The particulars will vary from town to town — depending on the makeup of the population, the availability of non-tax revenue, the personalities involved in local politics, and so on — but key principles are essential for government to operate. In a representative democracy with frequent turnover of elected officials, the rules have to be clear and consistent (and the power limited), such that the electorate is voting on broad questions of direction, not to address immediate crises or controversies.
As vice president of the Tiverton Town Council, I’ve been giving these matters a great deal of thought, and it has ultimately come down to this assessment of problems and solutions:
- Tiverton has no long-term financial plan. Beginning at the council level and with input and cooperation across town government — municipal and schools — we must put every known challenge on the table and piece them all together so we can make rational decisions going forward. Everything is a trade-off with something else, and without a real and concrete understanding of what needs to be done by when, town government cannot make informed decisions.
- The roles of town officials are not clearly defined (at least in how they are executed). Much of our difficulty maintaining employees in critical positions as well as our political acrimony comes from the same source. Whether we’re talking micromanagement from the Town Council, decisions by employees that follow improper channels, or boards that claim power for themselves (or neglect it), lacking a clear picture of who is responsible for what can result in conflicts and wasted effort.
- Basic and consistent rules of operation haven’t been followed. A clear message from local businesses when Town Council members, town officials, and various volunteers toured their facilities a couple months ago was that the rules they have to follow change depending whom they ask or who holds a particular office at the time. Meanwhile, every time employees have done something so egregious as to deserve to lose their jobs, lawyers advising the town have pointed out that no prior violations were ever actually put in their files. At the same time, the Board of Canvassers has picked and chosen what it would put on ballots. These examples all illustrate the importance of consistency.
Some of these challenges will sound familiar across Rhode Island, but talking to people involved in politics in some other towns, I’ve been struck by just how out-of-whack Tiverton is on some of them. That is particularly true when it comes to the lack of a financial plan.