Orange: Marathon special meeting was democracy in the raw
ORANGE — Folks who have lost faith in traditional town meetings should have been in Orange on Tuesday night.
It’s not that the three-hour session was mistake-free. It wasn’t.
Or that it was exceedingly civil. It wasn’t that either.
It was frequently unpredictable and occasionally contentious, and appeared to be over not once or twice but three times — including once when Town Moderator Adrian Otterman actually declared that the $2,728,875 budget proposed by the School Board had been approved, 58-54, before promptly eating his words.
It was wild.
It was interesting and informative.
And, perhaps most important, it ended with a compromise that almost nobody liked but just about everyone supported.
It was town meeting the way town meetings are supposed to be, which shouldn’t be a shock in a community that doesn’t use the Australian ballot for anything, including local elections.
On a night when voters ultimately trimmed $50,000 from the School Board’s budget request, it was how they got there that was far more interesting than the end result.
They did it by talking and voting, and then talking and voting again and again and again.
Voters who packed into Orange’s tiny Town Hall had two chances to give up, go home and try again another night. They balked both times — opting instead to rekindle a debate that emphasized the tension that exists in so many small-town school districts and in more than a few large ones.
Former School Board member Linda Labrie kicked things off by proposing a $90,000 budget cut that she said had been vetted by a self-appointed committee of financially savvy residents that included two other former board members.
Sue Perreault was one of them.
Like most of the residents who spoke against the School Board’s budget request, Perreault prefaced her remarks by stressing she wasn’t against kids but believed the proposed budget was excessive.
“It is not a budget we can keep sustaining continually, so we need to find a way collectively and politely to bring it in,” she said, provoking a hearty round of applause that came in response to those just generated by the pro-budget comments of the two women who spoke before her.
“I want to say speak up for the teachers, speak up for the school, and pass the budget,” said one of the women, who described herself as a longtime educator and suggested Orange has a school system that residents can be proud of and voters should support.
Not according to resident George Malek.
Malek railed against what he characterized as an unsustainable trend when it comes to providing services for students with special needs, even as others lamented what they perceived as a cost explosion that is outpacing their ability to pay.
Labrie’s motion, which was never amended, was defeated 66-51 in the first of what turned into a seemingly endless string of paper ballots. It could have ended right there, according to Otterman, who explained that absent a motion to reconsider, the only option was to adjourn.
“You all will decide whether we reconsider the article, or whether we walk out of here again without a school budget,” he said.
It took another paper ballot, but voters agreed 80-39 to, in Otterman’s words, “Start from scratch.”
School supporters tried by quickly moving to adopt the budget that was proposed by the School Board and narrowly defeated twice — once by a single vote — on Town Meeting Day.
However, that motion was amended just as quickly by Selectman Ron Tallman, who proposed a $73,000 cut while criticizing the board for what he described as a lack of transparency.
Chairman Darin Magwire bristled at Tallman’s suggestion, and one resident stepped to the board’s defense even as others continued to raise questions that touched on topics ranging from an undesignated school surplus to how frequently teachers are paid.
Tallman’s $2,655,875 amendment passed 60-56, temporarily taking the School Board’s budget proposal out of play. However, voters very nearly ended the meeting again when they inexplicably defeated that just-amended motion, 66-49.
“You have failed to approve a school budget,” Otterman said, announcing what many viewed as a head-scratching turn of events. “Déjà vu.”
A second motion to reconsider was approved 71-43 on the fifth paper ballot of the evening, and a motion to approve the School Board’s budget request was made again — this time by resident Lee Youngman. A half dozen people seconded at the same time, and a motion to call the question was hastily made.
And here’s where Otterman almost lost control of the meeting, because after the ballots were counted he announced that the board’s budget proposal was narrowly approved 58-54.
Otterman’s declaration provoked a premature celebration as Town Hall erupted in applause and Malek nearly jumped out of his chair.
“Hello? Wait a minute. What did we pass?” Malek asked, suggesting the motion that produced the seemingly favorable results involved whether to cease debate.
“It was a vote on calling the question,” he said.
Otterman said that was a fair interpretation given the discussion that led up to what he mistakenly considered the decisive vote.
“If there was confusion … we need to do this again,” he said, apologizing for the procedural misstep.
Yet another paper ballot produced a 59-48 result that Otterman said fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to call the question.
Back-to-back amendments were quickly offered — one to cut $50,000 and another to cut $228,875.
The deeper suggested cut prompted one woman to play the kid card as tempers began to grow short.
“I think you need to understand what you’re doing to those children in that school,” she said, provoking an audible backlash that had Otterman calling for order.
Residents vented about the need to lobby for changes to special education laws, worried that some residents were being taxed out of their homes and that delinquent taxes were on the rise.
“People can’t afford it, and that’s what’s not being recognized here,” Labrie said. “You’ve got to work with the dollars we can afford.”
Others maintained that solving the special education problem was well beyond the control of a local school board that they believed was doing its best to keep education affordable.
The amendment to cut $228,875 failed on the only voice vote of the evening. It wasn’t overwhelming, but it was decisive, and even those who liked the sound of the number said they would be uncomfortable about what it might mean.
Residents did approve the amendment to cut $50,000 by a vote of 72-34. After voting 89-15 to call the question, they finally approved the $2,678,875 budget with a tally of 78-26.
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