SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — It’s looking like June 30 will be set as the date to hold a referendum for voters to decide whether the 2020-21 budget passed by the Town Council will be reduced. But it also could be July 14.
The town charter specifies a specific date for a budget referendum – the Tuesday after the first Saturday in June, which is June 9 this year.
But the town’s Canvassing Authority recently voted unanimously to recommend holding the referendum on July 14. There was concern that trying to hold it on June 9 would be problematic in ensuring public health safety and in procuring enough mail ballots.
Given COVID-19 restrictions, the Canvassing Authority had expressed to the town its concern about minimizing the number of voters that must go to a polling place to cast a vote, Town Manager Rob Zarnetske said.
The Canvassing Authority on May 18 certified two ballot questions to reduce the municipal budget by $300,000 and the education budget by $1.1 million.
The questions are the result of petitions submitted to the town by voters who want to see the budgets reduced further, based on the current economic climate. The budgets as passed do not raise real estate taxes for homeowners next year.
Outside of following the charter and operating under a state of emergency, the decision about which date to use appears to rest with Zarnetske, who consulted with the town solicitor about how to proceed.
“What we’re trying to do is maximize the opportunity for people to participate,” he said.
Town Clerk Susan Flynn said the town staff is occupied with other election activity in June and the first half of July. This includes receiving candidate nomination papers from July 1-10, and verifying them by July 16.
“Which is quite a project for my office to handle on top of everything else,” she said. In June, candidates file declarations and receive endorsements, she said.
Also in June is the statewide presidential preference primary, which will be held June 2. Post-primary work typically ties up town staff for several days afterward, Zarnetske said.
Zarnetske, in consultation with Flynn, suggested June 30 for the referendum. Flynn said ballots could be available and ready as much as 20 days before June 30.
“That would give folks more than a month to request an emergency ballot and get it back to the clerk’s office,” Zarnetske said. “I don’t want to be arbitrarily setting a date, but we’re in that space now,” he said. “Based on conversations with Susan and the canvassing board, the June 30 date seems like what’s reasonable.”
A late June or July date is problematic also because the recreation center would likely not be available as a polling place because of resumed programs by then, Zarnetske said.
Councilors were split on whether to pick June 30 or July 14.
“My concern is, we’re stepping outside the charter, and I have a problem with that,” Councilor Deb Kelso said. “The people should weigh in on charter issues.”
Kelso said she could support June 30, while Councilor Joe Viele backed the July 14 date.
“We put a board of canvassers in place, and they made a decision probably with more information than I have in front of me now,” Viele said. Viele also said the town could close the rec center programs for one day for an election, given that it closes the schools on election day.
Zarnetske said he is not “usurping” the canvassing board.
“They’ve made a recommendation and we respect that,” he said. “They weren’t aware of the conflicts described tonight around the 14th, and I’m concerned about that.”
Councilor Rory McEntee said the town is able to go with the July 14 date, and able to use the recreation center for one day.
“I just think June 9 or 30th, the number of people showing up won’t be there,” he said.
Council Vice-president Bryant Da Cruz said he favored July 14 and noted that June 30 is right before the July 4 holiday weekend. President Abel Collins said he preferred the June 30 date rather than push the vote out further into a new fiscal year.
“I definitely think June 9 is not practicable,” Collins said.