Special Town Meeting Tonight

An updated look at what voters will be asked to decide at tonight's Town Meeting

Above: Voters will convene tonight to hear presentations, ask questions, and make comments about proposed bylaw changes and citizen petitions, then vote them up or down. (image cropped from 2019 video by Southborough Access Media)

Tonight, voters will act as the Town’s legislative body to decide on 13 Articles. There have been some updates worth highlighting since I gave an overview of the Warrant three weeks ago. So, here is my updated look at what voters will be asked to decide.

All Southborough registered voters are encouraged to attend the meeting at Trottier Middle School at 7:00 pm tonight — Thursday, October 13th.

Article proponents will seek approval of bylaw changes related to protecting trees and stone walls, support testing “clickers” for future vote counts, two hot button Citizen Petition Articles, and limit short notice submission of future petition Articles. 

You can view the full Warrant here. For the Town’s posting of materials, click here.

The Select Board is expected to rescind their requests for most of their funding Articles that could have increased taxes.* (They recently identified alternative means to pay for the items without increasing the tax levy.)

The Warrant

1 & 2 – Planning Board bylaw Articles

The first two Articles are proposed by the Planning Board. The board will hold its final hearings on them at 6:00 pm tonight, before Town Meeting. That means they may make some edits that they propose to the language on the floor.

I . Amend Town Code – Trees

This is an effort by the Planning Board to put a process in place for protecting trees from being removed without proper oversight and public input. The Board has argued that the Town wasn’t complying with state laws and their process would fix that. Rather than just adopting a Town policy which could be forgotten/disregarded over time, they are seeking to enshrine the process in the bylaws. (You can read the proposed bylaw here.)

The bylaw also addresses repopulating trees after removals and avoiding inappropriate plantings in public right-of-ways likely to cause future problems. You can read more about the history here.

Today, the Board posted a handout that notes that the rules for public shade trees applies to trees in the right of way, not on private property. It defines the public-right-of-way as:

The portion of land controlled or owned by the Town within which an accepted public street or road lies. Typically, the public right-of-way is wider than the road surface and often includes curbs, sidewalks, utilities, public shade trees and grass strips.

That doesn’t highlight that many residents misconstrue a section of lawn and trees close to the road in front of their home as their property when it is actually within the public-right-of-way. (That area varies by road.)

Members of the Select Board recently advised Planning Chair Meme Luttrell to be prepared to answer questions about a section of the bylaw on activity within the drip line of a public shade tree:

A permit from the Tree Warden Designee shall also be required of any person for: (1) planting a public shade tree, (2) engaging in construction or demolition activities within the drip line of a public shade tree and (3) engaging in excavation activities that may disturb a public shade tree, including but not limited to the installation of utility lines

Luttrell emphasized the importance of protecting the root structure for trees’ health and stability. But she clarified that the clause relates to construction types of activity, not simply planting flowers. She indicated that if the bylaw passes, residents who aren’t sure if a permit is needed for a specific activity could ask the Tree Warden Designee.

(This Article was originally slated for Annual Town Meeting. The board agreed to postpone to fall at the request of Select Board so the meeting wouldn’t require an additional night – creating a scheduling issue for the Town.)

2. Amend Town Code – Scenic Roads

The state laws related to the tree oversight process (and for removals of stone walls) are different for scenic roads than other roads. The Board discovered that all roads adopted by the Town by mid-1978 were designated Scenic Roads by Town Meeting voters that year (except for numbered state routes, which are exempt). They are seeking to expand the list to all roads adopted since, to provide same protections.

You can get a preview of their presentation here.

Some Select Board members have posited that scenic roads should be reserved for a smaller number of roads, highlighting that they are special.

Planning’s presentation defends:

Scenic is not a designation of “bucolic, beauty, picturesque, etc” rather it is an administrative designation to help the Town manage expectations that scenic roads require joint Tree Warden and Planning Board hearings for any modifications/changes to the trees and /or stone walls in the public right of way.

The Board further argues that while the designation impacts which officials are involved in decisions, it has “zero impact” on residents.

(At Annual Town Meeting, a voter asked to postpone this to fall, so that residents on that road would better understand potential impacts after the above Tree bylaw was voted on.)

3. Appropriation – Public Shade Trees (The Select Board is expected to ask to “indefinitely postpone” this Article.)*

Through the public process agreed upon between the Planning and Select Boards (similar to the one outlined in Article 1), many roadside trees have already been authorized to be removed later this fall. They were either dead or – based on arborist assessments – too compromised to remain stable. That’s on top of a backlog of other trees that were already identified as dead.

The Town estimated the need to spend $152,000 to catch up on the backlog and remove others that may be identified later in the fiscal year. At their October 3rd meeting, the Select Board updated that $100,000 is to be covered by the Assessor’s “overlay” fund. They voted to cover the remainder using ARPA funds.

4. Collective Bargaining Agreement

The Town’s negotiated agreement with the Fire Union, effective July 1st, wasn’t finalized in time for an accurate figure to be included in the budget at Annual Town Meeting. The Town is seeking an additional $14,209 to cover the first year’s increase.

5. Insurance Deductible Account

The Town is seeking to appropriate $10,000 to add to an account to cover the insurance deductible for damages to Town property and equipment

6. Easements for EV Charging Stations

With aid from Green Communities grants, the Police Department has begun augmenting its fleet with hybrid Police cruisers as vehicles come up for replacement. Easements granted to National Grid for installation of charging stations at the Public Safety Building complex will support that shift. (The Town is pursuing having them installed at no cost to the Town.)

To ease the Town’s ability to pursue future opportunities at other municipal properties, the Town is also asking for the vote to cover granting future easements to NGrid at “other town-owned locations as the Select Board may determine for a similar purpose”.

7. Amend Town Code – Deadline for Warrant Article Submissions

This would set a deadline of 30 days prior to a Town Meeting for residents to submit Citizen Petition Articles to be added to the Warrant.

This is proposed by the Select Board, which calls it “reasonable advance notice” to allow more time for public discussions prior to the meeting.

Earlier this year, Town Counsel advised that under current laws the Board “closing” the Warrant couldn’t stop citizens from being able to add more Articles. The Town bylaw and state laws don’t specify a deadline. (The Town must post Warrants at least 7 days before Annual Town Meeting and 14 days before a Special Town Meeting. Voter signatures must be certified for a petition to be added to the Warrant but a deadline for those submissions isn’t outlined. That could allow petitions to be submitted as late as 7 days before an Annual Town Meeting, where only 10 signatures are required.) 

8. Amend Town Code – Voting Procedures

Allows the Moderator to determine the “method of voting” for any Town Meeting Articles, to include allowing electronic technology (like handheld “clickers”) as a means.

I’m puzzled by the full list of options the Moderator is given to choose from with also includes “a written ballot vote” along with “a voice vote, a vote by voter card, a standing vote”.

The stated intent of the Article is to allow the Moderator to use electronic voting to expedite vote counts on close Articles. Vote counts have been a lengthy process that make the meetings run slower. If approved, the Town would then seek funding in the next Article for equipment to use at the next Annual Town Meeting.

I’m not clear on how language in this Article meshes with current bylaws about voting methods and counts. (The Town Code describes how if counts are called for they will be taken by tellers. It also allows seven or more voters to demand a count, while this language would allow the Moderator to choose voting methods.)

For those of you who have argued for remote participation – this isn’t that. The electronic voting would be by voters in the hall.

9. General Government Capital Items (The Select Board is expected to ask to “indefinitely postpone” this Article.)*

$5,000 to rent “Clickers” for a Test run at Annual Town Meeting. This would rent 600 clickers. If voters at ATM approve purchasing them to use at future meetings, that fee would be applied toward the total cost of $18,600 for devices with a 10-yr life expectancy. On October 3rd, the Select Board voted to spend ARPA funds to cover this expense. (Based on past discussions, that would only be if voters approve Article 8.)

On October 3rd, the Select Board voted to spend ARPA funds to cover this expense. (Based on past discussions, that would only be if voters approve Article 8.) They also shared news that a state grant will cover the 

The Board also shared news that a state grant will cover the bigger item — $27,000 for a Pavement Management System. (The Select Board believes that an information management system for Public Works would help them inventory and track/forecast condition of roads and sidewalks, estimated costs for maintenance/reconstruction projects, and help them efficiently prioritize and plan out projects over multiple years given available funding.)

10 & 11 Assessor Requests

Although these Articles specify a request, they would not be paid out of the FY23 Tax levy. The Articles specify that funds would be transferred from the Assessor’s overlay surplus account. (What I don’t know is what other purposes that account could potentially be used for and cover, or how it gets refreshed. I do know that they also plan to use a much larger amount to cover the tree removals.)

I0. Transfer of Funds for Assessors’ Real Estate Software

$12,500 to replace the existing real estate software platform that is being phased out over the next few years. This would cover cost of converting the software, with work beginning this fall.

11. Transfer of Funds for Professional Appraisal Services

$14,000 for the Assessors to contract appraisal services to help them complete the inspections and data collections required by the Dept of Revenue

12 & 13  – Citizen Petition Articles

These Articles brought forward by residents would urge but not “bind” the Town to act.

12. Citizen Petition – Restrict Placement of Flags In Old Burial Ground

This Article would urge the Select Board to remove the old military flags in the Old Burial Ground, leaving only the official US flag flying. 

One of the organizers, Debbie DeMuria, argues that a recent Supreme Court decision that could leave the Town open to freedom of speech issues. Since the Town allows a Veteran’s group to fly flags in the OBG, while ignoring those who object to at least one of the flags as offensive, they might be required to fly flags requested by other groups.

This week, a vocal supporter of her initiative (Michael Weishan) issued a public letter making a request to fly other flags.

But, it’s worth noting that the decision didn’t require Towns to open the flying of flags to all groups if they allow it for one. It just requires them to have a policy to justify rejecting requests. You can read Town Counsel’s opinion here.

At a September discussion about a potential process for creating a policy, Select Board member Lisa Braccio referred to this one as a “hot button issue”. Not for the first time, it prompted some passionate debate.

You can read more about the proponents’ and opponents’ positions, and the history of flag controversy at the historic cemetery, here.

13. Citizen Petition – St. Mark’s Triangle Land Acquisition

This Article relates to the controversial project at St. Marks’ Street, next to the Southborough Library. The language would authorize the Select Board to accept the “triangle” as a gift from St. Mark’s for Town ownership.

The park and road project has been the subject of several controversies. Among them was the issue of the government spending for a planned park on the site, and completion of a redirected abutting roadway, on land privately owned by St. Mark’s School. As part of the project (and also to the ire of voters) a parking lot is being created for use by the school on abutting Town owned land. The Select Board had argued that a swap of easements would have given each party “property interest” that sufficed. Annual Town Meeting voters appeared to disagree when they voted to reject the easements.

On October 3rd, Select Board Chair Kathy Cook announced that the school has agreed to swap ownership of the parcels. She said that on October 18th the Board will discuss next steps, including the possibility of resuming construction without waiting for a Town Meeting vote. (They weren’t able to meet the deadline to include a related Article in the Warrant for tonight.)

This proposal by residents would instead accept the land from St. Mark’s as a gift and makes no promise of plans to give land to St. Mark’s in exchange. It wouldn’t require the Town to accept the parcel, but would give the Board the authority to do so without returning to a Town Meeting. However, the Town would need a future Town Meeting vote to gift any land to St. Mark’s (or grant easement on) in exchange.

As part of their argument to push for a simple donation, petition organizers Demuria and Kevin Farrington opposed building what would be a much larger parking lot for St. Mark’s right near downtown. You can preview their presentation here and read more about the recent public debates here.

[Note: For those who were concerned about the potential of indigenous graves on the land and missed the update — the archeological study didn’t find any evidence of graves in the area of the land that would be under construction.]

To look for more of my coverage of Special Town Meeting, click here.

*At their most recent meeting, the Select Board planned to pull their funding requests under Articles 3 & 9. However, they are scheduled to meet tonight prior to the meeting. It is possible (though it seems unlikely) that they will change their minds. Additionally, the decision is ultimately up to voters.

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