To the Editor:
Like a seesaw, successful operational systems need checks and balances. For example, the government of the United States is composed of a President, Congress, and a Supreme Court. Other western European countries have a Prime Minister and a Parliament. Other, less- free countries, have a ruler usually backed by its armed forces. It is in these countries that we see the need for decision-making to be divided between, at least, two equal powers.
Unfortunately, many small cities and towns in the United States have an insufficient number of checks and balances. I believe that is true of the towns on Martha’s Vineyard. As a resident and member of several committees in Oak Bluffs, I believe that I can more reliably discuss the effects of the problem in relation to this town.
The elected officials, the Board of Selectman, hire advisory personnel, i.e., a Town Administrator, Chief Accountant, and Assessor. They also have a system of committees. Both of these bodies are strictly advisory and have no voting or vetoing powers. However, they do have limited effect over the tax rate, what town revenues are expended on and which laws govern the Town of Oak Bluffs.
Because the Elections of the Selectmen, Finance Committee, and other positions have such little participation by the residents, those elected generally reflect the desires of common interest groups, who consist of the highest proportion of the voting public. Currently those interests are: the rentability of their property, the viability of their businesses, and the prevailing town laws. This is, inherently good or bad, depending on whether their interests coincide with those of the majority of the year-round residents.
The election process is further compromised by diverting attention from financial matters to more emotionally-charged issues such as, recently, the shark tournament and the location of proposed medical marijuana dispensaries. It is further impeded by the feeling that town decisions cannot be affected by the voters (apathy).
As a current member of the Finance Committee and Affordable Housing Committee and a previous member of the Community Preservation Committee, and an attendee of the Planning Committee Meetings, I can honestly say that their recommendations usually reflect the town government’s positions on spending priorities, i.e., construction and maintenance of new facilities: town hall, fire station, police station, library, school, and historic landmarks as well as the size of staffs, amount of supplies and equipment. Therefore, in a practical sense, this does not serve as a true system of checks and balances.
How then can the town of Oak Bluffs create a better system of checks and balances? According to the Massachusetts Department Department of Revenue’s (A Guide to Financial Management for Town Officials), “The finance committee is primarily responsible for submitting its recommendations on the annual budget to the town meeting. In assuming this responsibility, the committee influences the entire budgetary process.” By requiring that, at each town meeting, in which a vote on the budget is called for, a complete, line-by-line presentation, with comments, can be heard by the voters.
The third component of a strong system of checks and balances already exists. This is the actual vote. For the value of this process to be maximized, it will require a large participation by informed voters.