It is not uncommon for residents at local board meetings to request that a matter of controversy be put to a vote by the citizens. This is called holding a Referendum in New York State. Other states permit this form of public decision-making but in different forms and with varying rules. In California these public voting opportunities are called Ballot Initiatives and may occur on almost any matter simply by having gathered enough signatures on a petition to put the question on the ballot. Town Meeting Day, in Vermont, fills this same function by having attendees at the Town Meetings vote on representatives, budgets and issues. These meetings are held once a year on the first Tuesday of March. This type of decision-making is called “direct democracy”. In New York State, on the other hand, government by representation is the rule. Direct action by the people is the exception and is authorized only in very limited circumstances.
New York State law actually enumerates the specific things that may be subject to public voting – i.e. a referendum. Only these specific issues may be determined by referendum. There are two types of referenda – Mandatory and Permissive. Any decision subject to a Mandatory referendum would be null and void if it was not put to a public vote. However, there are only ten matters that can be decided this way under the NYS Municipal Home Rule Law – most having to do with changes in the composition of the Board, their number of votes, removing someone from the board, decreasing a board member salary and abolishing an elective office. Under General Municipal Law there are five more subjects that may be determined in this manner. These include annexation, conducting of bingo, establishing an airport or a gas or electric utility, and establishing either a firefighter or volunteer ambulance service award program. In Croton, the latter, establishing a firefighter service award program was done by Mandatory referendum in 2003 – the last mandatory referendum held here.
Permissive referenda are allowed in fifteen instances as well under Municipal Home Rule Law and Village Law. Under the former, the Board may make a decision which could be subsequently overturned by the electorate if a sufficient number of signatures are submitted on a petition which would force it to be on the ballot at the next election. The issues generally revolve around eliminating public hearings, changes with regard to conducting financial matters, creating/abolishing the office of Village Manager and increasing an elective officer’s salary during their term. Under Village Law, a Permissive Referendum can be forced on areas affecting the size of the Village, village consolidation, changing the name of the village, and changing the month of village elections. These latter referenda issues may be independent of any prior Board decision as was the case in Croton where the issue of the month of Village elections was placed on the ballot in March of 2011 based solely on a petition presented by members of the public.
While some citizens may feel that the decision to conduct a referendum on a matter of controversy is a something that the Board of Trustees may arbitrarily decide to do nor not, NYS law is quite clear that, except for the enumerated exceptions above, use of a referendum at taxpayer’s expense to determine public policy by poll is not authorized. Informal sampling may be made by a member or members of a legislative body so long as no public employees or officers conduct the sampling during working hours or are required to participate in the sampling, no public funds or property are used for the purpose, and the result is not used as the controlling criterion upon which action is based.
I think that most Board members would probably like some of the more difficult and controversial decisions to be made by referenda but, whatever its pluses or minuses, this is not possible for Village government in New York State.