"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



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Saturday, August 23, 2008


A townwide division over charter changes

01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, July 24, 2008
By Gina Macris


Journal Staff Writer

TIVERTON — The tortuous deliberations of the Charter Review Commission during the last year have exposed a deep divide in the people’s willingness to finance town government — or to let go of the time-honored principle of direct democracy in the process.

The split in opinion is such that even the chairman of the Charter Review Commission says he doesn’t believe voters will approve any change to the annual Financial Town Meeting, despite the clear signal they sent at the polls two years ago that they wanted an alternative.

Two commission members, Frank Marshall and Richard Joslin, have bemoaned the lack of consensus on the nine-member panel, elected last July by just a few hundred voters in town.

The Town Council will at least move forward with a public hearing next Monday on a Charter Review Commission recommendation that an all-day referendum replace the annual Financial Town Meeting.

Another alternative, proposed by Town Council member Brian Medeiros, would delegate the Town Council with budget-setting authority.

A third plan, put forward by council member Joanne Arruda, would simply move the Financial Town Meeting from a Wednesday evening to a Saturday.

The Charter Review Commission would limit the authority of the Budget Committee in that it could not add money to fiscal proposals once they are approved by the Town Council or the School Committee.

And it would put pressure on operating revenues by requiring that the town’s unrestricted general fund be increased from 3 to 5 percent of the annual budget over the next eight years.

The fund would not be permitted to dip below 3 percent of annual operating costs at any time except in a state of emergency, and then only if three quarters of the electorate approves.

In other recommendations, the commission would limit the power of the Town Council in two ways.

Voter approval would be required of any decision to sell town-owned land, apart from property in the town Industrial Park.

And the commission would vest the appointed town administrator with the sole authority to hire and Fire Department heads.

If such a provision had been in effect last year, the council could not have reversed the decision of former town administrator W. Glenn Steckman III to fire Police Chief Thomas Blakey.

THE DIVISION in the community over alternatives to the Financial Town Meeting mirrors the tug between elected officials and so-called “anti-tax” voters, who in May tried to cut nearly $2 million from the Budget Committee’s recommendation for the fiscal year that began July 1.

The Town Council, the School Committee, and the chairman of the Budget Committee warned that the reductions would cripple the town financially, not allowing it to meet its legal obligations.

After a week’s recess in the meeting, the position of the elected officials won enough support to restore all but $100,000 to the original sum.

Since then, the Charter Review Commission has completed yearlong deliberations, putting forth its version of an all-day referendum.

In the event voters reject the Budget Committee’s recommendation, the town could raise the tax levy by no more than 4 percent, or the consumer price index at the time, whichever is less, according to the proposal.

There would be no exceptions to that rule, not even to make up for unexpected losses in outside revenues or to meet debt, as the Budget Committee had recommended in May.

The Charter Review Commission’s proposal received such a chilly reception that the commission amended the final language to allow for a special referendum in case voters initially reject the Budget Committee’s recommendations.

But Town Council president Louise Durfee says the final language is flawed because it does not provide for any finality to the budget process, allowing an “endless override.”

Two members of the Charter Review Commission, Laura Epke and Deborah Pallasch, had proposed a charter amendment that would move the town beyond direct democracy by granting the Town Council the authority to set the budget.

While the majority of the commission did not endorse that proposal, council member Brian Medeiros plucked that idea, tweaked it, and has offered it as an alternative to the all-day referendum.

Medeiros’ proposal would allow a minimum of 5 percent of the electorate to petition for a referendum to override the council vote.

The petition must clearly state the alternatives to the council’s figures, according to the proposal, the same as one approved handily by voters in neighboring Portsmouth last November.

In that town, there was backlash against a divisive special Town Meeting in 2006 in which the taxpayer group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens engineered a cut of about $1.7 million to the school and municipal budget then in effect.

HERE, THE CHARTER Commission first came up with the idea of a Grand Committee of elected officials representing the Town Council, School Committee and Budget Committee to decide the budget.

But Leonard, the chairman, said the idea was discarded because of reluctance to let go of direct democracy.

In the last seven or eight years, he said, voters have rejected two proposals to turn over the budget-making authority to the Town Council, Leonard said.

Because there was no widespread support on the commission for any one alternative, commission member Frank Marshall suggested that the panel forego making any recommendation. But that idea never even came to a vote.

Leonard said that the commission was bound to fulfill the charge of voters, who clearly said in 2006 that they wanted to see an alternative to the Financial Town Meeting.

Not that the members of the commission were elected by a broad mandate.

In a town of about 10,000 voters, 229 cast ballots. Of the nine commission members, six ran for office and three were write-in candidates.

Town Council members have indicated that, while they generally favor having a public hearing on the commission’s recommended alternative to the Financial Town Meeting, they are not enthusiastic about placing the question on the ballot.

Leonard, who says he doesn’t believe voters will go for a change, nevertheless is making an issue of the council’s authority to decide what questions will be on the ballot — or not.

He said the voters who called for a Charter Review Commission should decide whether to accept or reject the results of the deliberation.

Town Solicitor Andrew M. Teitz, however, said the council’s authority to set the language on the ballot flows from the Rhode Island Constitution.

The Constitution is not crystal clear, he said, but it has been the practice for many years for town councils in Rhode Island to decide what questions will appear on the ballot.



Decision on Tiverton budget referendum off ballot

01:00 AM EDT on Tuesday, July 29, 2008
By Gina Macris
Journal Staff Writer

Source: http://www.projo.com/ri/tiverton/content/EB_TIVERTON_CHARTER_29_07-29-08_Q7B195T_v9.42cebe1.html

TIVERTON — On a 5-to-1 vote, the Town Council balked at putting before the voters a proposed change in the Home Rule Charter which several members said was deeply flawed in the way it would replace the Financial Town Meeting with an all-day referendum.

Instead, the council agreed to ask voters in the November general election whether to retain the annual Financial Town Meeting, changing only the date, or whether to delegate the budget-setting authority to the Town Council.

It appears that most people don’t like the Financial Town Meeting, but finding a workable alternative “has defied a lot of people,” said Louise Durfee, council president.

When she has expressed doubt that the all-day referendum should go before the voters, Durfee said, people have told her she is not giving respect to the Charter Review Commission, which spent a year coming up with the plan.

“I respect everyone in this room,” Durfee said, presiding over a public hearing in the high school auditorium attended by fewer than 100 people.

But the details of the proposed budget preparation process did not reflect a sense of community and furthermore, provided “gold mine for lawyers,” said Durfee, a lawyer herself.

Jay Edwards, another council member, said the proposal of the Charter Commission was “so incredibly flawed it would be irresponsible to let it go through.”

Of the six members present, all agreed except for the council’s vice-president, Donald Bollin.

While he did not favor the Charter Commission’s proposal, Bollin said “this is an issue where people should speak for themselves.” Bollin drew applause from the relatively meager audience.

Cecil Leonard, a candidate for Town Council and the chairman of the Charter Review Commission, has maintained that the council did not have a right to keep any of the commission’s recommendations off the ballot.

But Andrew M. Teitz, the town solicitor, said both the Home Rule Charter and the Rhode Island Constitution give the council the responsibility for deciding what questions go on the ballot.

Durfee said she found it disturbing that the commission proposal, by allowing only a yes or no vote on the budget, could undercut community obligations.

“We have an obligation to provide rescue and library services,” she said.

A no vote would limit the maximum increase in the tax levy to 4 percent or the consumer price index, whichever is lower. There would be no exception to build a new library or take on any other new debt.

As a result, the town would have to cut essential services, she said. “I can’t support this.”

Leonard said that the existing Financial Town Meeting has the potential for disaster, recalling the session on May 21 in which voters initially cut nearly $2 million from the proposal of the Budget Committee. That decision was largely reversed the following meeting.

“I don’t understand how the council assumes that any voter will vote no, that we don’t care about the town,” Leonard said.

Durfee pointed out that the Financial Town Meeting, unlike the proposed all-day referendum, provides room for discussion and compromise.

“At the Financial Town Meeting, you can whack each other in the heat of battle,” Durfee said, but “there is flexibility if you want to cut a budget or increase a budget.”

The council approved a ballot question offered by council member Brian Medeiros that will ask voters to put the budget in the hands of the council.

“We’re not a direct democracy,” he said. “Why single the budget out as the one thing subject to direct democracy and then have three to four percent of the people come out” to decide the town budget for the next year.

“We’re a council-administrator form of government,” he said.

Also approved was the proposal of council member Joanne M. Arruda, which would move the annual Financial Town Meeting from the fourth Wednesday of May to the second Saturday of the month.

Arruda said she believed the change in date would allow more people to attend, although Leonard disagreed, saying people are too busy to come out on a Saturday morning in the spring.

Christopher Cotta, the chairman of the town Budget Committee and a candidate for Town Council, favored Arruda’s proposal as a “baby step” toward change.

“Any time you’re dealing with people’s taxes, you need to take very small steps,” he said.


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