I was just thinking about Tyranny of the Majority. As a student of political philosophy, I’ve extensively studied this topic. It is an idea expounded by the likes of James Madison (the primary author of our Constitution), John Adams, John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville.
The underlying principle concerns a weakness in majority rule when the majority pursues only its own interests at the expense of the minority. The perception of tyranny involves a breakdown of democratic principles when, as Tocqueville said, “decisions are based on a claim to rule by numbers, not upon rightness or excellence.”
A perfect example of Tyranny of the Majority occurred at the May 20 Board of Finance (BOF) meeting. It was conducted by telephone conference call, so I urge you to listen to it on NHTV or the town’s website.
At this meeting, and because we were understandably unable to have our customary budget referendum, the BOF was granted the responsibility of adopting the 20/21 Fiscal Year Budget. Usually, the BOF merely recommends a budget for folks to either accept or reject at referendum. But because of the pandemic, this budget was adopted by just seven North Haveners, our elected BOF members.
The first hint of tyranny was announced at the beginning of the meeting when BOF Chairman Monico dictated his ground rules. Each BOF member was limited to 5 minutes for each round of discussion.
What? Since when are the elected representatives of the people given such a harsh time limit in which to give opinions? It disturbingly reminded me of Mr. Monico’s order last November when he limited each public comment to 5 minutes, and even threatened to eliminate public comment altogether. And keep in mind, folks, the May 20 meeting was the first since February, and the BOF won’t meet again until August. That equates to one meeting in a 6-month period.
And so I ask the Chairman, what’s the hurry? (Maybe Chairman Monico is too busy now that he is also serving as Town Treasurer).
The BOF debated a proposed 20/21 budget of $109 million, which increased spending by $5.3 million. The proposed mill rate was a 1/3 mill rate reduction, down to 30.85 mills, made possible by an increase in tax revenue primarily due to Amazon. However, because this is a reval year, 38 percent of property owners would still have a tax increase despite this mill rate reduction.
The two BOF Democrats, Mr. Hallahan and Ms. Barrett, wanted to reduce spending and give the taxpayers a better deal, especially in these uncertain pandemic times. Keep in mind, this proposed budget was prepared pre-pandemic.
Ultimately, the budget was reduced by $400,000 to $108.6 million and the mill rate went down to 30.72. This $108.6 million budget was adopted by a vote of 5-2. Mr. Hallahan and Ms. Barrett wanted to do even better for you, but to no avail. Actually, only $150,000 was cut from spending. The remaining “reduction” was simply an adjustment to the debt by allowing $250,000 to be paid from a special fund.
Both BOF Democrats wanted to reduce the 5 percent increase in the Board of Education (BOE) budget by $300,000. The Republicans said no. Even with this $300,000 reduction, the BOE budget would still have been $2.4 million higher than now.
Ms. Barrett offered statistics showing BOE budgets in similar towns were going up an average of only 2.5 percent. But the Republican majority would have none of it, citing special education, health insurance and contractual obligations. But guess what, folks, other towns have all these obligations too, but their BOE budgets are going up, on average, 2.5 percent. So why do we need a 5 percent BOE increase?
Ms. Barrett also wanted to propose a list of line item reductions on the town side of the budget with a cumulative total of $150,000. But Chairman Monico cut her off saying that the Republican majority BOF members already looked at each line, so no other cuts would be entertained. In effect, he was telling Ms. Barrett not to even bother with her list of trying to save the taxpayers any further money.
I was shocked, while James Madison, the anti-tyrant, must have rolled over in his grave.
I hope everybody is doing well. Stay safe. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sally J. Buemi is the third
selectman of the Town of North Haven.