598WVN #452: Voters OK school audit, electronic voting
- Apr 25, 2012Dear Wayland Voter,
Citizens finished five nights of Town Meeting with strong support for continuing efforts to deal with years of mismanagement of school department funds.
By the end of a 2-1/2-hour session on Monday, voters had also overwhelmingly endorsed electronic Town Meeting voting and shown sympathy for a family that says it needs a small piece of land for a new septic system.
This newsletter summarizes the April 23 session and concludes with comment.
With five articles remaining, 344 voters showed up, many of them to support or oppose Article 28, which authorizes the town to ask the state auditor to study the accounts of fee-based school services dating back to 2007. Parents may have been overcharged for special services such as all-day kindergarten while taxpayers may have unwittingly subsidized the services, the article petitioners maintained.
The selectmen and the Finance Committee opposed the article. Selectman John Bladon and former School Committee member Louis Jurist told the meeting that a local audit now under way is all that is needed. Spending up to $30,000 would be wasteful and duplicative, "solving problems that don't exist," as Jurist put it. The schools have already returned more than $500,000 and expect in time to deal with more than $1 million more.
Speaking as individuals, School Committee members Shawn Kinney (who introduced the article) and Ellen Grieco argued that past problems still need to be thoroughly addressed. The five-member School Committee took no voted position on the article.
Speaking from the floor, Brenda Sharton, a school parent and lawyer with experience in such matters, defended the article, calling it "the next logical step -- a no-brainer." She invited voters to recall then-Superintendent Gary Burton in recent years declaring a fiscal "crisis" that could result in the "dismantlement of the schools" unless difficult changes were made. While Loker School was closed and Happy Hollow became overcrowded, she said, the schools had millions of dollars in the fee-based revolving accounts that never should have held a surplus.
Many parents are still angry about the Loker closing. And the School Committee and administration have suffered a loss in taxpayer confidence as a result of disclosures since the 2010 Town meeting authorized a study by the Abrahams Group financial consultants.
During the Monday debate, new Superintendent Paul Stein was asked for his opinion on the article. Stein, who is nearing the end of his first year on the job, replied that he was convinced that financial matters must be audited as a matter of restoring trust. He said genially he could live with that being accomplished with or without the article.
The article consumed more than an hour of discussion because it was incomplete as introduced. When Finance Committee Chair Cherry Karlson pointed out that no source of funding was specified, Kinney and Grieco separately introduced changes that worked at cross purposes.
As Moderator Dennis Berry had warned, Town Meeting floor is not a good place for this sort of tinkering.
Karlson rose again to point out a contradiction: One paragraph of the motion called for school department funding while the second called for free cash from the town's general fund. By this time, under the rules further debate or change was impossible.
Several citizens, obviously intent on achieving passage, offered suggestions. Moderator Berry ultimately ruled that a new main motion could be introduced that deleted the reference to school funding. And that's what happened.
Had the petitioners done their (shall we say it?) homework, voters would have been spared a lot of parliamentary maneuvering. But it would not have changed the final result. Voters rejected officials' argument that "we're doing just fine; let us stick with it." They chose to trust outsiders to do the audit.
STRONG SUPPORT FOR ELECTRONIC VOTING
By the time the final article, No. 31, came up, many voters had gone home. But there were undoubtedly some who had sat through the meeting to be able to endorse voting by hand-held wireless devices.
As one voter told a WVN reader by phone as she prepared to dash out the door specifically to be there for Article 31, "I'll never go to Town Meeting again if we don't have electronic voting."
Lead petitioner Alan Reiss laid out the argument: speed, accuracy, privacy. He asserted that using the devices for the 63 votes on first four nights of Town Meeting saved time equivalent to a full night of deliberations. On those nights, he said, the "stadium atmosphere" was gone and people enjoyed the calm mood.
Speaking against the article, which endorses providing funding for Town Meeting through 2015, Jack Langsdorf said the cost was too high to justify the results. Standing uncounted votes are quick, he said, and colored hand-held paddles could be used to speed counting when needed.
Lead petitioner Dave Bernstein responded that the cost (about $47,000 for the four nights beginning April 9) is justified because it benefits all of the more than 13,000 residents whether they attend or not.
"Standing, screaming, we do not make great decisions," Bernstein said.
Less than a half hour before that, a citizen had questioned the uncounted vote on the school audit article. She had waited too long to voice her objection. But if she had spoken earlier, and been supported by seven voters, there would have been a standing count.
LAND FOR SEPTIC SYSTEM
Voters approved Article 27, which was changed from the motion introduced at the April 12 session just before a medical emergency led to adjournment. The 11-day break gave officials time to confer and plan, and may have saved voters some time.
The article was reintroduced Monday with significant changes: The selectmen and the Recreation Commission had swapped the two tiny parcels they control at 24 and 26 Lakeshore Drive. Rather than sell both parcels to the Hanlon family at 30 Lakeshore, the new plan allows the family or the high bidder to buy the immediately abutting 26 Lakeshore, now controlled by the selectmen for septic use. Through an amendment, Rec may consider an easement on its land for septic use by either 30 or 22 Lakeshore Drive.
The town parcels are about 1,800 square feet each, tapering severely from Lakeshore Drive to a tiny frontage on Dudley Pond.
David Hanlon says he bought his childhood home last year and moved in with his wife and three children. He's caring for his mother, who has lived in the house for almost 50 years and suffers from cancer.
At Town Meeting he and his wife, Pam, said the septic system has been declared failing and must be pumped at considerable expense every four to five weeks. Speakers cited the lack of any attempt to discern if a system could fit at 30 Lakeshore. The Board of Health director's report dated April 18 stated, "The property at 30 Lakeshore Drive appears to be able to locate a new septic system that would be farther away from the pond than if they tried to locate a system on one of the two town-owned properties that are for sale."
The selectmen, who proposed the article, say the parcels have little value and are of no use to anybody except an abutter. Furthermore, supporters said, the house on the other side of the parcels, No. 22, might be able to use the easement to replace an aging system. Hanlon argued that if he is allowed to buy land, he'll contribute to the town by paying higher property taxes.
Discussion lasted nearly 40 minutes and raised many questions. Will the environmentally vulnerable pond be protected? One resident recommended use of a system that emits less nutrients than one that simply satisfies Title V. Could a number of households use the parcels for septic treatment? (Answer: Probably not.) Should we pass over the article and wait for a complete engineering plan? What is the land really worth?
The selectmen had proposed a sale at less than $25,000, a price that would trigger the need for open bidding. Town Administrator Fred Turkington said the parcel would be appraised, and if the valuation calls for it, it will be put out to bid.
The Board of Selectmen's Policies and Procedures calls for appraisal of town land offered for sale that has more than nominal value. Waterfront residents pay a premium for their assessed land valuations.
Voters stood to verify the two-thirds majority required to pass the article.
-- WVN Staff
TWO YEARS OF CHANGE
Article 29 -- Hear Reports -- is a Town meeting formality. In short order voters agree to accept the reports of boards, committees and other town groups or agents. They generally don't hear any reports.
On Monday night Chairman Richard Turner claimed a brief opportunity to call attention to the report of the Public Ceremonies Committee naming the four citizens who successfully petitioned for $4 million in tax relief in November as winners of the 2012 Lydia Maria Child Award for Outstanding Public Service. Child was a prominent 19th-century Wayland resident who was often scorned for her early anti-slavery views.
"This extraordinary group of residents brought extensive and substantial tax reduction to each and every property owner in town, both homeowners and businesses," the citation read.
"These citizens exemplify the best kind of public service in taking initiative to identify a situation (why are our taxes so high), finding the underlying cause (retaining unspent monies to the point of exceeding a very conservative reserves policy), and convincing the majority of Town Meeting attendees (many of whom they rallied) to change these practices. In doing so, they demonstrated the most fundamental benefit of our open town meeting we can and do govern ourselves! No other form of municipal government can compare. So we salute and thank these, our fellow citizens, who have shown us that it is possible to `fight city hall' and win..."
The four, Donna Bouchard, Tony Boschetto, Kent George and Kim Cook, later identified further opportunities for tax relief which voters approved at Town meeting on April 10.
One can trace the current spirit of citizen initiative to annual Town Meeting in 2010, where voters approved a petitioners' article to spend a modest amount of money for consultants to look into apparent irregularities in town and school accounting. Since that time the Abrahams Group has become well known to those who follow local government, pointing out many practices that should be changed.
The town created an Operational Review Committee to oversee and evaluate the consultants' work. It still hasn't issued a final report. During the April 23 Town Meeting session a supporter of further school fund auditing cited a Committee report indicating support of the audit. A selectman disagreed.
Whether because of disclosures of financial mismanagement, bumbling, whatever you may call it, or simply alarm at the prospect of the state's highest tax rate, November special Town Meeting voters eagerly heard the petitioners' tax relief message. The selectmen and Finance Committee first fought, then compromised, then ultimately lost to petitioners.
On April 3 voters chose two newcomers to join the Board of Selectmen. Ten days later, voters approved additional tax relief and said no to a $700,000 plan to install wireless water meter readers. See:
The selectmen, initially skeptical of electronic voting, ultimately supported petitioners who showed the way.
All of this is a significant change from previous years, when the Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee and School Committee worked in smooth harmony and voters could be assembled to pack Town Meeting and support their positions.
Voters have seen evidence that they can make their voices heard. It remains to be seen whether lasting change lies ahead.
One thing hasn't changed. The town remains divided, as you can see by reading anonymous blog posts attached to the Wayland Town Crier story on the four petitioners. The Child Award winners are either heroes or arch-villains. For this set of voters, there is no middle ground.
-- Michael Short
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor