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WVN #229: Selectmen clash

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  • waylandvoters1
    Town elections are two months away and politically charged clashes are already adding hostility to Board of Selectmen meetings. At Tuesday night s meeting
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 3, 2008
      Town elections are two months away and politically charged
      clashes are already adding hostility to Board of Selectmen
      meetings.

      At Tuesday night's meeting Selectman Alan Reiss, who is
      running for re-election on a no-override platform, presented an
      alternative to the preliminary plan for budget cuts should an April
      property tax override fail. Over the remaining 45 minutes of the
      meeting three of his colleagues seemed increasingly
      peremptory, chilly and impolite. An observer could disagree with
      those characterizations, but nobody would call the discussion
      collegial.

      Just as in 2006, when another override was in the works, the
      preliminary list of budget reductions threatens to cut emergency
      services in Cochituate. If the list remains unchanged, once again
      voters will be told: Approve an override or expect to wait longer
      when you call 911. The override is currently estimated at about
      $2.3 million; services that would be cut from the Council on
      Aging and the police and fire departments total $279,000.
      (Senior services make up $24,000 of that total.)

      Reiss pointed out a budget-trimming decision in the same
      range as the proposed health/safety cuts. Faced with declining
      enrollment, the School Committee had just adopted a plan
      expected to save $250,000 or more. Under the "2-1/2 school"
      plan, half of either Loker or Happy Hollow would be shut down
      and used for all kindergarten classes. (Schools have a separate
      budget and account for about 70 percent of town costs.)

      Just as in 2006, Reiss urged the Board to give top priority to
      public safety and the elderly. Other departments might therefore
      have to absorb the cuts. Residents could face delays when
      paying a tax bill, for example, or getting a building permit, and
      library hours could be reduced. Reiss quoted from the
      Massachusetts handbook for selectmen which he said
      mandates special attention to safety and emergency services.

      And just as in 2006, Reiss' colleagues professed devotion to the
      infirm and elderly but called Reiss' idea "simplistic," "divisive,"
      harmful to other citizens who routinely use park, recreation,
      education, health and other services. Chairman Bill Whitney,
      Michael Tichnor and Joe Nolan strongly support an override.

      Reiss' motion to give priority to the areas he favors was
      defeated 3-1, with one abstention.

      (NOTE: The Finance Committee will hold a public hearing at the
      Town Building at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 4 to discuss the Fiscal
      2009 budget. Taxpayers may have ideas beyond the scope of
      the FinCom's list of reductions in case of an override failure. Are
      there other places to save money?)

      A FIRST-IN-STATE POLICY?

      After the unfriendly budget discussion the board turned to what
      might seem a tempest in a teapot that nevertheless occupies a
      notable part of the selectmen's recent attention: a policy on using
      laptops during meetings.

      Why laptops? Since he was elected in 2005, Reiss has
      consistently used a laptop at meetings. Other selectmen haven't,
      nor have they seemed to pay any particular attention to Reiss'
      use of it. Some members of other Wayland boards use them, for
      taking notes and perhaps other reasons you can easily imagine.
      Online resources are a handy way to consult a map, a law, a
      relevant document, a dictionary.

      Reiss' laptop became controversial when he opened an email
      involving the proposed Verizon cable TV contract, a matter on
      which he is the Board's representative. Other selectmen
      objected and ordered Town Administrator Fred Turkington to
      draft a policy for selectmen's use of laptops and other devices
      with Internet access.

      When the proposed policy came up for action Tuesday night,
      Chairman Whitney repeatedly interrupted when Reiss offered a
      revision. Nolan also tried to silence Reiss, who nevertheless
      went on to describe his research showing that there was no
      evidence that any town in Massachusetts has a policy on using
      laptops during meetings. In fact, he said, some towns
      encourage their use to increase efficiency.

      When consulted, the Middlesex County district attorney's office
      had advised that the only possible legal issue involved potential
      violations of the state Open Meeting Law, which gives the public
      access to any document discussed during an open meeting.

      There were two choices, Reiss said: "Park your weapons at the
      door," or trust one another. The second option didn't appear to
      be in the cards.

      Reiss noted that in the past Whitney had asked him to go online
      during meetings to get sports scores.

      By this time Whitney, Nolan and Tichnor were visibly impatient.
      Selectman Doug Leard offered a compromise motion to discard
      the proposed 18-paragraph written policy and simply adopt a
      consensus that the Internet wouldn't be used in illegal or
      inappropriate ways. Tichnor offered an amendment to make the
      consensus a "policy." Reiss seconded both motions.

      Tichnor said he'd support the motion but stated for the record
      that he believes it "is very inappropriate" to do Internet searches
      during meetings, whether on town business or not. This
      apparently puts him in opposition to the practice of some board
      members in Wayland and other towns. When Reiss responded
      that for 33 months he has done useful searches that improved
      the Board's efficiency, Whitney curtly broke in. Moments after a
      quick, unanimous vote the meeting was adjourned.

      The selectmen didn't discuss the use of electronic devices by
      other boards.

      The policy decrees that except for "urgent communication"
      selectmen won't open electronic communications relating to
      town business before them. Presumably they'll still be able to
      ask Reiss for sports updates.


      -- Michael Short

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