WVN #245: The machine
- 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
"STRONG POLITICAL FACTIONS"
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
"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
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
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
WEBSITE OFFICIAL OR NOT?
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
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 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.
INFLUENCE OF WAYLANDENEWS
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
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
GETTING OUT THE VOTE
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.
WHO IS SERVED?
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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Michael Short, Editor