WVN #468: Voters choose more financial control
- Dear Wayland Voter,
Some citizens have been pressing for more accountability and transparency in the town's financial management for more than two years. Their latest victory is a change in Wayland's bylaws.
At a Special Town Meeting on Oct. 3 voters listened to the only extended debate of the evening before voting 210-60 in favor of petitioners' Article 5. The bylaw amendment mandates a separate town meeting warrant article giving voters the power to decide on annual contributions to a heretofore obscure budget category called OPEB -- Other Post Retirement Benefits.
This was preceded by a warm reception for petitioners' Article 4, a non-binding resolution to bring back the amount of financial detail that appeared in town meeting warrants until about six years ago. Finance Committee Chairman Bill Steinberg spoke in favor. The FinCom's agreement with the 252-15 vote means that voters can expect to see detail that will enable them to evaluate specific costs for specific actions.
The petitioner who introduced the article, Anette Lewis, noted that a return to the previous level of detail would mean, for example, that voters would see an OPEB figure as a separate budget line.
That set the stage for Article 5. Petitioner Donna Bouchard outlined the murky history of OPEB, a recently created irrevocable trust that will hold funds for decades to pay for such things as health coverage for town staff retirees. Nobody questions the need to put money aside for this obligation. (Wayland needs to contribute about $46 million in the long run.)
But questions arose earlier this year about the way the money was allocated. Despite a FinCom policy, first published in the 2011 annual town meeting warrant, that the town would begin making payments of about $1 million annually in 2009, the OPEB fund now holds nearly $10 million. Who put an extra $6 million or so there?
The answer is, town employees. Even the FinCom was apparently unaware of how large the fund had become. Rather than allocating surplus revenues to free cash to lower the tax rate, some of the money was deposited into OPEB. Petitioners noted that OPEB payments are a significant component of the tax rate.
FinCom member David Gutschenritter argued against the article, saying that only the separate line in the omnibus budget article is necessary to allow town meeting voters to change or eliminate the figure. Requiring a separate article is inefficient and makes it more cumbersome to set the tax rate, he said.
Selectman Steve Correia also argued against the article, saying that his board had voted against supporting it. Selectman Doug Leard rose to clarify that the Board of Selectmen vote was 3-2.
A number of voters argued for the article. Boards change over time, one said: Three FinCom members have resigned in recent months; therefore the only way to guarantee that voters know what's going on is to require a separate article.
The town administrator appears to have a lot of discretion over OPEB payments, another voter said. The article is needed because "It's our money," she said.
Still another voter asked whether there is written guidance for town officials specifying the authority to make discretionary OPEB payments. Though the question was directed at the Board of Selectmen, no selectman responded. Instead, their top employee, Town Administrator Fred Turkington took the microphone.
Turkington said that OPEB is part of three health-related employee categories combined as one line item and that there is discretion in allocation. The just-passed Article 4 resolution would preclude that, he said. He didn't mention any written directive on employee discretion.
More Work To Be Done on Response to NStar
Article 1 was petitioned by the Oak Hill/Meadowview residents whose neighborhood was ravaged last spring by NStar's removal of almost all vegetation in its transmission line right-of-way. The area neighbors organized to create legislation that would better protect the town's interests with regard to tree removal and land clearing, absent a town board taking action in the wake of NStar's activities.
The petitioners drafted the proposed town bylaw drawing from existing legislation elsewhere, refining it to apply to Wayland with the goal of achieving the attorney general's approval.
Time proved too short to reach consensus with town staff and boards. Petitioners chose to follow the Planning Board's recommendation and ask voters to refer the matter to a short-term study committee aimed at submitting an article for the spring 2013 Annual Town Meeting.
While the petitioners have not crossed home plate yet, they appear to have made it to at least second base. Since the right-of-way passing through their neighborhood is already stripped of its trees, this initiative is not as time-sensitive as Article 2, with NStar poised to use chemical herbicides this year along a corridor near the Route 20 MBTA right-of-way.
The Planning Board published a report after holding a public hearing. A yellow handout distributed at Town Meeting apparently continued to misrepresent who is Wayland's Tree Warden. It is not one individual. Since the passage of Chapter 347 of the special acts of 2008 in October 2008, the Tree Warden in Wayland as of July 1, 2009 is the elected five-member Board of Public Works. See section 4(b):
The correspondence and emails sent by NStar to the town as early as January, 2012 were addressed incorrectly to the parks superintendent instead of to the Board of Public Works. Misdirected mail was one of several miscommunication factors that contributed to Wayland's failure to exercise more options to protect the town when NStar showed up in June.
Listing the Tree Warden separately from the Board of Public Works in the recommendations to town meeting signals that some town officials still may not understand who is legally authorized to act in Wayland on such important matters. The elected Board of Public Works is required to take action on behalf of all residents at public meetings, so that handling of NStar matters is transparent.
The motion made under Article 1 passed by a vote of 132-18. The new six-member committee will be appointed, one each by the Conservation Commission, Planning Board, Board of Health, Board of Public Works, two by the Oak Hill Wayland Neighborhood Association, Inc., and with two non-voting ex-officio members (Building Commissioner and Town Planner).
Town meeting's approval of Article 2, offered by the same NStar-afflicted residents, added a new bylaw to Wayland's town code giving the Board of Health authority to engage in a review process prior to a utility such as NStar applying chemical herbicides for vegetation control in a right-of-way.
A serious challenge to any town action regarding pesticides is state law giving virtually all pesticide regulatory authority solely to the state. Again drawing from already existing legislation, the petitioners worked to remove what they believed would be problematic with respect to the findings in the Wendell case (Town of Wendell v. Attorney General, 394 Mass. 518 (1985), also mindful of the provisions already established in the law, the rights and obligations of the utility, and the jurisdiction of other agencies.
In Wendell, the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the state law preemption of municipal regulation of pesticides. Wayland's town counsel believes that municipalities have little authority to regulate pesticide use. Selectman Ed Collins, also an attorney, believes that Wendell leaves the door ajar for municipalities to craft a local bylaw or regulation consistent with state legislation (G.L. ch. 132B), basically not interfering with NStar's reasonable use of a specific pesticide in particular circumstances.
The proposed bylaw would require the utility to demonstrate to Wayland's Board of Health that it is in full compliance with all regulations and laws before proceeding with pesticide application.
The Boston Globe reported last week that NStar's planned clearcutting may be postponed in Needham while the utility is required to perform boundary surveys to delineate the easement work areas. In the meantime, Needham was hoping to persuade NStar to modify its plans.
The motion under article 2 varied considerably from what was printed in the warrant. The petitioners had worked closely with town counsel to address initial concerns about the original wording. It was reported at the Sept. 27 warrant hearing that the revised proposal would be consistent with existing law. Hard copies of the revised wording were available for town meeting attendees. See pages 6-8 available here:
Article 2 passed on a vote of 129-64, without questions or debate.
Conservation Cluster Article
Article 6 was the only warrant article submitted by a town board. Since last spring, the developer of the Covered Bridge Conservation Cluster project (off Rice Road) was seeking relief from provisions in the zoning bylaw. Then-Building Commissioner Dan Bennett maintained that the developer's desire to have two detached dwelling units on one of the lots within a Conservation Cluster did not comply with the Wayland zoning bylaw. The project is described here:
In general, the idea of a conservation cluster - - to "cluster" the houses together and leave a large and contiguous undeveloped open space -- is good for the environment. Development of multiple housing units without clustering makes it harder for wildlife to have the open space they need. It also helps developers with costs because they can make shorter streets and shorter gas/electric/telephone underground lines to houses.
The bylaw requires the following minimum criteria for a conservation cluster: a 5-acre tract of land, 50 feet of frontage per building lot; building lots of no less than 20,000 square feet; all dwellings and accessory buildings to be set back 15 feet from the perimeter of the tract and 15 feet from any open land.
The town planner drafted language to amend Section 198-1803 to give the Planning Board discretion to allow attached and detached dwelling units to be erected on single lots. Originally the proposed language ended with a vaguely worded sentence: "Such approval may modify required setbacks." Because that sentence was in conflict with another provision in the same bylaw, the Planning Board opted to delete it and avoid confusion at town meeting. Article 6 passed, 130-34.
