On Saturday evening at Annual Town Meeting, eight Articles prompted debates and/or amendments. All but one were Citizen Petitions. Only three of the debated Articles passed, all based on amendments.
Here’s my recap of the Saturday night debates that ended in compromises. (I hope to recap failed Articles in a separate post.)
Article 25: Date and Time of Annual Town Meeting
The Board of Selectmen asked voters to identify the last Saturday in March for the start of Town Meeting. The request was a result of officials’ struggles to be prepared in time to meet this year’s date. March 23rd was chosen because the bylaw change adopted last year referred to a “Town Meeting week” in March. In prior years, the meeting opened the first Monday in April – or later when pushed by a holiday.
Some voters expressed concern over occasional overlaps with the last Saturday in March and Easter weekend or Passover. An amendment to the “2nd to last” Saturday was suggested. The final amendment agreed upon gives selectmen the ability to choose the last Saturday or move the meeting to an earlier week when necessary.
It’s worth noting that even the revised schedule presents challenges to officials for 2021 and 2022.* So don’t be surprised to see more proposed changes come back to a future meeting.
Resident Karen Hanlon’s Citizen Petition Article argued the Town’s Electioneering bylaw restricted residents’ free speech. She drafted the petition in response to an incident at Town Meeting last April. When another resident, Marnie Hoolahan, tried to collect signatures at the 2018 Annual Town Meeting, she was told that she had to stay 150 feet away from the doors. That was based on a bylaw change that Town Clerk Jim Hegarty successfully proposed to voters in 2017.
On Saturday, Hegarty told voters that the bylaw he helped add to the Town Code as section § 41-22.1 was flawed and created an unintended problem. He agreed with Hanlon that it needed to be changed. Hegarty asserted that petitioners should have the right to do as they please immediately outside the building doors.
But Hanlon’s version went further than repealing it. It added requirements regarding the ability of Article proponents to greet voters and placement of proponent’s materials. Hegarty was concerned those changes would interfere with safety, due to confined space at the hall and building entrances, setbacks and fire codes. He proposed an amendment to replace Hanlon’s language.
Hegarty’s amendment would remove the 150 feet setback but specify that (excepting as allowed under state law):
all candidates or their agents are expressly forbidden to enter a building which is used as a polling place or Town Meeting for the purpose of electioneering or greeting citizens or voters, or petitioning or soliciting signatures for any purpose.
Freddie Gillespie pointed out that language would prevent any resident running for office from attending Town Meeting, where they would naturally greet people they know. Others agreed that was a glaring issue.
The Town Clerk then suggested removing “or greeting”. Al Hamilton expressed concern over legislating based on someone’s intent. And he pointed out that someone running for office might be approached by a voter with a question about their position on an issue. He opined that kind of “electioneering” is “one of the most sacred and fundamental free speech rights we have in this country.”
Selectman Dan Kolenda objected to removing the 150 ft boundary. He said it could lead to a future “gauntlet” of petitioners that cause issues with voters who want to enter without interference.
There were a lot of comments about how to fix the language and worries about impacts of rushing changes without proper vetting. After more than 30 minutes of back and forth, Hegarty suggested one final amendment that most of the hall agreed upon – including Hanlon and Hoolahan. Voters approved simply stripping the bylaw language added in 2017 rather than “leaving a bad law on the books.”
Hegarty indicated stripping the 2017 bylaw would give him time to work on better language. So, again, don’t be surprised if this one comes back.
Amended then Passed – 35: PILOT Agreements
The most hotly debated ATM Article on the blog this year has been the PILOT petition. So, it isn’t surprising that, though it was non-binding and the last piece of business after a long day, voters hashed this one out for a while. It took up the final hour of Town Meeting, keeping voters in the hall until after 11:20 pm.
Petitioners Patricia Burns Fiore and Michael Weishan proposed a vote to pressure selectmen to negotiate annual PILOT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) commitments from non-profits. The focus was on the big three: Fay School, St. Mark’s School, and NECC. With blog comments having raised concerns about churches and other non-profits, the petitioners amended the threshhold in the Article from non-profits owning more than $3M in property to $8M.
Proponents said the schools have no downside in continuing to invest in land, especially houses for staff and students. Their actions take property off the tax roles and increase their use of Town resources. They argued that the schools should be making more reasonable contributions to offset that. They asked voters to pressure selectmen and schools to effect a change.
The Article laid out a plan for pursuing removal of “Dover Amendment” protection for non-profits in Town if the schools didn’t make “fair” contributions. The amendment protects the schools from having to comply with Town zoning codes.
A resident pointed out, that wouldn’t shield smaller non-profits from the impact of the 2nd provision in the Article. Fiore rebutted that, as stated in the Article, it would mean coming back to Town Meeting for voters to choose that option if necessary.
Planning Chair Don Morris told the hall that St. Mark’s won’t care about the Dover Amendment, since they comply with zoning codes and procedures as if they didn’t have it. [Editor’s Note: That isn’t always true. When zoning codes would have potentially restricted their ability to site a solar panel installation, they leveraged of the amendment to get Zoning Board of Appeals approval.]
Advocates for keeping the Dover language argued about the need for some teeth. Weishan and Fiore painted the Town’s efforts as ineffective to date. Fiore argued:
if we continue to do this in the same way that we have done it for the 28 years that I have lived here, we’re going to get the same result.
But opponents feared that adding a threat was taking the wrong approach. In a stated attempt to get something passed, resident Robert Reeder moved to strike the Dover Amendment paragraph.
The vote on that was close enough to call for a headcount. (Always a lengthy endeavor.) In the end, the motion to amend passed 75-59. The amended version was approved by the majority of voters in the audience over the dissent of the majority selectmen and Advisory at the front table.
*Next year the last Saturday in March is the last day of the month. But in 2021, Passover starting on March 27th could push Town Meeting back to the 20th – three days earlier in the month than this year. And in March 2022, there are no apparent religious conflicts, but the last Saturday is the 25th – not much better than this year’s schedule.