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WVN #243: Stumbling to victory

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  • waylandvoters1
    Dear 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 Meeting article. The
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 13, 2008
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      Dear 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
      Meeting article.

      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      article introduced and then withdrawn last fall, the measure was,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.

      SAVINGS?

      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,
      opponents said.

      Savings are predicted to come from voluntary attrition in the
      40-person department.

      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 selectmen.

      DEFECTIVE ARTICLE?

      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.

      "DIFFICULT DECISION"

      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
      difficult decision."

      "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.

      ANALYSIS
      SOS ROLE

      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
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