WVN #355: What's ahead after election, Town Meeting?
- Dear Wayland Voter,
As the political season gives way to summer doldrums, it's useful to put the recent town election and annual Town meeting in perspective.
Also in this newsletter: A bizarre incident leads to a suspension at the Dudley Chateau.
TOWN MEETING ANALYSIS
First, one very noticeable change is in the works. It's likely that towns all over the region will be watching developments after Wayland's enthusiastic decision to try electronic voting at Town Meeting. By a loud voice vote Waylanders accepted the offer of a free trial of voting by wireless keypad in the spring of 2011. At least this once, no more disputes over voice votes followed by lengthy counts of standing voters. No New England town has tried the system, though a couple of them expressed interest even before the May 19 vote.
Voters rejected by a nearly 2-1 majority a proposal to replace Town Meeting as it has existed since the 17th century with a hybrid including voting at the polls four to six weeks later. They also rejected a proposal to link a voter-information website from the town website, but only because the idea raised questions of the town's responsibilities and potential liability.
CAPITAL BUDGET CUT
After a Proposition 2-1/2 debt exclusion passed by only 59 votes at the May 11 election, some Town Meeting participants debated over some of the 17 items in a $4.515-million package of new capital spending. Speakers divided into those who say this is what Town Meeting voters are supposed to do and those who decry it as unwelcome micromanaging. In the former camp are those who believe voters shouldn't have to buy the whole package without a chance to vote on individual items. In the other camp are those who say that boards and committees spend months preparing the package, discussing it in public meetings.
The resulting votes deleted $1.27 million, some from the non-exempt category that didn't require a ballot decision. Some may call it micromanaging, but such things as building repair and a new street sweeper survived unscathed while the deleted items could easily be considered discretionary or not urgent: extra money for renovating the bath house at the town beach and a $625,000 plan -- little discussed beforehand -- to install wireless water meters.
A front-page headline in the Wayland Town Crier encapsulated the budget discussion: "Voters take control of town budget." Voters continue to disagree on whether that is a good thing. The selectmen and Finance Committee might prefer that voters accept all of their recommendations, but the final decision is in voters' hands alone.
RECREATION PLAN WILL BE BACK
A group of residents who want a private developer to build fee-based recreational facilities at the former Dow Chemical site on Route 30 withdrew Article 25 but plan to come back at the fall Town Meeting. There had been controversy over environmental concerns and the advisability of giving the selectmen sole power to choose a developer for an undefined project. Selectmen Steve Correia and Joe Nolan worked behind the scenes with the residents' 30 Rec group. Nolan said the process would benefit from a longer "public process." If public process means Recreation Department recommendations, well-advertised meetings and public hearings open to everybody, there hasn't been a public process. (Correia succeeded Nolan as chairman of the Board of Selectmen this week.)
AFFORDABLE HOUSING AND DUDLEY WOODS
Petitioners won 63 percent of the vote on Article 15, just short of the two-thirds majority needed to protect the only wooded open space in the area and to prevent affordable housing from being built on 7.3 acres near Dudley Pond in Cochituate. This doesn't necessarily mean that housing will be built there, though its advocates argue that a small housing project and a community septic system could be a useful and cost-effective solution for the neighborhood while protecting the pond from degradation.
One underlying issue is the need to maintain progress toward state-mandated goal of 10 percent affordable housing in town. The selectmen's decision last year to allow the Town Center project developer to step back from a major affordable housing commitment at the Route 20 site was a serious setback.
A QUESTION OF TRUST?
Article 20, which came within seven votes of passing, simply asked that any town board or committee with a set of policies to post those policies on the town website (now being updated in hopes of making it more attractive and user-friendly). The lead petitioner, former Selectman Linda Segal, praised the School Committee's and Planning Board's posted policies as a model for others and said there was no intent to enforce compliance. Wayland is among a number of Massachusetts towns recently recognized for posting governmental matters but wasn`t accorded the highest honor.
Speaking for her board, Selectman Sue Pope said it would be expensive and raised the specter of criminal prosecution and $300-a-day fines for non-compliance.
ROUTE 20 PLANS REBUFFED
Plans in Article 17 to acquire Sudbury's half-interest in the recently decommissioned septage treatment plant met persistent questioning and failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority. More information is needed about plans for the potentially revenue-producing site, some voters said. Others maintained that the article as written would increase Wayland's legal liability for the plant.
Article 19, which sought to expand the Refuse Disposal District (site of the town's transfer station), faced a barrage of opposition and skepticism. "Flimsy purposes" and "flawed maps" were cited. A homeowner said the plan would put school bus parking next to his house. Another voter said buses could be parked there while the new high school is being built without changing the zoning. Another voter reminded the meeting that the access road from Route 20 was built in wetlands and was supposed to be removed once the dump closed, so expanded use was inappropriate. Ultimately the article was passed over, possibly an indication that the article hadn't been explained sufficiently or simply struck voters as a bad idea.
Article 26, to acquire Alice Drive and Hidden Springs Lane as town ways, had to be passed over because the Public Works director failed to file a document in time with the Town Clerk's office.
After debate and changes in the proposed capital budget, the Finance Committee's amended second motion under Article 5 failed to accurately document the various sources of funding for the reduced total amount. The error was discovered the last night of Town meeting, May 19. FinCom Chairman Sam Peper drew groans from voters when he moved to reconsider the article simply to vote on the proper amounts, then withdrew his motion after town counsel advised that the $50,000 involved could be taken from reserve funds without a revote. (An incorrect FinCom figure at last November's Town Meeting caused debate and delay.)
