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592WVN #448: Clues to Town Meeting voter mood?

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  • waylandvoters1
    Apr 9, 2012

      Dear Wayland Voter,

      The election of two new members to the Board of Selectmen and last-minute budget-cutting by the Finance Committee may indicate the mood of voters convening for annual Town Meeting on Monday, April 9.

      On April 3 incumbent Selectman Sue Pope lost her bid for re-election. Voters chose Doug Leard and Ed Collins for two vacancies on the five-member Board. (Incumbent Tom Fay declined to run for another term.)

      All five establishment-linked candidates in contested races were defeated.

      On top of that, after receiving suggestions from citizens the FinCom will now present a recommended budget adopted on April 5 that would lower the tax rate. See WVN # 447:

      Before the election, Leard and Collins expressed approval of the petitioners who prevailed over selectmen and Finance Committee opposition last fall and gave voters the opportunity to provide $4 million in property tax relief by reallocating free cash towards the current budget.

      Despite establishment predictions of dire consequences, the free cash total has grown, giving citizens ammunition to argue for further trimming now. The town's FY13 budget comes up as Article 8.

      Leard and Collins also endorsed Town Meeting petitioners' Article 4 to select Finance Committee members by election rather than appointment by the selectmen. The candidates they defeated oppose the article, as does the FinCom. Proponents complained about misleading figures in the warrant. DETAILS ARE IN A SEPARATE STORY BELOW.

      Will Town Meeting voters follow the lead of the new selectmen? And will they look favorably on these other articles submitted by petitioners and opposed by the FinCom?

      -- Article 5 would establish an audit and review committee aimed at enhancing financial transparency and oversight. Town and school accounting has drawn criticism from citizens and consultants.

      -- Article 9 would authorize $16,000 to study teacher compensation. Petitioners say that "a smart compensation plan is key to a superior educational program." Another argument is that the "steady climb of the average Wayland teacher's salary has exceeded those of its peer districts without sufficient explanation."

      -- Article 28 would authorize an audit of school fee-based programs since Fiscal Year 2007. (Cost unknown.) Consultants have pointed to practices indicating that fee-paying parents and possibly taxpayers were overcharged.

      Other articles may result in spirited debate:

      -- Article 6 gives voters the chance to discuss the merits of the 11-year old Community Preservation Act fund which supports open space, historic preservation and affordable housing . See WVN #446: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/waylandvotersnetwork/message/589

      -- Article 7 would create a Water Enterprise Fund, separating water fees and expenses from the general budget. After years of opposing the idea, the selectmen and FinCom now propose it. Opponents say the move is premature because the language lacks necessary oversight of the fund. They also note that as water rates have skyrocketed in recent years, reserve funds have burgeoned. The article proposes to lock up all surplus funds before any needed water rate adjustments are made.

      -- Article 11 is a resolution designating a River Road site for a new Public Works facility to replace the aging DPW garage near the Middle School. There has been opposition from neighbors of the site and others with environmental concerns. An attempt to negotiate compromise language with the River Road neighbors to limit vehicular access to Route 20 except in certain emergencies was inconclusive as of the April 5 Board of Selectmen's meeting. The selectmen are willing to consider exceptions for police, fire and medical emergencies. At the April 2 Board of Public Works meeting, it was clear the DPW also wants River Road access during snow emergencies. At the selectmen's meeting, a resident of Sudbury's new Villages condos on River Road spoke during public comment expressing concerns about adding more heavy truck traffic to that scenic road near the river.

      -- Article 12 would appropriate $725,000 for design of and bidding on that DPW maintenance and storage facility. This would be the first step toward taking on debt estimated at $13 million.

      -- Article 19, submitted by petitioners, would require a public hearing before setting the tax rate. The rate became a hot topic last year during debate about tax relief. The FinCom's projected tax rate would have been the highest in Massachusetts if not for the $4 million in relief voted last November. Proponents of Article 19 are looking for more transparency and taxpayer scrutiny. The Finance Committee supports this article.

      -- Article 25 would redefine service stations to allow them to sell items typically found in convenience stores. Rather than seek a variance, the petitioner proposes to change the zoning bylaw. Some citizens have said that the article would open the town to national chain stores, discouraging local business opportunities, and could also reduce the number of car mechanics available in town.

      Also worth noting:

      -- Article 31, the last one, is a resolution to support funding for electronic voting through June 30, 2015. Voters may wonder why the selectmen placed this last, when many voters may have departed.

      -- The capital budget, part of Article 8, contains some items that may prove controversial, such as a repeated request for water meter transmitters ($700,000), and a larger than normal request for DPW/water vehicles and equipment ($825,000).

      -- WVN Staff


      It's no surprise that the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee oppose Article 4, which would take away the selectmen's power to appoint the committee.

      But Town Meeting voters might be surprised at the wrangling over misleading figures used to argue against the article.

      Supporters of Article 4 demanded corrections after they compared their own research with material the Finance Committee published in the warrant booklet.

      Town Administrator Fred Turkington tried to reconcile the printed errors and proponents' figures into one errata sheet to be posted online and distributed at Town Meeting. Article supporters called the effort useless. So when the Town Building shut down on Friday for the weekend it appeared that voters would be working with a rewritten statement of the article and two versions of errata.




      Many voters, though, may decide based on the larger issues involved rather than precise comparisons of the way Massachusetts towns choose their finance committees. Article 4 would give voters the power to choose the Finance Committee.

      The FinCom's presentation of the article in the warrant contains a graph and figures saying that in 87 percent of Massachusetts towns finance committees are appointed rather than elected. That figure, which was quoted in selectmen candidate debates, prompted the proponents' accusations of misleading statistics.

      Citizens did their own research and discovered many errors in the FinCom's work. For example, 42 (not 31) towns elect the committees. The citizen study also shows a more complicated picture. Many towns choose the committee by appointment, but not necessarily by the selectmen alone.

      One town, for example, has 15 committee members: 5 elected, 5 appointed by the moderator, 5 appointed by the selectmen. Some towns elect the committee at their town meeting. Giving the moderator at least some appointive power is frequent.

      The research shows that towns have over the years come up with many ways of constituting a finance committee. There is no one "best" way to do it.

      The Wayland petitioners argue that electing the Finance Committee would ensure that members represent all the people. Thus it would end accusations that the FinCom is the tool of the selectmen and a stepping stone to elective office. (Three former FinCom members are now selectmen; one was defeated in a re-election bid on April 3.)

      Opponents of the article say that election would rob the committee of continuity needed for its exacting and far-reaching work. Proponents counter that election wouldn't necessarily prevent continuity: qualified people who enjoy the work, are good at it and want no other town post could be elected time and time again.

      The FinCom argues that it is accountable to Town Meeting, not to the selectmen, and that an elected committee would make short-term decisions resulting in long-range problems.

      Proponents argue that an election is the best way to ensure that the committee is accountable to all residents.

      In recent years the selectmen have almost always voted unanimously on major issues. Though there are diverse views on the seven-member FinCom, the majority is usually in step with the selectmen. The selectmen and the FinCom advanced different responses to petitioners' efforts that resulted in $4 million in tax relief last November, but both bodies opposed the specific measure.

      The warrant itself demonstrates the importance of the FinCom and its role as adviser to Town Meeting. The FinCom gave the proponents 11 lines (beginning on Page 31) for "Petitioners' Comments." That was followed by nearly three pages of "Finance Committee Comments" including the misleading figures and graph.

      Similarly, the FinCom allows four lines for "Arguments in Favor" followed by 26 for "Arguments Against."

      -- Michael Short



      An anonymous flyer has appeared at residences urging "school and town services supporters" to attend Town Meeting and oppose attempts to reduce the budget.

      The message was essentially repeated in emails. Among those involved in email forwarding was Cynthia Lavenson, a leader in the Save Our Services political action group which has campaigned on behalf of schools.

      The flyer makes false or misleading assertions including:

      -- Taxes cannot be reduced without cutting services. (The tax relief voted last November had no effect on services. Some publicly aired tax-saving suggestions for Fiscal 2013 have been adopted by the Finance Committee and will be presented to voters this week as having no effect on present services. Other citizen suggestions would have no effect on the operational budget. There are legitimate policy arguments to be made about future effects of present tax reduction; the flyer makes none.)

      -- Some voters want to delay repairing the Middle School roof. (The FinCom has voted to borrow for the work. The only known suggestion for delay was from citizens who want to wait until it's known whether the state will share the cost. If you hear of anybody who wants to stand up and say "Let the roof leak," please let us know.)

      -- "They're going after the school budget, including the 1:1 computer initiative. They're going after teacher compensation too..." (One of the citizens who suggested reductions that have no effect on current services is a member of the School Committee. There is, though, a Town Meeting article that would authorize a study of teacher compensation, which is among the highest in Massachusetts.)

      If "they" are going after school computers and roof repairs, "they" have been awfully quiet about it.

      PolitiFact, one of the organizations that analyze the truth and falsity of national political discourse, would most likely consign the flyer's claims to its "Pants on Fire" category.

      -- Michael Short


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      Wayland Voters Network
      Michael Short, Editor