply flawed. No wonder voters said, We don’t think so.
These funds, desperately needed, to hear the selectmen and finance committee members tell it, were not the subject of a campaign led by the town leaders. They were not the subject of an educational campaign by the finance committee to persuade voters and taxpayers that this additional money was crucial. And, even in the aftermath, there was carping among town officials over whether the voting had been properly noticed. Voters must wonder where the adults are who ought to be in charge.
Leadership has suggested that if the overrides fail, painful cuts will come, but they have not done what is necessary to place this latest failed request in a context of reordered, carefully trimmed, more efficient government. Why should voters and taxpayers expect anything more than the same old story — too much spending, too little revenue, more overrides on the way.
Absent a sound fiscal plan, Oak Bluffs voters are without important information they might have used to make a different choice. Voters, unequipped with information about the way forward from here, were faced with tough budget cuts to a town budget for fiscal 2012 that they’d just approved, or more spending with a tax increase during the fiscal year beginning July 1 and every fiscal year that will follow.
The argument here is that voters need complete and transparent information to make good decisions. They need it in the context of a plan. The plan needs to be built by the town’s chief executives, the selectmen, and explained to the voters in a timely and thorough way. It is not enough to say that whatever voters decide will be the right decision.
Voters don’t always make the decisions that their leaders ask, but they make the right decisions when they understand what is at issue. The obligation of town leaders is to make the issue and the path ahead clear.