HOPKINTON — Members of the Hopkinton Town Council continued to express concerns at their May 18 remote meeting that residents might be denied the right to vote on the proposed Chariho schools budget.
Despite assurances from Chariho School Committee Chairman Ryan Callahan that a way would be found to put the proposed $53.5 million spending plan to a vote, council Vice President Scott Bill Hirst and Planning Board member Carolyn Light said they were concerned that a vote would not take place.
“I want to support the town in vehemently opposing any decision by the Chariho School Committee to pass the 2020- 2021 budget without the residents’ vote,” Light said.
Hirst asked the council to approve a letter to Gov. Gina Raimondo stating the town’s objection to the Chariho budget being passed without a vote, but Council President Frank Landolfi said he and Callahan had recently discussed the issue.
“I did get a call today from the Chariho chairperson of the School Committee, Ryan Callahan,” he said. “Again, he conveyed to me the intent of the School Committee is to have a vote by all the residents of all three towns, for this particular referendum for Chariho.”
Landolfi said one proposal for the Chariho vote was to add the school budget question to the towns’ budget referendums and noted that Chariho attorney Jon Anderson was drafting a letter to the towns asking them to add the school budget question as a separate item.
“To add another section to it, for lack of a better word, to vote on the school budget, so each of the three referendums for the town budgets, there’ll be an added line item for the school budget as well, so all the residents will be able to weigh in simultaneously,” Landolfi said. “Seems to make sort of sense, based on where we are time-wise.”
Hirst asked how the budget question could be included in the three town’s votes when each town had a different procedure. Hopkinton holds a budget referendum, but Richmond voters decide on their town’s budget at a Financial Town Meeting, and Charlestown’s budget vote is taking place almost entirely by mail ballot.
“The three towns do not decide their town budget on the same day,” Hirst continued. “Usually, the Chariho budget is a separate vote, so the mechanical problem I see with this is the fact that you wouldn’t have a vote on the same day and I don’t know if that would be an impediment to the success of doing such a thing. My issue is to have people vote on it.”
Town Clerk Elizabeth Cook Martin pointed out that Charlestown residents were already voting by mail.
“I believe Charlestown may have already sent their mail ballots out, so their ballots are done and printed,” she said.
Hirst said even if a local solution to the voting issue were to be found, he still wanted to send a letter to the governor, reiterating Hopkinton’s insistence that residents be able to vote on the Chariho budget.
“I think I would like to have a letter sent to the governor, and you also add to it that there’s a possibility this is going to be worked out by the three Chariho towns, we can put that in the letter, but the fiscal year ends June 30, and I think people, including myself, are really sure that their ability to vote on the Chariho budget and the town budget is not impaired or denied,” he said.
Referring to a recent proposal, neither approved nor endorsed by the School Committee, to allow school committees to pass budgets during COVID-19, councilor Sylvia Thompson agreed with Hirst that it was important to make the governor aware of the situation.
“I understand that there’s … information floating around authorizing a school committee to vote on it without a vote of the people,” she said. “So, I agree it’s very important to make sure that the governor knows that we have to have a vote. However we do that, we’re open to following any procedures necessary.”
Council members agreed to send the letter to the governor.
More voting confusion
Another factor complicating Hopkinton's budget vote is timing. More than $20 million of Hopkinton’s $27.2 million budget goes to Chariho, and several councilors wondered how the town budget could be approved when the vote on the Chariho budget, which was supposed to take place on April 13, has not yet occurred.
“If it happens that the school budget is voted down, then the number that we have in the town budget, of course, would be incorrect,” Thompson said. “Now according to the Chariho Act, of course, if they don’t have an approved budget by July 1, they have to revert to the previous year’s budget, so there’s a lot of complications in here.”
Landolfi said he would ask Callahan when the Chariho budget vote might be held.
Councilor Barbara Capalbo proposed that Hopkinton wait to hold its referendum until after the Chariho vote.
“It’s certainly much better for us, even if we vote the last day in June, to have the school budget in front of us first, as part of our own budget,” she said.
The council agreed to delay the Hopkinton vote until June 23 or, at the latest, June 30. The vote may also take place by mail ballot.
“That gives us hopefully enough time to get whatever the ballot structure’s going to be and also some time to adopt the tax resolutions and everything else,” Landolfi said.