WVN #324: Many complaints to selectmen about Town Meeting
- Dear Wayland Voter,
Citizens unloaded on the selectmen in the wake of the fall special Town Meeting.
Also in this newsletter: Watch for a Mexican restaurant to open in the building that housed Morn's.
COMPLAINTS ABOUT TOWN MEETING SUBSTANCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Residents brought a variety of complaints and suggestions to the selectmen about the way they ran the Nov. 18-19 special Town Meeting and a meeting the following week with U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas.
Speaking during public comment at the Nov. 30 Board of Selectmen meeting, they sought improvements in fiduciary due diligence, TV coverage, acoustics, voting technology, and adherence to the Open Meeting Law and their own policies.
The selectmen listened politely to most of the comments but were incensed when Anette Lewis, a former road commissioner and associate member of the Planning Board, accused them of allowing "false and misleading information to be printed in the warrant," "playing fast and loose with the facts," working "behind closed doors" and failing to exercise due diligence sufficient to prevent errors.
Officials continued to use incorrect information at Town Meeting even when it was known to be false, Lewis said.
Former Selectman Linda Segal said the selectmen had ignored their own Proposition 2 1/2 policy in failing to hold an adequate public pre-election hearing on the fiscal consequences of borrowing $45 million to build a new high school. She said that before voting citizens should have had the chance to learn how the town plans to handle other projects after nearly tripling outstanding debt. Despite that, she said, a hearing in the near future would be a positive step. (The day after the meeting the Finance Committee announced a hearing for Dec. 14.
Segal also said the selectmen had recently ignored their own policy on using electronic devices during deliberations. Before a vote on Oct. 20 to sign legal documents involving the Town Center, she said, there was a pause while Selectmen Michael Tichnor and Joe Nolan apparently received text messages on their PDAs. After they each held up and read a message on their PDA's, they decided to sign.
This is a potential Open Meeting Law or Public Records Law issue. If selectmen receive outside information during deliberations, the public may be entitled to have access to it.
State law violation alleged
Lewis, a lawyer, also criticized the selectmen for failing to provide public notice and to invite all pertinent town boards and committees when Rep. Tsongas was scheduled to visit Wayland and tour the Town Center site on Nov. 24. A Tsongas news release said the Lowell Democrat would discuss "economic development initiatives and...ways that the federal government can be an active partner in these efforts."
Town Administrator Fred Turkington had issued a two-line email invitation on Nov. 20 to the selectmen, School Committee, FinCom, the Planning Board chairman, the Town Center developers and several town staff members. Other officials with a voice in the Town Center project weren't invited. They include the Conservation Commission, Wastewater Commission, Historic District Commission, Board of Health, Housing Authority and Housing Partnership.
There was no announcement of the meeting or a formal posting at the Town Building, which is required before a quorum of officials meets on town business. There was no follow-up announcement after the meeting, and at the Nov. 30 selectmen's meeting nobody said a word about it except to deny that it was a violation of the Open Meeting Law. The public and many town officials still don't know what happened during Tsongas' visit.
Just what constitutes a violation of the Open Meeting Law is determined by the district attorney. (The attorney general will take over that function on July 1.) A strict reading of the statute considers any occasion on which a quorum discusses town business to be an official meeting which must be posted in advance and available to public scrutiny.
The selectmen replied hotly but in general terms to the accusations: "Quite insulting to this board." "Ridiculous." "In no way is it a violation." "Scurrilous accusations." "Shameful." "Appalling." "We hold to it (the law) probably more than any board anywhere." "The door was open."
There is no question that the warrant contained incorrect and contradictory information. Most notable was an overestimate of new tax revenue should the Town Center commercial-residential project be fully built as planned. The FinCom was alerted to the error at least twice before Town Meeting but didn't respond. When questioned at Town Meeting, FinCom member Bob Lentz acknowledged the error, and the next night apologized, saying, "The town deserves better." At least one official arguing for the zoning change continued to use the higher, incorrect figure.
Some erroneous or contradictory information revealed at Town Meeting was complicated.
For example, Marty Nichols of the Housing Partnership told voters that amending Town Center zoning under Article 3 to reduce the affordable housing from 25 to 12 units creates a contradiction between the amended section and sections that weren't amended. Further, he said, passing the change without amending another section puts the zoning bylaw in conflict with the recently amended version of the selectmen's agreement with the developer.
The Oct. 20 Amendment to the Development Agreement (warrant appendix H) calls for phasing the project, with the 12 affordable rental apartments above retail stores to be built in phase 2 and the 88 market-rate condominium units at some unspecified future time when the economy improves. That conflicts with the 2006 mixed-use zoning bylaw which requires the affordable units to be indistinguishable from the market-rate units and built at a ratio of 1 affordable for every 3 market-rate.