Article 16, adding land to the plot needed for a privately financed town pool, passed easily. But discussion revealed that the lease signed March 31 was flawed, including the land that hadn't yet been voted on.
Article 29, to change town regulations on what may be sold at service stations, had to be passed over because nobody introduced a motion. The impetus came from a businessman who doesn`t live in Wayland and couldn't speak. Residents who signed the petition declined to introduce it.
QUESTIONS REMAIN ON LEGAL PAYMENTS
A resident wondered who authorized payments to Foley Hoag & Eliot for legal services related to the waste water treatment plant needed to build the Town Center project. Wayland taxpayers have paid more than $175,000 for legal services from that law firm since early 2009. The answer seems to be that ultimately the money will be taken from the first installment of the Town Center project developer's "gift" to the town and funds held by the Waste Water Management District Commission, an independent entity which has yet to authorize that use. In the mean time the selectmen are paying the bills out of town funds. The matter came up again at the selectmen's meeting on May 24 when they authorized still more payments. Watch for this to be explained sooner or later.
THE ROLE OF TOWN MEETING
What if all voters agreed with those inclined to rubber-stamp proposals from town boards and committees? It's not an idle question. Year after year, voters who take their role seriously catch errors, bring out new information in debate and sometimes delay a proposal until it is better prepared or better understood. In this year's Town Meeting there was again evidence that active voters make town government better.
-- Michael Short
Shawn Kinney was elected to the School Committee on May 11 on a platform of looking hard and creatively at school administrative spending. John Bladon was elected to the Board of Selectmen on a platform generally endorsing board policies. His opponent, Don Bustin, disagreed with Bladon on almost everything and lost by 170 votes out of 2,481.
Bladon moves up from his appointed position on the Finance Committee, creating one of a number of vacancies on town boards and committees. For other opportunities to serve in local government, see
SUSPENSION FOR DUDLEY CHATEAU
The Dudley Chateau's liquor license will be suspended for two weeks beginning on June 1 as a result of an incident that brought boats, search dogs and even a helicopter to Dudley Pond in a night search for a man who was found hours later, at 3:30 a.m. at his girlfriend's home, and said he had been swimming.
The Board of Selectmen spent nearly three hours at a hearing on May 24 to decide what to do about a report by Police Chief Bob Irving, who alleged that on April 7 the 80-year-old Wayland bar and restaurant lacked an on-site manager and had served a man who was drunk, tearful and appeared suicidal. The Chateau ("Shat" in local parlance) has been on three-year probation since January 2009 for previous violations and is operating under an agreement calling for improved management and for license revocation in case of a violation of state liquor laws or Wayland's regulations.
The informal hearing (not under oath) turned up hearsay but no evidence that the customer was intoxicated.
Detective Jamie Berger played a recording of a 911 call concerning the man from a woman who said, "My mom's boyfriend was at the bar and he got drunk or something." Two officers responded. The man's clothes were found by the pond and a search was ordered. The search included overtime by Wayland Police and Fire, a State Police helicopter, and canine search teams from mutual aid. The latter two were at no cost to the town.
Officers filed reports that the man had been described as intoxicated and talking of suicide. But when they interviewed the man, they didn't order alcohol tests. The man was taken to a hospital for observation.
The detective said he had later tried several times to reach the bartender who had been on duty on April 7, but his calls weren't successful.
The Chateau's lawyer called as witnesses the bartender and three customers who had been near the man. All four testified that the man, though appearing despondent when he arrived, was sober, polite, walked steadily, didn't cry and didn't talk of suicide.
A customer at the adjacent bar stool said he had noticed that the man had his head in his hands and so struck up a conversation out of sociability and concern: "Hey, buddy, what's up?" The answer, according to the customer, was "woman trouble." The man conversed as he ate and drank.
A receipt showed that the man had two shots of vodka on the rocks, a 10-ounce hamburger and a six-piece order of chicken tenders. The bartender said he ordered a beer but drank less than half of it before departing with some of his french fries in a take-home box. The fries were found with his clothes.
A significant piece of the Chateau's defense was a 911 call that the man had made from the Mass Pike only a few minutes before entering the bar. He calmly and clearly identified himself, his location and the kind of car he was driving. The call was to report another driver who was weaving erratically. (A second 911 caller had reported the same thing.)
The testimony left the selectmen with little choice but to agree that there was insufficient evidence that the Chateau had served an intoxicated person. But they asserted that the bartender was not really a manager as required by the agreement. A different roster of managers issued after the incident showed a number of new managers, including the April 7 bartender.
An altercation on a weekend night in December 2008 resulted in injuries. The selectmen have expressed concern about having a trained manager on hand, particularly on weekend nights, to head off trouble or, failing that, call the police promptly. At a Jan. 12, 2009 hearing, the selectmen suspended the license for 28 days and imposed the three-year probationary period.
In addition to the latest suspension, the selectmen will require the Chateau to tighten management procedures, define the role of a manager and report names of managers on employee rosters regularly to the police. The Chateau has five days to appeal the selectmen's ruling.
Some of the selectmen asserted that a trained manager would have called the police the night of Wednesday, April 7. If the unsworn testimony is to be believed, there would have been nothing to report, unless the standard is to report every man at a bar who looks depressed and complains about woman trouble.
-- WVN Staff
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor