Because I have been so proud to serve as on our Representative Town Meeting, disheartened does not begin to express how I felt at the conclusion of our annual budget meetings this week.

I attended budget meetings of the boards of education, selectmen and finance starting in January, and special joint RTM meetings with town department heads held for the first time this year. I concluded for myself that the proposed 2013 town budget not only was sufficient to support town services, but also took creative and fiscally sound steps to remedy flaws to build secure foundation ahead.

Other members reached a different conclusion. That is their right, and I will defend it. However as elected officials representing our constituents, our job was to debate those positions -- is the budget sound, or not?

The majority leadership skipped that step. They decided they wanted to reduce this budget. Their only question was, how? Their conclusion -- cut the budget -- was their starting point. Anyone on the other side of the larger argument, whether or not to cut, was obstructing their process. I understand members of their own party had reservations, but felt unable to defy their leadership.

Whatever the leadership's opinion, they had an obligation to respect the opinions of others. They did not. By characterizing disagreement as obstruction, they insisted on framing the discussion in their terms.

I grew up in an environment where independent thought was not encouraged. It took me many years and much reflection to leave that environment. I cherish the ability to think for myself, and act on my own best judgment, and am committed to protecting that right for others. What I witnessed at these meetings was deeply disturbing, and, I hope, a temporary deviation from our usually open and respectful exchange of views.

Unfortunately, it was a deviation with harmful consequences. Unable to summon support for cutting individual department budgets, the majority leadership instead succeeded in cutting our town's contingency fund, our safety net, which our chief fiscal officer and the chair of the board of finance advised was hazardous in the extreme.

We don't know what impact this will have. It may hurt our rating with the credit agencies. If funds are needed for an emergency or contractual agreements, The Board of Finance may be forced to take those funds from department budgets -- the goal of the majority leadership anyway. It may seek to raise needed funds through bonds, costing taxpayers more in the long term. The decision to raid our contingency fund was a rebuke to the Board of Finance which has worked to build our reserves as a conservative long term strategy. It was a rebuke to our chief fiscal officer, who, breaking his usual reserve, called the move "financial suicide."

I don't know how deeply the fabric of our body was damaged. Much will depend on how willing -- and able -- we all are in the future to speak our minds. That is after all the founding principle of our democracy.

Ann Stamler

RTM member, District 5