WVN #399: Town Meeting overcomes legal snarl
- Dear Wayland Voter,
Weary Town Meeting voters passed a $70.9 million operating budget for Fiscal 2012 just before the end of a 3-1/2-hour opening session on Thursday, April 7.
A just-discovered discrepancy with state law led to head-scratching, a series of amendments and finally a solution. Voters devoted more than two hours to the budget article and still didn't finish it. Capital spending, which could inspire considerable debate, still must be considered, along with 14 other articles.
"This has not been an easy night," Moderator Peter Gossels said at the end. His understatement drew laughter.
Town Meeting resumes at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Middle School gymnasium. Gossels urged voters to finish the town's business even if it means extending beyond the scheduled 6 p.m. close. It could be difficult to assemble a quorum for a Monday night continuation.
Revolving Fund Law
Problems with the operating budget arose when resident Donna Bouchard, who serves on the Town Meeting procedures subcommittee, said she was doing research the day before in preparation for Town Meeting when she discovered a law limiting the amount of money that can be spent annually by revolving funds.
Revolving funds don't affect the town budget because they are supported entirely by user fees, but they are listed in Article 6, the budget article. The motion under the article proposes a $750,000 budget for the Recreation Commission and the creation of a transfer station revolving fund with a budget of $850,000.
As Bouchard said, Massachusetts General Law Chapter 44 Section 53E1/2 allows revolving funds to spend no more than one percent of the total raised by taxation the previous year. Nobody at Town meeting explained the law, but nobody doubted it either. Bouchard said she is a big supporter of recreation, but the law is clear. She and others suggested amendments.
After consultation, Finance Committee Chair Cherry Karlson introduced a successful amendment to limit the funds' spending to the lawful amount of $561,280. How to deal with the reduced budgets will be a matter for another day.
Electronic Voting Successful
Though Town Meeting made slow progress, the experimental introduction of voting with wireless devices saved time and made for a calmer atmosphere. Instead of tellers roaming the aisles trying to count standing voters amid chatter and milling around, the scene was like 350 people quietly and intently checking their smartphones.
There were a few delays, and some voters complained later that it wasn't always made clear when the 30-second voting period began. A green light would solve that problem. Others asked for a screen showing results. It's possible to vote and announce results within a minute.
Wireless voting is particularly useful when a two-thirds majority is required. Under the old system, a voice vote can often be in doubt, and the moderator might try several times to avoid a time-consuming counted vote.
When the 2010 Town Meeting approved a free trial of voting by wireless devices, one argument was that many voters prefer the equivalent of a secret ballot rather than having to stand and be counted (and perhaps suffer some sort of retaliation for their vote). At the November 2009 Special Town Meeting, after voters approved high school construction project funding, one voter made an unsuccessful bid for reconsideration of that article, citing intimidation and pressure applied to some residents standing to vote in opposition.
A test vote of the equipment Thursday night showed 177 in favor of voting privately and 80 preferring public identification.
If you have comments or suggestions, they'll be welcome at the last meeting of the temporary electronic voting committee at 7:30 p.m. on April 14 at the town building.
First Five Articles Passed
In the first 90 minutes of Thursday's session voters disposed of only five routine articles. Introductions and equipment testing consumed some time. Then came Article 1, which traditionally salutes town volunteers and employees for special service. Moderator Gossels, who is leaving the post after 30 years, received a plaque and a lengthy standing ovation.
"I just broke my own rules," Gossels joked. "I don't allow applause."
Article 2 is headed "Hear Reports." George Harris, an attorney and former selectman, pointed out a number of apparent errors in the 2010 Annual Report. The response of one voter reflects a different approach to Town meeting.
Former Finance Committee member Rod Fletcher accused Harris of holding the meeting "hostage" to "speech making."
Article 5, Current Year Transfers, brought a number of pointed questions from Anette Lewis, another lawyer and former elected town official. When the article was passed, questions remained about how it was legally possible to ask voters to approve payment out of free cash of legal bills incurred by the town administrator on behalf of the independent Wastewater Enterprise Fund.
Sometimes Town Meeting may be the only time to raise questions before something becomes law. Others wonder why some things can't be straightened out before Town Meeting. WVN will report further on this when the 2011 meeting concludes.
Article 3 brought two approaches to Wayland traditions. The article is called "Choose Town Officers" and nominates citizens to serve on a charitable fund, but also fills the posts of Fence Viewers, Field Drivers, Measurers of Wood and Bark, and Surveyors of Lumber.
These were significant posts in Wayland's rural past. Gossels suggested thinking of them as early examples of consumer protection. For example, Field Drivers would round up and corral stray cattle.
Saying, "This just silly," Clifford Lewis introduced an amendment to remove the ancient offices from the list. The amendment failed by a vote of 194-159, and the article then passed overwhelmingly. Voters evidently value charming anachronism.
The state law about revolving funds that affected the budget article is available at:
-- WVN Staff
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor