Checks and balances

Checks and balances

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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.

Abe Seiman

Oak Bluffs


  1. In order for the voters to hear a “A complete line- by- line presentation,” we’d have to extend the town meetings beyond one night. But I agree, each line item should be reviewed at the town meeting and then voted on individually.

    1. And how much time are the voters allowed to review the specifics of every budget line so their vote will be an educated one?

      This is the justification for representative government, the decision process is quicker.

      1. Voters could have gone to the open forum, although hardly advertised (note: it was mentioned on the town site, I’m assuming it was it the paper? ). Aside from that they won’t hear about it until the town meeting in April. Which is a perfect example of why we need to extend town meetings.

        1. A big problem with an absolute democracy is duplication of effort, any counter of a solution already found impractical must be rehashed… in public… until everyone accepts the explanation. I can see this working In an rural town where everyone can be seated in a medium-size room but not any place bigger.

  2. Only true check is at the ballot box. Even if you are physically unable to endure a town meeting you can still vote.Towns are afraid of the ballot box.

  3. I believe the Fincomm should be developing our budget as outlined. Currently the Town administrator is in control of it. It’s time for checks and balances associated with that position specifically. We have many qualified boards being control by one person pulling on the strings. Hopefully Oak bluffs will wake up!