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WVN #245: The machine

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  • waylandvoters1
    News Analysis Dear Wayland Voter, In the aftermath of the annual election and Town Meeting, some disgruntled voters and unsuccessful candidates blamed the
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 27, 2008
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      News Analysis

      Dear Wayland Voter,

      In the aftermath of the annual election and Town Meeting, some
      disgruntled voters and unsuccessful candidates blamed the
      Wayland "political machine." There are good reasons to use that
      unsavory metaphor. In the past few years interconnected groups
      have developed the ability to swing the vote for property tax
      overrides and unprecedented centralized power for favored

      This newsletter is about the parts of the machine and how they
      work together, advancing an agenda while facing little organized
      opposition. The combined efforts sometimes blur distinctions
      between public and private.

      Unsuccessful April candidates included the only dissenting
      voice on the Board of Selectmen and two School Committee
      candidates who advocated stricter procedural standards and a
      more skeptical view of the school administration.

      The now unanimous Board of Selectmen and the unchanged
      School Committee are committed to the fiscal policies that
      forced five tax overrides in seven years.

      At Town Meeting, voters approved a selectmen-controlled
      Department of Public Works that will replace three independent
      elected boards with two relatively powerless boards. Checks
      and balances are thus removed and more town business can
      escape public scrutiny than in the past.

      After recent elections, voters on the losing side typically decry
      increasing polarization of the community. Winners talk about
      bringing the community together, but they don't suggest


      The selectmen, the School Committee, SOSWayland and
      WaylandeNews have collaborated in recent years on an agenda
      including a high tolerance for overrides, a new or significantly
      renovated high school, a large shopping center and a more
      vertical, top-down form of governance. The Town Center
      development was presented as an essential first step toward
      producing revenue to pay for new construction and expanding
      operating budgets. "Fits our town, funds our future," as SOS put it
      in campaigning for the Town Center. Advocates' estimates of up
      to $1 million in new tax receipts are far above those of an
      independent consultant, and significant revenue may be years


      Jeffrey Baron recently told the Town Crier that his School
      Committee candidacy was defeated by the "Wayland political

      "We're at a time in Wayland where it's almost not OK to have a
      dialogue with one another," Baron said. "I feel like there are
      strong political factions that put intense pressure on people to
      do what the 'in group' says."

      That "in-group" includes SOSWayland, a permanent political
      action group that was registered during the election season as a
      ballot question committee and therefore authorized to advocate
      only for the $1.9 million tax override and $1.93 million in
      additional debt. SOS drew fire from some voters who objected to
      SOS and its officers campaigning for candidates as well, even
      handing out cards at polling places with recommended choices.
      SOS denied accusations by a number of residents that it
      installed unwanted yard signs for candidates along with
      pro-override signs.

      "Individuals have the right to actively support any candidates they
      want," said SOS co-chair Lisa Valone. Massachusetts campaign
      laws recognize that position.

      Similarly, it may have been lawful for Middle School Principal
      Charlie Schlegel to send parents an unsolicited email before
      the election about the importance of voting. He attached a list of
      budget cuts should the override fail and sent the email on the
      school system's distribution list. (A citizen's complaint about the
      email was sent to the state campaign finance office.) Schlegel
      didn't recommend what and whom to vote for, but the reminder
      certainly wasn't designed to stir anti-establishment thinking.
      This fits into a picture of influential groups and favored
      candidates, office-holders and even employees working toward
      a common goal.

      After 2006 Town meeting approved zoning to permit the Town
      Center on Route 20, the developer, Twenty Wayland, sent a May
      11 email invitation to a celebratory barbecue. Those invited
      included Selectmen Bill Whitney, Michael Tichnor and Joe Nolan,
      the entire Finance Committee, several leaders of SOS and Kim
      Reichelt of WaylandeNews.

      SOS cultivates school parents and has many email addresses
      to spread the message that overrides are vital and that Wayland
      can preserve services with prudent planning. SOS claims to be
      interested in more than the schools, which consume 70 percent
      of the budget. But it opposes setting priorities that value
      emergency services over, say, the high school ski team. For SOS
      "an override year" is an acceptable reality.

      SOS has consistently supported selectmen and School
      Committee members who share those views. SOS drummed
      up support for the DPW, further empowering the Board of
      Selectmen, who work through a town administrator who reports
      only to the selectmen. Now the selectmen will control parks,
      recreation, water and roads. (The jobs of the respected
      recreation director and the highway director are at risk.)

      After April Town Meeting, SOS sent word by email to its
      supporters, "ATM ends, our work continues." Part of SOS' stated
      mission is to work for greater state aid to towns.


      In many towns finance committees are elected or else appointed
      by the town moderator in order to foster independent voices. Not
      so in Wayland, where the selectmen appoint the FinCom and
      seldom hear a dissenting word from it. The selectmen also
      appoint dozens of members of boards and committees, and
      make interim appointments to other boards when there is a
      vacancy from resignation. Since the election of FinCom member
      Steve Correia to the Board of Selectmen in April, don't expect to
      hear any serious debate among selectmen on vital issues. And
      don't expect an independent voice on the FinCom.

      The dominant members of the Board of Selectmen, Tichnor,
      Whitney and Nolan, have squabbled with and sought to
      dominate other boards and committees. They questioned the
      established legal right of the Community Preservation
      Committee to seek its own counsel on the legality of using
      preservation funds for artificial turf. They criticized the Planning
      Board over the Town Center mixed-use development and played
      a role in the sidelining of the Planning Board's associate
      member, and only lawyer, from Town Center discussions. They
      allowed the Town Center developers to castigate other
      boards and commissions without allowing the right of reply.
      They questioned the jurisdiction of the Historic District
      Commission over the developer's proposed changes to the
      Route 20/27/126 intersection. Lately they have questioned the
      independence of WayCAM and the Cable TV Committee.

      The Board's aggressive style has led to lawsuits and
      environmental appeals.

      After creating a hostile atmosphere, the selectmen then argued
      that Wayland needed a DPW partly because it was difficult to find
      volunteers to serve in town positions.

      During the campaign season the School Committee was
      criticized as often rubber stamping the ideas of Superintendent
      Gary Burton and the school administration. The election left the
      situation unchanged.

      Close working relations were demonstrated near the end of
      Town Meeting when Selectman Michael Tichnor was observed
      consulting with SOS leaders, after which several people began
      using their cellphones. Several newcomers arrived in time to
      vote on an attempt to overturn the earlier decision to create a
      DPW. Relationships are shown in other ways.

      For example the School Committee's website,
      links to WaylandeNews, according it establishment, semi-official


      You might think that www.WaylandSchoolCommittee.org is an
      official website in the way that www.Wayland.MA.US is the town's
      official, publicly funded website. But the School Committee site
      is owned by Committee member Jeff Dieffenbach, and the first
      page explains: "This site provides a platform through which the
      School Committee delivers information on and advocates for
      the Wayland Public Schools."

      Dieffenbach maintains that the site is official in the sense that
      all content is approved by the School Committee. But because
      Dieffenbach owns and pays for the site it is free to campaign for
      such things as overrides, which would be illegal on, say, the
      town website.

      If it is a personal, private site, how can it be an official site?
      Official sites in the usual sense are financed by and responsible
      to the taxpayers.

      If it is an official site, must the School Committee obey the state
      Open Meeting Law when deciding its content? Is there evidence
      that the law is being followed?

      If it is merely a private site, is it misleading to link it with school

      If Dieffenbach leaves the School Committee, what becomes of
      the site?

      The Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance
      has dealt wit some issues similar to those raised by the School
      Committee site. The office reviews particular cases when they
      are called to the OCPF's attention.


      The influence of WaylandeNews is more subtle. The website is
      a wide-ranging source of information and discussion, but it
      consistently takes positions aligned with the establishment and
      is controlled by Kim Reichelt, formerly the head of the registered
      political committee that campaigned unsuccessfully for
      replacing the high school in 2005. Former School Committee
      member Steve Perlman recently became a member of the
      WaylandeNews editorial board. Reichelt, who often sits with
      SOS activists at public meetings, supports the current selectmen
      and School Committee and is a voluble critic of dissenting
      positions, candidates and even news sources that fail to reflect
      establishment views. She attacked Selectman Alan Reiss
      during his unsuccessful campaign for reelection. Reichelt has
      called WVN "propaganda" and described one newsletter as
      "typically preposterous."

      The School Committee severed member Jeff Dieffenbach's blog
      from the site after accusations of inappropriate partisanship, but
      treats WaylandeNews a an unimpeachable resource.

      On June 12, 2006 the Finance Committee voted unanimously to
      "support WaylandeNews and (Town Administrator) Fred
      Turkington's efforts to write the Legislature endorsing an
      increase in state aid to Massachusetts towns." This seems to
      consider WaylandeNews an adjunct or partner in town


      The election and Town Meeting demonstrate that groups sharing
      goals can turn out enough votes to keep the establishment in
      power. The job is made easier by the fact that half of the
      registered voters don't show up for town elections, and even a
      large Town Meeting attendance is a small fraction of those
      eligible. The closest thing to organized recent opposition was
      the ad hoc ballot question committee Save Our Citizens, which
      sent one mailing to residents.

      The character of Town Meeting is changing. Attendance is high
      when SOS asks voters to show up. But there seems to be an
      increasing tendency to cut debate short by calling the question,
      even when several voters are waiting to make their arguments.
      Kim Reichelt of WaylandeNews frequently moves to end

      If there is still a small core of voters who come to be persuaded
      by arguments, the majority come with minds made up. Spending
      measures may receive less scrutiny than in the past. For
      example, April voters approved borrowing up to $5.2 million for a
      new waste water treatment plant needed for the Town Center
      development even though there is no design and no approval by
      state and federal authorities. Voters presumably agreed with the
      argument that providing what is in effect a blank check for the
      project would improve relations with the developer's lawyers.


      SOS argues that the town is well served by current officials,
      pointing to the town's top bond rating and examples of
      long-range planning. Opponents say that genuine prudence and
      respect for all residents would lead to closer examination of
      town and school functions and zero-based budgeting.

      Voters may ask whether the establishment that controls Wayland
      is exercising its responsibility to serve the entire population.
      Consider the tactic used to pass the two latest overrides:
      Scaring voters by threatening to cut vital though relatively
      inexpensive parts of fire, ambulance and senior services.
      The loss of one part-time salary, for example, can reduce
      Council on Aging hours by 20 percent. This can be significant to
      elderly residents who depend on coordination of services such
      as Meals on Wheels.

      Wayland may inevitably evolve into a community where high
      taxes keep out all but the most affluent. For now, it remains
      economically and demographically varied, with nearly a quarter
      of the population over 60 years old and roughly 30 percent of
      families having school age children. There is a broad range of
      incomes. For many in the less wealthy part of that spectrum, the
      regressiveness of property taxes creates financial stress.
      Residents who came to Wayland when it was more affordable
      assert that rapidly increasing taxes threaten to drive them away.

      One resident's recent study, published in the Town Crier, said
      that the average home assessment of members of the Board of
      Selectmen, School Committee, Finance Committee and SOS
      leaders is well above $900,000, 60 percent higher than the town
      average of $578,474.

      -- Michael Short
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      Wayland Voters Network
      Michael Short, Editor
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