Similar contradictions occur in the Master Special Permit (MSP) for the project (available through the Planning Department webpage). It is specified on page 62 of the MSP that building permits for affordable units be issued at a rate of one for every three market-rate units and that the exterior appearance of affordable units shall be indistinguishable from the exterior appearance of the market-rate units.
Arcane as it may sound to a voter, that's the sort of thing that can make work for lawyers when problems arise. Due diligence, by town employees and town counsel as well as the selectmen and other boards, is supposed to minimize errors. In responding to Lewis' allegations, selectmen said they had done a good job.
FASTER TM VOTING
Former Selectman Alan Reiss told his former colleagues that it's time to introduce a modern system of Town Meeting voting. Those who attended or watched the November sessions couldn't help but notice that hours were consumed by tellers counting voters as they stood to indicate their choice. The process was slow and prone to error. Reiss' solution: Using existing technology, issue each voter an electronic transmitting device that cannot be compromised.
When given a cue, voters enter their choice on the device and the count is over in one minute. Somebody calls for a recount? Another one-minute count. Reiss suggested sharing the devices with other towns to minimize the expense.
One result is more time for debate. The November Town Meeting was marked by many attempts, successful and unsuccessful, to call for a vote to end debate. With electronic voting, more time could be devoted to discussion.
BETTER SIGHT AND SOUND
Former Selectman George Harris usually attends Town Meeting. This time he watched from home and was dismayed at WayCAM's broadcast quality. A red cast and other video woes on Wednesday night made it difficult to identify people. The next night the sound was missing for the first few minutes. Some time after the sound was restored, the picture cleared.
Furthermore, acoustics for those in the field house were chancy. The greatest oddity was that Moderator Peter Gossels seemed able to hear reasonably well from all directions except the procedural microphone a few feet in front of him. Recent reconfiguration of the field house evidently changed the acoustics.
"Get the right kind of equipment," Harris suggested, saying it's time to spend some money to make Town Meeting work better.
WayCAM, the local cable channel, broadcasts Town Meeting live but uses equipment in the field house that has been around for decades. WayCAM officials say that it could cost thousands of dollars just to learn from a consultant what can be done and what new equipment might cost.
The selectmen thanked Harris and Reiss for their suggestions, but later in the meeting expressed little enthusiasm for change. No matter what you do, said Town Administrator Turkington, it's still a field house and the speakers were intended for announcing a basketball game.
-- Michael Short
MEXICAN RESTAURANT TO OPEN
A Mexican restaurant is coming to East Plain Street, where Morn's Thai restaurant folded last spring..
The selectmen voted 5-0 Monday night to grant a liquor license to Viva Mexican Grill and Tequileria. The zoning board approved the proposal earlier to approving applause from residents of the neighborhood.
Those neighbors embraced the owner's pledge to continue procedures that minimize noise and inconvenience.
Owner-manager Carlos Mendez has operated Jose's in North Cambridge for seven years. He hopes for a soft opening of Viva in January and a grand opening by Valentines Day. Serving lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch, it is likely to be the only restaurant in Wayland offering fresh tortillas made daily on the premises.
The selectmen's other license hearing lasted four times as long and ended indecisively. P&P Liquors, doing business as Wayland Wine and Spirits, wants to take over the license of Grape Ideas, which went out of business last summer, and open a new store in Mel's Plaza on Commonwealth Road.
As much as the selectmen would like to see a closed business reopen, they were concerned about the possibility of setting a precedent by transferring one of the town's three full liquor licenses from a defunct business rather than saying yes or no to a new proposal. They delayed a decision until next week.
One resident at the hearing objected to a liquor store near a day care center across the street, but others indicated at least conditional approval. The applicant assured residents that a liquor store would generate less traffic, and over fewer hours, than the Wayland Apothecary, which previously leased the site.
-- WVN Staff
SUPREME COURT REVIEWING WAYLAND SCHOOL CASE
The state's highest court is reviewing a 2004 case accusing the Wayland School Committee of violating the Open Meeting Law.
The MetroWest Daily News reports that on Nov. 2, 2009 Middlesex Assistant District Attorney Robert Bender argued before the Supreme Judicial Court that a school superintendent's evaluation must involve full public discussion.
Superior Court ruled in July 2008 that the School Committee wasn't in violation of the law when it discussed Superintendent Gary Burton's evaluation in executive (closed) session. The DA appealed.
The School Committee's lawyer, Regina Williams Tate, argued that the School Committee's executive sessions were proper because they involved Burton's salary.
The Supreme Judicial Court is expected to rule by mid-January on the appeal, which asserts that executive session records should be disclosed.
The case stems from a complaint filed in 2004 by the Wayland Town Crier after full access to all emails used in Burton's performance evaluation by the School Committee was denied.
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor