It looks like the repercussions of allowing state-appointed municipal dictators — even if in the conciliar form of a Budget Commission — continue to be felt in Woonsocket. From Sandy Seoane in The Valley Breeze:
With City Council members still angered over what they say is a total disregard for their authority, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt has made tax bills showing rates higher than those approved by councilors available online. …
Councilors have voted three times to approve a lesser levy increase of 1.949 percent, and with unresolved issues still pending between the administration and the city’s governing board, City Council President Albert Brien advocated for a disregard of the bills.
A brief review of the online debate suggests that the point of contention resides in Rhode Island General Law 45-9-10.1, which puts a fiscal overseer in place for five years in a city or town that has exited the state-oversight process. In Woonsocket, the Budget Commission wrapped up in March, leaving overseer Paul Luba in place. Specifically, the state law gives Luba authority to “review and approve the development and preparation of the annual municipal or fire district budget, all department operating and capital budgets, and spending plans.”
The mayor’s argument may be that she consulted with Luba, and he doesn’t “approve” of the budget, so she can therefore go forward with her original budget. With the caveat that Rhode Island judges don’t always enforce the rule of law, preferring to give insiders space to do things they deem preferable to the written rules, it would appear that steps in the process are missing, here.
The phrase “review and approve” indicates that the process is performed in the usual way, for the city or town, with the overseer’s stamp of approval needed. The next step, in other words, would not be the mayor’s sending out tax bills in contravention of the city council’s votes, but rather, the fiscal overseer’s denying the budget and appearing before the council to argue the point and negotiate.
Unfortunately, in keeping with President Obama’s “stop me if you can” approach to governance, elected officials seem disinclined to follow through with all necessary steps to get to the results that they’d prefer. That is, our famous system of “checks and balances” is out of favor with powerful people. In failing to be explicit about what the authority to “review and approve” entails, the state’s horrible fiscal oversight law ensures that important decisions will be made when officials play chicken and then judges prove chicken about making the right call.
(One fears this is a harbinger of our civic collapse across the country.)
With echoes of the Supreme Court’s recent ObamaCare ruling, if a court finds the mayor and overseer’s preferred budget is necessary, the judge may take the expedient route to that outcome and validate the mayor’s action. If that happens, an overseer isn’t really an objective auditor of a struggling city or town’s finances, but the wielder of a magic undo who gives one or the other side in local disputes the power to act as if rules do not apply.