WVN #323: A quieter side of Town Meeting
- Dear Wayland Voter,
The Nov. 18-19 special Town Meeting will be remembered for confusion, raucous insults and political maneuvering. But there were interludes of calm, reasoned argument, polite listening and apparently thoughtful decision-making.
Also in this newsletter: Middlesex Superior Court is allowing Wayland's Historic District Commission to defend itself in a suit brought by the Town Center developer. The court denied Twenty Wayland's arguments that the town administrator had the right to deny counsel and that the Commission's present lawyer be disqualified.
THE OTHER SIDE OF TOWN MEETING
Moderator Peter Gossels is fond of reminding voters that Town Meeting is Wayland's legislature and a valued, time-honored expression of direct democracy. When the issues don't involve big money and activist campaigning, Town Meeting can indeed fit that description.
Last week's Town Meeting began with a good example. Article 1 was the latest attempt to increase the charge for late payment of property and excise taxes -- $5 since 1989. A spring Town Meeting article asked for an increase to $30, the maximum allowed by the state.
But some voters balked. It's fair, they said, to charge at least enough to cover administrative costs, but it isn't fair if the charge is as much as or more than the money owed. Voters agreed and adopted the measure with an amendment: $5 for being late on smaller bills and $30 for delinquent taxes above $100.
That didn't conform to state standards, so the Board of Selectmen tried again on Nov. 18, asking for with a flat fee of $30 or any greater amount the state authorizes. Again some voters objected.
Tom Maglione, a former elected assessor who said there is no evidence of numerous delinquencies, recounted his own experience. When his mother died earlier this year, he was distracted by out-of-state travel and complications that many voters may have experienced themselves. He simply forgot to pay his bill. Since the town charges 14 percent interest on delinquent accounts, a large fee can seem like adding insult to injury.
Rick Greene argued that $30 could be a hardship for some families. He introduced an amendment to set Wayland's fee at $15 and delete the state's right to raise fees in the future.
Voters evidently liked the compromise and the idea of retaining local control. The measure passed on a voice vote.
New tax adopted
Voters returned the next night and settled down after the moderator decided to allow reconsideration at the end of the evening of a Town Center zoning proposal. The first item of business was Article 5, a tax of three-quarters of one percent on meals bought in Wayland. The selectmen were eager for the estimated $165,000 annually that the tax might bring in.
Selectman Michael Tichnor argued that Natick and Framingham had already adopted the local-option tax, the mechanism is already in place to collect it, and out-of-town customers will pay a share of it. The revenue will help to make for an expected cut of up to $600,000 in state aid, he said.
Citizens' questions were answered quickly and concisely.
Bill Murphy moved to pass over the article, arguing that other nearby towns he had checked with may not adopt the tax and that Wayland selectmen hadn't held public hearings on the proposal. The motion failed.
Another citizen asked whether local businesses had been consulted. David Gutschenritter of the Finance Committee replied that restaurants were asked and all opposed the measure.
Does the tax apply to take-out? a citizen asked. The answer: yes.
Does the tax have an end date? another asked. The answer: It can't be repealed for three years.
Voters approved the tax. Beginning Jan. 1 if you buy a $3 cup of coffee, the town will collect an extra two cents.
Sex offender restrictions rejected
The Board of Selectmen then introduced Article 6 and allowed Police Chief Bob Irving to speak for it. Five pages of proposed regulations would limit the right of registered sex offenders to be near children, the elderly and the disabled. Twenty-two states have similar laws and a statute in another Massachusetts town similar to Wayland's proposal has the approval of the attorney general. At the time the warrant was written, 20 Massachusetts communities had enacted sex offender laws.
The article would prohibit registered sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of certain places as well as loitering in certain locations.
Selectmen Chairman Joe Nolan said that lack of regulation recently allowed a registered sex offender to live near the Cochituate ball fields.
The first speaker against the article, Doug Anderson, called the measure "overreaching, unjust and ineffective." Probation officers can accomplish the same goal more efficiently, he argued. Despite proponents' statements to the contrary, he said, such restrictions are punitive. Furthermore, he asked, why should Wayland adopt something simply because others have?
Anderson cited a recent article in the respected British weekly The Economist asserting that there is no statistical evidence that such restrictions are effective. They may make people righteous but not safer, he added.
Then Jeff Koechling suggested that Wayland wait and see if anybody can produce evidence. Others, including retired Judge Elizabeth Butler, who said she had three children, agreed. Towns including Plymouth and Holden have rejected similar measures, she said.
Other citizens asked about the effect on property values and the lack of an easily readable map at Town Meeting so voters could identify restricted areas. They wanted to know what might happen to property values if they live in a "sex offender magnet" or conversely in a "sex-offender-free zone."
The article, which Selectman Nolan had called as important as "if not more important" than anything before the voters, failed on a close vote of 328-312.
Voters, of course, are influenced by factors other than the arguments they hear at Town Meeting. Some may vote along with a friend or a speaker they know, for instance. But this discussion gave the impression of citizens deliberating the issue.
Historic document preservation
Voters swiftly approved spending $10,000 in Community Preservation funds to help preserve historic Wayland documents, including materials on Wayland's Civil War soldiers and town records dating back to the early 19th century.
6 of 10 articles adopted
In the two sessions, totaling about 6-1/2 hours, voters approved six articles (one as amended), rejected one and passed over three. The Board of Selectmen considered Articles 4, 8 and 9 important enough to be worth the time of staff and various boards, public hearings, the expense of printing them in the warrant, plus hundreds of copies of related handouts. That evidently wasn't as important as getting to a revote on the Town Center zoning article before 10:30 p.m. on Nov. 19.
-- Michael Short
COURT ALLOWS HDC DEFENSE
Wayland's Historic District Commission (HDC) response to the suit filed against it by Twenty Wayland LLC and its retention of a pro bono attorney survived a challenge by Twenty Wayland LLC to disqualify the attorney and strike the Commission's response.
This means the HDC is cleared to defend its Certificate of Hardship approving the Town Center commercial-residential development with conditions requiring roadwork in stages according to the phased construction.
The ruling from Middlesex Superior Court states in part: "In the normal course, town counsel would be appointed to defend the HDC in a case such as the one before this court. The town counsel indicated he had a conflict of interest and is unable to do so pursuant to the rules of professional conduct. The town administrator has refused to appoint special counsel. The latter goes beyond its authority. The By-Laws of the town are enacted for multiple purposes, one of which is to conserve town resources, but if the defendant has found an attorney to represent it pro bono, or if the individual members of the HDC are willing to pay for that attorney, there is nothing in the By-Laws to preclude that."
The judge's ruling is in response to the opening skirmish in Middlesex Superior Court on Nov. 12.
-- Molly Upton
RAYTHEON ENVIRONMENTAL UPDATE
Raytheon, former tenant of the Town Center development site, will hold its next public information session at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday Dec. 2 at the Senior Center in the Town Building. Raytheon will present its semi-annual report on the progress of an environmental cleanup expected to continue for several years. Wayland's technical consultant on the cleanup is expected to attend. Residents will have the chance to ask questions.
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor