Faceoff over Deerfield Park spotlights weak spot in FTM rule

Faceoff over Deerfield Park spotlights weak spot in FTM rule

SMITHFIELD - Loud disagreements over the future of Deerfield Park, the town's showcase recreational facility, punctuated a public meeting June 25 that drew more than 100 residents and unexpectedly produced a side issue that could affect how municipal government operates here.

The anticipated faceoff came, as expected, between advocates of youth sports who want further playfield development at the 98-acre park, and residents around the perimeter who are concerned about noise and traffic.

But the meeting suddenly turned a spotlight on the bedrock institution of local government in New England, the annual Financial Town Meeting, which in Smithfield is ignored by 99 percent of the community's more than 15,000 eligible voters.

A local parent, Kevin Hawkins, declared that just 70 voters at the June 13 meeting were able to kill a proposal for a multi-purpose athletic field in the park.

"Shame on the 70 people," Hawkins shouted, declaring, "As a community, let's come together and give our children the best we can give them."

Hawkins was referring to the 70-35 vote that cut from the budget a $75,000 cash allotment for the proposed field, which, with an additional $62,500 in Public Works labor and a $100,000 state grant, was to finance the project in the park's southwest quadrant behind Austin Avenue.

His comments prompted lawyer Timothy Kane, a former town solicitor, to note that the ease with which department budgets can be cut by simple majority vote at the financial meeting is "a dangerous, dangerous procedure. Someone could cut the whole police department budget."

Kane pointed out that increasing a budget at the financial meeting requires the filing of a motion days in advance of the session, and then an 80 percent positive vote on the floor to even bring the matter up for discussion.

Kane said the less-restrictive budget-cutting rule should be reviewed for possible change, and Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr. responded, "That's a good suggestion."

Kane said a requirement to pre-file a budget-cutting motion would let the public know beforehand which items are to be targeted on the meeting floor.

Some municipal officials said after this year's financial meeting that the motion to cut the athletic field, made by Planning Board member Peter Pare, caught them by surprise.

The charter currently states that any motion to increase a budget over the amount recommended by the Town Council must be submitted to the council at its annual budget hearing, usually held a month before the Town Meeting.

If the council at its hearing rejects the motion, the sponsor can re-file it, at least 96 hours before the financial meeting, and then attempt to win the required 80 percent support to bring it to the floor.

No such restrictions apply to motions for cutting recommended budget items. They can be submitted in writing from the meeting floor and if seconded, need just a simply majority to pass.

The town is currently appointing members to a commission that will recommend possible changes to the municipal charter for voter approval in the general election a year from November. Such charter review is required every five years.

Kevin Hawkins, brother of Town Councilman Bernard Hawkins, charged that residents near the park had "stacked" the financial meeting, which only 128 people attended, with enough votes to kill the field proposal.

That brought return shouts of denial.

Paul Santucci, a neighborhood resident, said a new field will produce a traffic nightmare in the area and diminish quality of life there. He said that when Deerfield Park was designed in the 1990s, the park's current popularity was not imagined.

He said the town should look at existing facilities elsewhere for wider use, perhaps at the nearby high school.

A landscape architect brought in by the Planning Department, George Gifford, said that except for the high school, there is no more room to squeeze additional facilities onto existing town property, save for Deerfield Park.

Pare, who made the motion to cut the field at the Financial Town Meeting, cited a large cost over-run when the existing Deerfield Park Little League field was built, and said he was concerned about a similar possibility at the proposed multipurpose field.

Donald Brown, who is active in community athletics, said the park was always meant to be a site for sports fields and that "You've got to have these things somewhere, and if it's got to be in somebody's back yard, so be it."

Council members said the town meeting's defeat of the field doesn't necessarily mean the item won't come up again in the future.

The $100,000 state grant for the facility will expire next April, but Council President Alberto LaGreca Jr. observed, "At some point there will be other grants."

Four of the five council members, with the exception of Hawkins, voted against the field at the Financial Town Meeting, but indicated last week that their concerns were more about possible cost over-runs than about the field itself.

Another park issue provoking considerable discussion was a request by Joseph Bennett, the high school cross country coach, for $3,000 to improve parts of a 1.5-mile Deerfield Park trail used by his team and the public.

Bennett, many of whose team members showed up at the meeting, said leveling about 700 feet of the trail with stone dust would make it safer for team members and other park users.

Some neighborhood residents on the Austin Avenue side of the park have said the trail should be left in its natural state.

The council said the trail proposal will come up at its next meeting July 9.