The 15% rule: Town meeting is not an election

At a recent selectmen’s meeting, one member of the public said he felt “oppressed” by the town charter, because it requires a majority vote of at least 15% of the electorate to reject the overall budget.

“Unless enough other people come out, my voice isn’t being heard, and, candidly, that’s outrageous,” he said. “That’s not really what this country is about.”

“I believe that every vote counts, and if you put any ceiling in place, then my vote doesn’t count.”

But Second Selectman Michael Kaelin disagreed. He said, “It’s clear to me, from your comments, that there’s just a great misunderstanding out there with the public about what is actually happening at the town meeting.”

“You’re talking about it like it’s an election, and that’s not what a town meeting is. It’s not an election; it’s a legislative body,” Kaelin said. “It’s a legislative meeting.”

In other words, the “15% rule” isn’t a minimum voter turnout requirement; it’s a quorum requirement for the annual budget referendum held each May.

A look back through Wilton’s history shows that an early version of the 15% rule was introduced with the first town charter in 1962.

Though it wasn’t a simple majority back then — two-thirds of at least 15% of the electorate needed to vote nay in order to reject the budget — it was a quorum requirement nonetheless, and one similar to the one Wilton has today.

Today’s iteration of the 15% rule was actually introduced in 1992, with the third revision of the 1962 charter. A post-meeting referendum on the overall budget was made mandatory. Also, the entire budget would be approved unless 15% of the electorate turned out to vote and a majority voted to reject it.

Last year, for instance, more people voted to reject the budget than to approve it, but only 11.5% of the body of eligible voters cast ballots, so the budget was automatically approved.

The 15% rule as it was in 1992 got carried over to today’s charter, which was adopted in 2009.

Today’s charter reads, “The budget shall [be approved] unless at least 15% of the electors of the town vote, and a majority of those voting vote to reject the budget, either because it is too high or because it is too low.”

“The 15% minimum was to prevent a small turnout from rejecting the budget,” former first selectman and historian Bob Russell told The Bulletin.

“Do we want a majority of 7%, maybe only 4%, rejecting a budget?” he asked rhetorically.

Kaelin told The Bulletin, “The thinking was, you don’t want a minority of people to hijack this whole process, because it's such an elaborate process, one that invites such participation at every step along the way.”

To the concerned individual who spoke at the selectmen’s meeting mentioned above, Kaelin had said, “If you had gone to the town meeting, you could have stood up at the town meeting and moved to cut any line item in the selectmen’s budget, or cut the overall budget, or cut the Board of Ed budget.

“If a majority of people in that room acting as members of the town meeting — as legislators — if a majority of people in that room voted, the vote would have counted, and it would have been effective. A small group of people can do that,” he said.

What Kaelin said can be found in Article VII of today’s charter. “The [electors of the town, also known as the] Town Meeting, at the Annual Town Meeting … may, by amendment made and seconded, and approved by those in attendance, reduce … the Board of Education's total recommended budget; individual line items in the Board of Selectmen's recommended budget; and the debt service recommended appropriation.”

At the Annual Town Meeting, after operating budgets have been presented, any voter can walk to the front of any aisle and use the microphone there to make a motion. If that motion is orally seconded by someone else in the auditorium, a vote is taken.

If the motion on the table gets a majority vote, it passes, no matter how many people decide to vote — 15% or 5%. This procedure is explained to the public at the beginning of each Annual Town Meeting by town counsel.

While Kaelin holds that the 15% rule is misunderstood, he is not in favor of it, because he’s in the camp that believes the threat of hijackers would encourage people who support a recommended budget to come out and vote for its approval.

“I’m in favor of getting the 15% requirement out, because it gives people a reason to vote,” he said. “I can say, ‘You need to vote, because if you don’t, a small group can hijack this thing. [Last year], too many people didn’t vote who supported the budget, because they thought it was going to pass anyway — that’s the bottom line. I’m in favor of getting rid of it, because it gives people more of a reason to get involved.”

Russell, on the other hand, likes the rule for what it is. “Fewer people now bother to vote,” he said. “Why? They may not care about it, or they [may] trust the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Education, and the Board of Finance, elected by the people, to do the right and necessary thing. Do we want a majority of 7%, maybe only 4%, rejecting a budget?”