Given errors in the budget petition submitted by Tiverton resident Sanford Mantel, the authority of the Board of Canvassers to keep petitions off the ballot has become a topic of conversation. Some participants in that conversation have noted that, last year, I told the Board of Canvassers that they had to put elector resolutions on the ballot even if they’re illegal. That was correct, then, and still is.
When the Board of Canvassers met in 2018 to certify the budget proposals and resolutions for the ballot, then-Solicitor Anthony DeSisto showed up at the meeting without notice to electors who had put in petitions and told the Board of Canvassers that multiple resolutions were “illegal.” He had no written opinion and offered a patchwork of explanations — according to the solicitor, some were’t related to the budget, some might violate other sections of the charter, and some were against this or that state law. The Board decided that it had to follow the advice of the Town Solicitor and blocked the resolutions.
According to the charter, the Board of Canvassers has the authority to “certify” budget petitions (that is, budget proposals from citizens) and elector resolutions (which are questions or statements that citizens want to put before voters). This certification is (or should be) entirely a question of whether the petitions correctly followed the steps to appear on the ballot. In 2017, for example, several school committee and town council members attempted to put in a budget petition, but they didn’t correctly include the line items or a statement to “remand” the budget to the Budget Committee. The Board of Canvassers followed the solicitor’s advice and kept the budget off the ballot, a decision that a Superior Court judge affirmed, at least for the purposes of deciding not to force the petition on the ballot.
In 2018, the Board of Canvassers did something different. Even though there was no question that the petitions had been put in correctly, the Board passed judgment on the content and invalidated the petitions. Again, a judge did not force the resolutions on the ballot.
This year, Mantel’s petition does not accurately provide the numbers that the charter requires him to provide. Current Town Solicitor Giovanni Cicione gave advance notice to the public and prepared a written memo suggesting that this meant it didn’t correctly follow the steps to appear on the ballot. In other words, it is more like the 2017 case than the 2018 case.
It would have been more like the 2018 case if the petition had done something that the solicitor claimed was illegal. For example, a petition might try to cut the school budget more than the law allows or attempt to create new fees or taxes or something else that is outside of the ability of the FTR. Those petitions ought to be put on the ballot, and their opponents should campaign against them saying they’re illegal and unenforceable.
Based on the Board of Canvassers’ decision last week, electors don’t have to put the required numbers on the ballot, but can put any numbers at all, which could destroy the FTR process. Even worse, the Board is making decisions with no clear guiding legal principles, to the point of going against the appointed Town Solicitor who is charged with reviewing these matters on the town’s behalf.