269WVN #243: Stumbling to victory
- Apr 13, 2008Dear Wayland Voter,
Let's hope the Board of Selectmen is better at running a
Department of Public Works than it is at presenting a Town
The selectmen won voter approval of their controversial Article 5
at the first session of annual Town Meeting Thursday night and
will acquire additional power when the department is created
next year. The way it was accomplished, with the help of the
activist group SOSWayland and the town moderator, left even
veteran TM voters confused about what had happened.
SOS advocacy should be credited with turning out a large crowd
to vote Yes. Moderator Peter Gossels created the opportunity to
vote by making unprecedented exceptions to his own published
rules. He was strongly criticized for it.
In the aftermath, words flung in conversation, emails and blogs
include "power grab," "debacle" and "travesty," and references
to a triumphant political machine.
Gossels took the blame for the messy procedures, but in fact
the selectmen created the situation. Despite abundant legal
advice, three years of preparation, a committee study, a similar
article introduced and then withdrawn last fall, the measure was,
as one speaker argued, "not ready for prime time."
After the article was introduced, Gossels warned the 755 voters
that he might have to rule on a question put to him shortly
before. This turned out to be a reference to a transfer of land
from existing boards to the new department. The article required
only a majority vote, but land transfers require two-thirds.
When debate began, it became clear that opponents of the DPW
were numerous and prepared. The Park and Recreation
Commission had opposed the DPW unanimously and
publicized the controversy. Their handout listed many
arguments including that the DPW will cost money before it
saves any. Hiring a DPW director, an assistant director and an
administrative assistant will cost about $225,000 annually,
Savings are predicted to come from voluntary attrition in the
The selectmen and the Finance Committee disputed cost
figures, saying that the DPW director's salary will come from the
long-vacant position of water superintendent. They named a
salary level that turned out to be missing from the warrant
booklet. Then they named another salary scale. But even if only
the director is hired at first, at roughly $120,000 or more a year,
that would exceed the salary of the water superintendent. (And,
some voters ask, if we've been without a superintendent so
long, do we really need to maintain the slot?)
The selectmen never held a public hearing on Article 5 and
talked little about cost savings until it became clear that Park and
Rec would fight the measure. Three weeks before Town
Meeting, the human resources director created one possible
scheme and estimated annual savings of $300,000 within a few
years; he acknowledged that he could have created different
scenarios with smaller savings.
Park and Rec commissioners say the selectmen took no
account of many costs, including negotiating four union into one.
There is no precise plan for organizing the department. The
idea is that the new director will help design the organization.
The director will report to the town administrator, who reports to
The prospect of an amended motion to deal with the land
transfer prompted many to raise points of order and ask for
clarification. Why does the motion end with a semicolon? Don't
the rules require that voters see a written copy of a substantial
amendment of more than 25 words?
Finally a member of the Park and Rec Commission moved to
pass over (withdraw) the motion because it was insufficiently
prepared. A standup head count defeated that motion 400-305.
Voters crowded around the podium with motions for extra
debate time (all defeated) and points of order. The 60-minute
clock ran out before the selectmen could come up with a revised
motion. That meant nothing more could take place now except a
vote. Because of the problematic language, Gossels ruled the
main motion out of order, which normally means an article is
dead. But then Gossels gave the selectmen the chance to
amend the motion by deleting the paragraph referring to land
transfers. Since there couldn't be an amendment, Gossels
simply adopted the amendment as the motion to be voted.
These violations of the rules prompted further points of order. "I
made a special ruling," Gossels said.
"It's not easy," he said. "I'm embarrassed, frankly...This is the
best I can do.""
One voter said the confusion caused by an improperly written
article created "an impossible situation" so divisive that the
motion should be withdrawn and taken up later.
Though it was apparent that not everybody knew what the
motion was, it passed by a 382-291 head count. The issue of
land transfers will have to be decided later.
"Ultimately my job is to run a democratic legislature," Gossels
could be heard saying to someone nearby during the vote. "It's a
"I don't think it was appropriate to nurse the Board of Selectmen
into a solution," Park-Rec Commissioner Brud Wright said later,
adding that they are expected to be well prepared and they have
no special standing to be treated differently from others. "The
rules are there for a reason."
Other voters criticized Gossels for referring to confused voters
as "opponents" of the article and for possibly introducing bias by
the way he explained certain votes (for example, "If you like what
the selectmen would like you to adopt, you'll vote for the motion").
Gossels later defended his action in writing, saying that his job
is to facilitate votes on articles, "not to disenfranchise voters,
unless a motion is illegal, beyond the jurisdiction of Town
meeting or clearly out of order."
The vote will stand unless Town Meeting voters decide later to
reconsider and take further action. Reconsideration is possible
on any article.
The day after the vote, Commissioner Wright said, "I'm
disappointed that Park and Rec and other opponents didn't get
out the voters sufficiently." Opponents were up against the
well-organized, permanent "override moms" organization
created by SOS.
SOS had issued detailed email appeals to vote for and against
specified things. "You are needed at Town Meeting tonight" was
Thursday's message. It described the DPW article as "a key
element of the Finance Committee's Long Range Plan." It said
the DPW would save $300,000 or more, but didn't suggest a
time frame, or include any argument against the measure.
SOS often instructs Town Meeting voters to oppose
amendments, which may have left some of them unprepared to
understand Thursday's unusual circumstances.
The votes SOS urges are in lock step with the Board of
Selectmen and the Finance Committee.
SOS may be unique in Massachusetts as an activist group
drawing much of its support through close, continuing contact
with parents of Wayland students. SOS can deliver many votes
for a tax override question or a Town Meeting article. SOS
supports candidates and office-holders who support overrides
and backs whatever the current School Committee and Board of
Selectmen majorities favor.
Packing Town Meeting for particular votes makes it difficult to
think of TM as a legislative body. Gilbert and Sullivan's satirical
view of members of parliament in Victorian England may be
closer to today's reality:
"When in that house M.P.'s divide,
If they've the brain and cerebellum, too,
They've got to leave that brain outside,
And vote just as their leaders tell 'em to."
Town Meeting continues Monday April 14 at 7:30 p.m., with
several articles SOS wants to pass or defeat, including the
budget, improving assessment procedures, capital facilities
planning and a new town pool.
-- Michael Short
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Michael Short, Editor