“I knew at the beginning that the Cape Cod Commission enjoys strong support in all 15 towns,” Cape Cod Commission Executive Director Paul Neidzwiecki said in an interview this week. “The result in the end was none of those citizen initiative petitions were successful.”
Questions were before town meeting voters over the past month in the towns of Sandwich, Bourne, Mashpee, Dennis, Brewster, Harwich, Chatham and Orleans. The question was before Barnstable Town Council, because the Town of Barnstable does not have a town meeting form of government.
The citizens’ petition warrant articles were submitted by getting signatures from 10 registered voters. By state statute, citizen petitions, regardless of content, must appear on the warrant if 10 signatures of registered voters are collected.
The petition asked town meeting voters to place a question on the next election ballot petitioning the legislature to release the town from membership in and from the authority of the Cape Cod Commission and the Cape Cod Commission Act.
The petitioners’ reasoning as spelled out on the petition was that the towns are “overcharged for the services” they receive from the Commission and “underrepresented relative to the Commission’s governance and activities.” Also, the petition stated that the Commission “has outlived its usefulness” and “duplicates the functions” of town departments.
But there were questions about the legality of the petition questions because the Cape Cod Commission was not originally formed by individual town votes, but rather by regional referendums and then an act of legislature.
Sandwich Town Manager George “Bud” Dunham was among the town officials who sought a legal opinion on the question. He approached the Boston law firm of Kopelman and Paige, and the firm’s opinion was similar to that of Barnstable Town Council Ruth Weil. John W. Giorgio of Kopelman and Paige stated in a letter to Dunham, “In my opinion, the petition is legally defective.”
Giorgio stated, “Town Meeting has no authority to require a binding question to be placed on an election ballot.”
The Town of Barnstable, which has a town council form of government, rather than town meeting, also took up the question this spring. The question before Barnstable Town Council was submitted by a group petition with 150 signatures, per statute. The town council voted against moving the question of withdrawal from the commission on to the town’s voters.
Niedzwiecki said, there is a low bar to get citizen initiatives on the ballot, with only ten signatures needed in each town and 150 required in Barnstable.
The failure to pass, said Niedzwiecki, speaks for itself. He said that some of the towns that originally voted against joining the Commission 25 years ago voted to stay this time around. “We take that as a very positive sign going forward,” he said.
Niedzwiecki said, those who want to withdraw from the Commission are a very small minority. “It’s always troublesome when you see people that sort of abuse the public process to the point where we wind up spending a lot of taxpayer money to defend against initiatives by a very small number of people. But that’s part of the public process.”
He said there was a silver lining to the efforts. “We had an opportunity to get out there and talk to people and decision makers about what we do and about how the commission is a good deal for taxpayers”
Niedzwiecki added, “At this point for any of the 15 towns, life without the Commission would probably increase costs and property taxes.”
He said, “It was a fruitful discussion that we had in all 15 towns and we’re very pleased with the results.”