Town Meeting: One voter “saved” St. Mark’s Bell Tower; other highlights (Updated)

Above: A handout, presentation, and passionate defense for the passage of Article 19 to preserve the St. Mark’s Bell Tower convinced one more Town Meeting voter to support it than not. (image cropped from meeting handout)

On Saturday, Annual Town Meeting voters weighed in on how the Town should spend its money and what our Southborough’s bylaws should be. Only 210 voters attended the meeting. But that’s more than quorum and, especially for one Article, every single vote counted.*

Here’s a quick recap for readers who didn’t attend (which is most of you).

At the start of the meeting, voters took care of 18 Articles in a few minutes through bundled actions.* That left 21 to discuss.

Voters only thwarted sponsors’ plans for a handful of Articles:

  • The citizen initiated Noise Bylaw proposal (Article 37) failed to get the voter support needed for the terms as written.
  • Voters rejected the Advisory Committee’s requested changes to their bylaws, voting to indefinitely postpone Article 32. That prompted selectmen to move to indefinitely postpone their linked Article (33) for a standing Capital Committee.

(I hope to cover those discussions in more detail in future posts.)

All of the spending requests were voted in. Prior to approval, the Operating Budget and Capital Expenses were lowered from the amounts in the Warrant by pre-planned amendments proposed by selectmen. (As I previously shared, those were to the Board of Health Budget and to allow PILOT payments to cover two items listed under Article 10.) They still amounted to over $57 million. (Click here for the details.)

This year, there were five projects presented for funding through the Community Preservation Act. Each passed, but one was by the narrowest possible margin.

Under Article 19, voters were asked to commit $300,000 of CPA funds to preserve the St. Mark’s Church’s Bell Tower. The vote followed over 45 minutes of presentation, questions, discussion, and debate on the details and merits.

Some argued passionately for the need to keep the historic tower in a historic section of Town from crumbling. Selectman Marty Healey told voters that if you believe in the CPA, this is precisely the kind of project you should support.

Others argued that the project was for too small of a population, shouldn’t go to a building owned by a church, or that money could better be pledged elsewhere.

Upon repeated questioning, members of the Community Preservation Commission clarified that only $23K of the funds were from the “bucket” restricted to historical preservation funds. The remaining could be allocated to other categories, including projects for Affordable Housing. They also confirmed that if all their Articles passed, new bonding for future projects wouldn’t be available for years. (They explained that Article 19 wouldn’t do that, since it would be paid for by money in the coffers. But Article 20 to preserve the Town House would require over $2M in bonding. You can read about that project here.)

Resident Al Hamilton stated that many millions of dollars in CPA funds had been dedicated to a small section of road on Main Street. He opined that the CPA should be spread more evenly around areas of Town. Claire Reynolds concurred. Others rebutted that no projects had been requested and rejected for other areas of Town.

After a hand count, officials reported that it passed 83 votes to 82.

One other controversial Article passed that day, but by a much wider margin.

Under Article 35, the Planning Board requested voters update language in the Outdoor Illumination bylaw. Prior to making her presentation, Planning Member Marnie Hoolahan made a motion to amend the Article based on language requested by the Board of Selectmen and Advisory. Before that could be voted on, voters began asking questions about the main Article. 

Town Wiring Inspector, resident Jim Colleary asked about the plans for enforcing the bylaw. Planning member Marnie Hoolahan said the enforcement would be the same as under the current bylaw, the responsibility of the Building Commissioner.

Colleary asserted that lighting isn’t an issue a Building Commissioner is qualified or equipped to enforce. He warned voters that anytime new standards are passed they come with a regulation cost. He followed that he believed the requested changes to reducing blue lights were good, but that the original bylaw was a problem. He opined that the changes should be postponed until enforcement issues with the original bylaw could be fixed.

Others asked questions about the personal impact. Hamilton highlighted that the bylaw would dictate the types of bulbs residents can or can’t buy if replacing broken ones. Hoolahan rebutted that is already under the current bylaw. The new bylaw just changes details to reduce blue light and light pollution. (You can read more about the bylaw here including the proposed amendments which were passed.)

In the end, the postponement failed, allowing Hoolahan to finally make her presentation and answer more questions. She and supporters succeeded in convincing over 2/3 of the assembly to approve the amendments and Article without the need for a count.

*The 18 Articles quickly handled at the meeting’s start:

To streamline the meeting, voters agreed to a quick consent vote on Articles 2-4, 9, 12-17, 25, 27, and 29. 

Another five were indefinitely postponed at the request of sponsors. Selectmen requested eliminating Articles 1 (to expedite the meeting), 6 (not needed this year), and 23 (not ready for this meeting). Article 38 was postponed at the petitioner’s request to wait for a future meeting with indoor presentations. Article 26 was proposed by Town Clerk Jim Hegarty. It was initially on the proposed Consent list but pulled after someone called “hold”. As a result, he asked Moderator Paul Cimino to have it added to the list of requested postponements (as it was in 2020).

*Updated (5/24/21 1:29 pm): I got the official tally just now. 210 voters registered to attend on Saturday. That doesn’t mean that all were there at the same time (especially after lunch, although there were at least over 100 in the afternoon.) Although every vote counted in the 83-82 for and against Article 19, clearly there were some attendees who didn’t weigh in on that decision.

Updated (5/24/21 2:30 pm): Since I referenced the $2M price tag for Article 20 – the Town House restoration project, I thought some readers might want more details. I requested and received from the Facilities Director a pdf of the handout that was at the meeting.

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3 years ago

Beth, the above article does not report on citizens warrant Article 39, the Flagg Road Truck Exclusion Article. Are you reporting on this article later? If not, are you making an Editor’s note that it overwhelmingly passed? It is noteworthy that the voters virtually unanimously voted this article through with little discussion, except for questions regarding missing town records on how Latisquama Road got its exclusion. If anyone can shed light on how these town records went missing, that would be helpful. It was mentioned that DPW Karen Galligan did not think the truck count was high enough, however the article sponsor mentioned that was not the only criteria. Regardless, voters completely rejected BOS and Advisory’s “not support” positions, favoring public safety over all else. Thank you.

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