Town Meeting votes to postpone Articles on trees, oversight, and election recalls, forces through removing Trails’ Associate Members (Updated)

Above: The Planning Board’ push for better oversight of tree removals was initially prompted by resident complaints about the removal of a hundreds of year old tree on Deerfoot Road. Their Articles are among ones voters can expect to be revisited in the future. (image cropped from presentation)

Select Board members weren’t the only officials to request Town Meeting Article postponements, and or be outvoted on the motion. Meanwhile, two other Articles were indefinitely postponed at the request of voters.

Here are some more highlights from last Thursday night.

Planning Board Articles

Article 27 Postponed to help officials keep Town Meeting to two nights.

The Planning Board had intended to convince voters to support a Trees Protection Bylaw (Article 27). Member Meme Lutrell told the hall they were moving to postpone at the request of Select Board members.

According to Lutrell the Town didn’t have a provision for how to handle a third night of a spring Annual Town Meeting. Planning wanted to be collaborative. They agreed to push off the Article to fall with the promise that it would be first on the Warrant (after reports). The Select Board had agreed that no Public Shade Trees would be removed in the interim.

(I should note, I don’t believe that extends to trees that the Town believes are an imminent hazard.)

Article 28 Postponed by voters, partially based on questions about 27.

Planning Chair Don Morris did present their Article to add the 68 public ways accepted since early 1978 as Scenic Roads. He explained that the change would require that the Tree Warden’s hearings for tree removals be held jointly with the Planning Board.

Planning has pitched that would make the process more transparent and protect stone walls.

Some voters agreed with Select Board Andrew Dennington’s take that making all roads scenic, including in subdivisions, diminishes the value of the designation.

There was some disagreement among voters and officials as to whether the change would help clarify consistent rules for homeowners on tree and wall removals. The biggest issue is that, given the varying width of the public way, most residents likely don’t know where their property ends and and the public way begins.

Freddie Gillespie argued that residents worried about “their trees” could get their property surveyed. She referred to the overlap of the public way and peoples’ yards as residents getting to use Town land without paying taxes on it. They should understand the trees don’t belong to them, they belong to the entire Town. 

The majority of the Select Board objected to making a more bureaucratic process for homeowners removing trees they perceive as dead or hazards. Planning defended that it would add to their work, not homeowners. The Tree Warden is required to hold a hearing even if the road isn’t scenic.

Examples of why a more transparent process was needed included old trees that the DPW had razed on Deerfoot Road and Flagg Road without public hearings.

Robert Reeder responded to those examples by objecting to the Town forcing residents to comply to rules that it hasn’t been following for itself. He worried about what the postponed Trees Protection bylaw impact might have on Scenic Roads if passed in the fall. Without knowing those details, he didn’t want his street added to the list. 

Reeder proposed waiting until after that bylaw is voted on to consider this one.

The Article was indefinitely postponed by voters.

Trails Committee

Amended then passed over Trails Committee’s objections that it would hurt their ability to do the volunteer work that voters claimed to appreciate.

[Note: Because the Article rewrites Southborough bylaws, this is one of the Town Meeting actions that will need to be approved by the Attorney General’s office.]

Members of the ad hoc Trails Committee proposed a bylaw to create a standing Trails Committee.

Commenters in the room went out of the way to laud the committee for its great work. Then they voted to disregard the Committee members’ opinions about what they needed to continue getting that work done.

As proposed, the bylaw included an allowance that the Select Board had recently approved for the Ad Hoc Committee. Two non-voting Associate Members could serve in addition to the five voting members.

The non-voting positions wouldn’t interfere with quorum. But they would be allowed to participate in meetings and act on behalf of the committee doing trail work.

Town Clerk Jim Hegarty objected to using “Associate Members” arguing it’s not how things are done in Southborough. He believed it would add complexity since Zoning Board of Appeal Associate Members fill in for ZBA members when they can’t vote.

Chair Kathryn McKee explained that their Committee is one of the few that does a large amount of physical labor between meetings. They needed the extra hands. Since adding the members, they were able to get much more of it done.

McKee explained that many towns across the state use Associate Members the way Trails does. She noted that the bylaw specifically outlines there duties and Town Counsel wasn’t worried about confusion.

Hegarty’s opinion was shared by some other outspoken officials including Cook from Advisory, Chelsea Malinowski of the Select Board, Luttrell from Planning, Cook from Advisory and Gillespie of Open Space Preservation Commission. Gillespie also called the Associate Member position an insult to the volunteers who help OSPC without any special titles.

Speaking for the majority of the Select Board, Sam Stivers said he had supported giving the Committee what it told them it needs.

The majority supported Hegarty’s amendment to strip Associate Members from the Article. At that point, McKee moved to indefinitely postpone the Article.

Michael Weishan told her to “take the win”, stating she got 99% of what she wanted. Committee member Marcoulier supported McKee’s position. They explained that since the ad hoc committee had Associate Members, passing the bylaw would eliminate those volunteers.

Weishan and others said that it was just a title and there were other ways to get volunteers.

In the end, the majority of voters overruled the Committee’s requests.

Citizen Petition Articles

Two of the Citizen Petition Articles were indefinitely postponed. 

Article 33 postponed at Petitioner request to give the Town a year to make good on promises.

Patricia Burns Fiore led the petition to add to the Town Code a section on “Accounting of Funding for Roads”.

It was one of multiple Articles prompted by questions raised by the St. Mark’s Street and Park project. Fiore had stated in public meetings that she ws seeking more accountability and transparency for Public Works spending. The Select Board and Advisory Committee had argued in those meetings that they created a new oversight process, involving the Capital Planning Committee, to avoid future issues.

Earlier that evening, the new standing Capital Improvement and Planning Committee was approved by voters. Some of that oversight is codified into the bylaw.

On Thursday, Fiore told voters that she was recommending that officials be given a year to see if their new process works. Voters agreed.

Article 35 indefinitely postponed by voters with eyes to a future, revised version.

Last year, voters agreed with Citizen Petitioners that a Noise Bylaw was needed, but not the version proposed. This year, Michael Weishan got a similar message from commenters about his petition to create a bylaw outlining a process for removing elected officials.

He pointed out that even officials convicted of crimes couldn’t be forced to give up their elected seats. That point resonated with most commenters. But most were opposed to some specific aspect of the bylaw. 

Complaints of commenters included the “low bar” of collecting 5% of voter signatures to trigger a recall election. Though Weishan indicated he was open to raising it to 10%, he claimed getting even 5% would be onerous work.

Others perceived that many residents sign petitions at the Transfer Station without paying attention to details.

Worth noting, current Select Board member Sam Stivers unsuccessfully proposed a recall process by Citizen’s Petition in 2017 before he was on the board. At that time, voters worried that without a cause, an amendment by co-sponsors to raise the bar to 20% of voters was still too low.

Other worries last week included the lack of any cause requirement. Jen Primack of the Southborough School Committee brought up the divisive issue of how school attendance should be handled last year – remote, in-person, or hybrid.

Primack referred to parent opinions as split with about a third in favor of each option. She worried that officials would be recalled for making a decision that a significant share of residents disagreed with.

Advisory’s position was in line with the ones listed above. Member Eric Fernandez said they also believed a five year ban on subsequently serving the Town seemed too harsh.

Advisory Chair Kathy Cook suggested a revised version be brought to the Special Town Meeting in the fall.

Weishan gamely went along with the will of the hall in voting to postpone the Article.

Updated (5/10/22 5:10 pm): I inserted a note that the Trails Committee bylaw Article is among those that need to be vetted by the Attorney General’s office now that voters have passed it.

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