Using taxpayer dollars, the Town of Tiverton sent a booklet to Tiverton residents that claims to be a “Voter Information Guide” about the “Proposed Amendments to the Town Charter.” Because it has the town seal on the cover, and because Section 1218 of the Home Rule Charter would make it illegal to send campaign advocacy using town resources, voters might assume that the booklet provides straightforward, objective information to educate them about the ballot questions and make a decision about whether the charter changes they would make are a good idea. That is why Section 1218 allows “the distribution or publication of election, ballot question, or referendum information by the Town Clerk, the Board of Canvassers, or a Charter Review Commission.”
However, the Voter Information Guide is not objective, and according Town Clerk Nancy Mello, the content was written by the Town Solicitor and the Town Council. That would be the same Town Solicitor who stands to gain substantial power if the charter changes go through and the same Town Council that blocked the elected Charter Review Commission’s proposals and pushed its own onto the ballot. Unsurprisingly, the guide is not simply “information”; it’s advocacy.
Thus, on Question 10, voters are told that the “intent… is to ensure that this revenue is used in a manner that will bring a long-term financial benefit” and “provide a reduction in the property tax requirement.” That is not, objectively, what the charter change would do, and based on years’ worth of statements from members of the council, it isn’t even clear that it is the “intent” of the people who wrote it.
The “Effect of Change” section about Question 11 is even more obviously advocacy: “Improves the Financial Town Referendum process, clarifies language to lessen the likelihood of litigation and charter complaints, and brings the Tiverton Financial Town Referendum process in line with the budget processes for other Rhode Island municipalities with financial referendums.” This is not only opinion, but it is opinion with a purpose. The word “improves” shows that the authors of that sentence are encouraging voters to approve Question 11.
Whether this electioneering by the Town Council crosses the line and violates the charter would have to be the subject of a charter complaint. Of course, if Question #6 passes, then the same Town Solicitor who helped the council block other charter changes, who helped to write the guide, and who can be fired if he makes the Town Council unhappy would have the power to dismiss the complaint, with no standard of review or appeal process.
(Incidentally, the Voter Information Guide has the wrong information about polling places. For the correct locations, see here.)