Two Articles from Framingham
Voters weren't kind to two warrant articles brought by Steven Hakar, a Framingham resident who gathered signatures for similar articles in Sudbury and Framingham as well as Wayland. Sudbury's Sept. 24 special town meeting approved an herbicide resolution similar to the motion made under Article 3.
Article 3 asked for a resolution urging federal and state legislation to require a public hearing and health board approval for chemicals applied by utilities. Article 7 sought a resolution asking state and federal legislators to fund "all unfunded state and federal mandates."
Wayland town meeting voters have the power to deny permission for a non-resident to speak. They exercised that power.
Among voter arguments against Article 3: "Chemical" is undefined, and in any case regulation should be a state matter. The Board of Health chairman spoke in opposition, saying that town meeting already passed an herbicide bylaw by approving Article 2, making Article 3 redundant.
One voter spoke up for Article 7. Chairman John Bladon spoke in opposition from the procedural microphone instead of at the Con microphone. The moderator intervened when Bladon violated Town Meeting rules by personally criticizing Hakar.
Other voters said that many unfunded mandates are things we need and should provide, for example schools, education for the blind, firefighter training.
The votes: For Article 3: 59 Yes, 192 No; for Article 7: Yes 29, NO 104.
The meeting lasted less than two hours. Moderator Dennis Berry acknowledged several visiting moderators from other towns who were observing the apparently flawless performance of Wayland's electronic voting system. Wayland's is the only open town meeting in Massachusetts using such a system.
The October 3 Special Town Meeting is available at WayCAM Video on Demand http://waycamtv.pegcentral.com/player.php?video=3b80d3b0a9981d2e1486516dc4dfa665
It is also being rebroadcast by WayCAM at various times during the upcoming week. Also being rebroadcast are several related meetings that led up to town meeting, including the Sept. 27 warrant hearing and the selectmen's Sept. 24 meeting when OPEB (Article 5) was discussed (WayCAM elapsed time 01:24:00):
Selectman Ed Collins was seeking explanation for the transfer of millions of dollars by the town administrator into the OPEB account. After 10 minutes of discussion, Collins was not satisfied with Fred Turkington's responses. He was advised by his board colleagues to go back to the FinCom for further explanation.
The question asked by a resident at Town Meeting about authority for discretionary OPEB allocation, and the town administrator's response, is in the WayCAM video, elapsed time 00:58:25.
-- WVN Staff
WayCAM's new studio is finished, including state-of-the-art equipment, and the staff is ready to offer free training in TV production.
Information: Ken Isaacson (clickkeni@... ) or Executive Director Jim Mullane at 508-358-5006 (jim@...)
Membership in WayCAM is available for $10 annually, which supports a high school scholarship.
MEETINGS & EVENTS
Tuesday, Oct. 9:
Senior Tax Relief Committee, noon
Permanent Municipal Building Committee, 6 p.m., New DPW Facility Public Forum, 6:30 p.m.
Dudley Area Advisory Committee, 7 p.m.
Public Ceremonies Committee, 7 p.m.
School Committee, 7 p.m., School Budget Public Forum; FinCom's budget guidelines for FY14
Board of Health, 7:30 p.m., topics include fluoride in Wayland water, Floor Drain Regulations, etc.
Zoning Board of Appeals, 8:20 p.m., Public Hearing, Habitat for Humanity 40B Comprehensive Permit (9 p.m.)
Thursday, Oct. 11:
Town Moderator's post-town meeting public forum, 7:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Oct. 16:
Planning Board's continued public hearing for the Finnerty's redevelopment project (CVS, etc.)
Saturday, Oct. 20
6:30-9 p.m. Party to welcome Habitat for Humanity to Wayland. Russell's Garden Center. Beer and wine, hors-d'oeuvres and music by the Dirty Water Brass Band, and raffle. Tickets $40 in advance (508 358 2571), $45 at the door.
Wednesday, Oct. 24
Elementary Building Use Task Force. The public is invited to a meeting ,at 7:30-9 p.m. in the Lecture Hall at Wayland High School (South Building) to discuss options for space needs and uses among the elementary school system. The group wants to collect community input as its first order of business. Residents may also email thoughts to Diane_Marobella@... stating their opinions on elementary building use.
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor