With a surprise executive order, Council President Patricia Hilton has granted herself to power to temporarily amend the Tiverton Home Rule Charter. Even during an emergency, that isn’t power the people of Tiverton should give away.
During this time of the COVID-19 crisis, state and local governments are declaring emergencies and granting themselves increased authority to encroach on citizens rights. Some of their actions are justifiable, if not necessary, but when people with power give themselves even more, we all have a responsibility to keep a very close watch on them and make sure they’re only going as far as they have to.
Tiverton’s Town Council President Patricia Hilton has gone well beyond that mark. Over the weekend, she led the council in a completely non-transparent appointment of a political ally as an interim town administrator, with the public having almost no information about the status of the actual administrator. Now she has issued a surprise executive order moving the date of the town’s financial town referendum (FTR) to June 20.
Moving the FTR may or may not be a good idea, but citizens in a republic have to insist that the right process is followed and their rights are respected. In this case, Hilton drafted and signed an executive order, which is (at the very least) of debatable legality, without letting other council members know it was in the works, despite their online meeting just three days ago.
Declaring an emergency does not make the council president a dictator. The rest of the council should obviously have a say in all drastic measures, and there was no hurry to issue this order now rather than two days later. For an order dealing with the budget process, the Budget Committee (as a body) should also have some input, as should the School Committee. And of course, voters, taxpayers, and other residents should also have some opportunity to offer their own views before a change like this.
This is especially true because the legal justification in the executive order is so questionable. Hilton points to a provision of state law under “Military Affairs and Defense” a section of law giving a city or town’s “chief executive officer… powers and duties with respect to emergency management within his or her city or town similar to those of the governor on the state level,” but even if moving the FTR counts as emergency management, the council president is not the “chief executive officer.”
Hilton also cites a state law granting the governor, during emergencies, to “suspend the provisions of any regulatory statute prescribing the procedures for conduct of state business, or the orders, rules, or regulations of any state agency.” The timeline for the FTR is written into Tiverton’s charter, so it is not a regulatory statute, order, rule, or regulation under the Town Council’s authority. It’s more like our Constitution. A case might (maybe) be made that it is under the state’s authority, but just like she didn’t consult with the rest of the council, she did not ask the state to take action, she did it herself.
Again, moving the FTR may be a good idea, but even during an emergency, the council president can’t just do whatever she wants.