Our View: Majority Rule

by The Cape Cod Chronicle

It’s not quite accurate to portray the loss of two capital expenditures at last week’s Chatham Town Meeting as failures. Both articles were supported by a majority of voters, but were bedeviled, once again, by the need for a two-thirds margin because the money will be borrowed. Their passage at the ballot box last Thursday, which required a majority vote, is further evidence of support among residents. But it seems minority rule has muscled into town meeting, belying its claim to be democracy in its purest form.

There were legitimate questions about the expenditures sought by the two measures. One requested $2.9 million to complete improvements at the transfer station, the other $11.4 million for a bond to cover five waterfront infrastructure projects, one of which — 90 Bridge St. — is already underway. Both the transfer station and Bridge Street projects have ballooned way beyond their original estimates, and there was little outreach done by officials other than presentations made at select board meetings. Valid reasons exist for the increases, which were based on actual bids for the work; today, estimates are outdated almost as soon as they are produced due to factors such as inflation, competition and supply chain issues.

But assertions that the work will actually be more costly or that many other expenditures face the town in the future are not good reasons to turn down the funding now. Remember the fire station? Town meeting rejected one plan only to have a scaled-back building return at a later time at a higher cost. And we are willing to bet that upgrades to the current center for active living will come in at close to the same cost as was projected last year for a new COA building. Delays cost money.

The best strategy now is to break the waterfront projects into their constituent parts and take them individually to town meeting, ideally using free cash or the excess levy capacity (the town can raise more than $3 million without a Proposition 2½ override thanks to its prudent financial policies) to avoid borrowing and the need for a two-thirds vote. The transfer station plans should be tweaked to try to reduce costs and returned to voters as well. Under no circumstances should either go to a fall special town meeting relying on last week’s ballot question approval to clear the way for borrowing. That failed last year with the COA, and will fail again as voters see it as a betrayal of town meeting (even though, as said, both measures received a majority positive vote).

There’s nothing the town can do right now about the need for a two-thirds vote on borrowing (and zoning) articles at town meeting, but workarounds are possible. This in no way violates the will of the voters, so long as officials maintain transparency and explain why and how this is being done. It will simply mean that the majority will prevail, which is how every other town meeting article works.