Information Pleas?

10Jul08

In the wake of the May 27 Referendum Election that reversed the higher-than-recommended School Department budget passed by Annual Town Meeting, we’ve been hearing that there is a lack of information available to the residents of Wakefield, Massachusetts.
Election sign
The most recent of those assertions came at a June 17 public input forum of the Town Charter Review Committee. Override Mom Laurie Hunt suggested at that forum that many local voters didn’t even know about the May 27 Referendum Election. After the April Town Meeting vote that passed the $27.4 million School Department budget, Hunt wrote a letter to the Daily Item.

“We did an amazing thing as a community on Monday night by voting in the school budget,” Hunt wrote.

Then, after the Referendum vote nixed that School budget by a nearly 60-40 margin, Hunt claimed that people didn’t know about the election.

School Committee member Carmen Urbonas suggested at a meeting of the Tri-Board that there was not enough information available to the public about the impact of various departmental budget cuts. (The night before that Tri-board meeting, Urbonas had been on the losing end of a 4-3 School Committee vote to grudgingly accept the original 2 percent cut recommended by the FinCom.)

“We need to get that information out to the general public,” Urbonas insisted, “not just those who attend these meetings or watch the Selectmen’s meetings. We need to find an effective way to get that information out.”

But is there really a dearth of information?

All of the budget deliberations of the School Committee and the Board of Selectmen were covered by the Item. So were the three public meetings where the FinCom’s Financial Forecasting Committee outlined the town’s fiscal situation. At least three front page stories in the Item reported the date of the Referendum Election, explaining what was at stake and what a “Yes” or “No” vote would mean.

If people chose not to read newspapers, those budget meetings were also covered live by local cable TV and replayed several times. Most people in Wakefield have cable. If the meetings were televised at inconvenient times – that is why God created video recorders.

All of those board meetings are public and any citizen has the additional option of attending in person if they prefer.

All of the budget documents of all town departments are public information. In today’s digital world of email, one doesn’t even need to visit Town Hall or the Superintendent’s office to obtain public documents. If citizens have questions, most public officials’ names are listed in the phone book.

With all this access to information, there is still a belief in some quarters that if only the masses could be bombarded with even more data, surely they would see the light and come to the correct conclusion next time.

Those of us who follow local affairs closely sometimes forget that everybody doesn’t share our civic passion. They are occupied with working, maintaining a home, caring for a family and, time permitting, trying to squeeze in a social life. Burying them under a bigger mountain of information isn’t going to matter if they have neither the time nor the inclination to dig through it.

But the information is there if they want it. It’s in the newspaper, it’s on the TV, and it’s at the other end of a phone or Internet wire. It’s hard to imagine that ramming more information down people’s throats would be warmly received or change any minds.
Election sign
Voters at the polls rejected the School budget because it was $2 million more than the town could afford and because Annual Town Meeting passed that budget with no way to fund it.

Several speakers at that Annual Town Meeting, including “Selectman Emeritus” Jim Scott, predicted that referendum outcome and implored school supporters to come back with a “reasonable budget.” Scott expressed the feeling, shared by others, that the $558,000 cut recommended by the FinCom was too much for the School Department to absorb in one year and perhaps voters could be persuaded to fund a “modest override” for the schools.

But school supporters at Annual Town Meeting would not consider a compromise budget, defiantly insisting upon the full $27.4 million, $2 million over the FinCom recommendation, with no funding mechanism.

That’s why the $27.4 million School budget was defeated at the polls, not because of any information vacuum.

It’s important to ensure that as many voters as possible have the facts they need to make informed decisions. But don’t suggest that they are uninformed just because they arrived at a different conclusion than you did.

[This column originally appeared in the July 10, 2008 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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One Response to “Information Pleas?”

  1. Thank you


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