Although it took 40 minutes to reach a quorum of Oak Bluffs voters at a special town meeting on Tuesday called to approve more than $200,000 in year-end transfers, the discussion and subsequent vote flew by in flash with no debate, discussion or questions.
By all accounts, the town meeting was the fastest in town history when measured from actual start to finish. However, the scheduled start time of 7 p.m. was delayed when only about 20 voters gathered at the Oak Bluffs School, well short of the required 50 residents needed for a quorum.
For the next half-hour, town officials and residents were busy calling friends and neighbors urging them to show up to form a quorum. A sort of countdown then occurred, with the group shouting out people’s numbers as they walked in the school’s front door. When the 50th voter arrived at the registration table, people cheered and applauded as if they had just won a contest or hit the lottery.
The actual town meeting was not nearly as exciting.
Town administrator Michael Dutton explained at the start the transfers did not require additional spending, but instead were required to balance the town books by moving unused funds from some line items to others that went over budget. He noted the town saved $98,000 this year by convincing some town workers to switch to a cheaper health plan. Those savings were then applied to various other accounts ranging from negotiated salary increases to computer maintenance, he said.
Some money was also transferred out of several unused salary accounts.
Mr. Dutton explained the transfers were routine and in previous years have been completed by the finance advisory committee and board of selectmen without approval by town meeting. But after receiving an informal legal opinion from the state Department of Revenue which suggested that voters needed to approve the transfers, selectmen opted to send the transactions to town meeting.
There seemed to be little interest in debating the transfers on Tuesday. When the article was read, selectman Duncan Ross moved the question which was quickly seconded. Moderator David Richardson rejected the quick motion and called for discussion. When there was none, Mr. Richardson moved the question and the vote to approve was nearly unanimous, with a single dissenting vote heard from somewhere in the room.
Later selectman Kerry Scott was critical of Mr. Ross for moving the question so quickly. She said the move took away the opportunity for anyone to speak on the matter or ask questions.
“We wait around 40 minutes to form a quorum, just so one of the selectmen can call the question and take away the opportunity to speak on the issue. The message we were sending is that we don’t want to hear what you have say,” Ms. Scott said.
Ms. Scott was the one who initially contacted the Department of Revenue with questions about the year-end transfers, which resulted in the informal legal opinion which led to the special town meeting. She said she had not planned to speak at the meeting, but was disappointed nobody had a chance to make comments or ask questions.
“It is quite possible nobody planned to say anything. But why would we ever want to take away people’s opportunity to make comments? This is their government . . . this is their town,” she said.
She said the special town meeting was important to her.
“It was another step in the right direction for Oak Bluffs. It showed people that we are willing to do things the right way and are getting our house in order,” she said.
Mr. Ross responded yesterday. He said the moderator did ask for questions. “While I was walking around [before there was a quorum] people said let’s wrap this up and go home,” he added.
Joe Alosso, town wastewater superintendent and finance advisory committee member, agreed. “I think the turnout alone tells you something — it sends the message that people are confident in their elected officials to properly manage the town finances and make the right decision,” he said. “These transfers are done every year in Oak Bluffs and in other towns as well . . . there are many people who questioned whether this [town meeting] was necessary . . . I have asked that question myself.”