Turning a Deaf Ear

10Apr08

Thoughts on the April 7, 2008 Wakefield (Massachusetts) Town Meeting

Sometimes it pays to listen to our elder statesmen.

But when we become caught up in a righteous cause, it’s easy to ignore the voices of experience in our midst. We dismiss them at our own peril.

Advocates to fund the School Department budget did a good job of filling the Galvin School Auditorium Monday night with teachers, young parents and others who believe so fervently in education that they want the town to spend money that it doesn’t have.

The School Committee put before Town Meeting a $27.4 million FY09 budget, which is $2 million more than the Finance Committee recommended.
Dan Sherman
Finance Committee Chairman Dan Sherman, who isn’t exactly Barbara Anderson of Citizens for Limited Taxation, warned Monday’s Town Meeting that the School Committee’s proposed budget was “fiscally irresponsible.” He predicted that if the School Department budget passed without additional revenue, it would force drastic cuts in other areas of the town budget.

But the vast majority of the 700 voters in attendance Monday night were in no mood for such talk. Several speakers from the floor accused the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee of “failing to provide leadership” in the current fiscal crisis.

The Selectmen cut $90,000 each from the Police Department and Fire Department, and another $86,000 from the DPW. In total, they cut their share of the town budget by 2.18 percent in an effort to live within their means.

Some would call that leadership by example.

Former Selectman and Board of Public Works member Jim Scott has a wealth of first-hand experience with large municipal budgets. He also knows his way around Wakefield politics. Scott tried to inject a dose of reality into the proceedings Monday night.

Speaking from experience, Scott predicted that even if the higher than recommended school budget passed Town Meeting, someone would surely collect the needed 200 signatures to put it on a town-wide ballot as a referendum question, and it would lose.

“Democracy is the art of compromise,” Scott said. He called upon the School Committee to put together “a reasonable budget.” Such a budget, Scott argued, even in the form of a modest override, might have a chance of passage on a town-wide ballot. “But this budget is not going to fly,” Scott said.

But few in the auditorium were interested in compromise. Most had already made up their minds, and looking around the hall at all the friendly faces, they could hardly believe that they could ever lose.

But it’s one thing to marshal a few hundred supporters to Town Meeting and quite another to get an override or spending question past Wakefield voters in an election. History teaches that the laughter and congratulations that follow a Town Meeting victory can quickly turn to disappointment on Election Day.

“Half a loaf is better than no loaf,” elder statesman and voice of experience Jim Scott tried to tell them Monday night.

But they didn’t want to listen. The day may come when they wish they had.

[This column originally appeared in the April 10, 2007 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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