Several Citizen Petitions headed to Town Meeting (Updated)

Annual Town Meeting voters will be asked to weigh in on at least 7 petitions, likely more. Deadline for new petitions is Thursday.

Above: The Town has recently certified several petitions to be addressed at Town Meeting in March.

As of yesterday, seven petitions qualified for placement on the Warrant for the March 25th Annual Town Meeting.

The Town Clerk is aware of at least three others in circulation. The deadline for those (and any others) is 5:00 pm tomorrow — Thursday, February 23rd.

The bar is pretty low for submitting petitions. Only ten registered voters need to sign their support.

Last Fall, voters approved a deadline for submission of Citizen Petition Articles for Town Meeting. The intent was to allow Town officials and residents to have more time to learn about the Articles and make up their minds.

Over the next month, petitioners will be invited to public meetings to make their case publicly and answer questions. (Though, organizers can decline participating.)

So, far the petitions cover four topics. If you want to include a petition of your own, you can find a form to use here, or create your own. According to Town Clerk Jim Hegarty, the signed petition must be submitted to the Select Board. They date/time stamp it then submit to the Clerk for signature verification. 

He also noted that while a previous Town Counsel opined that petitions could not be amended at Town meeting, the current counsel has stated that every Article at Town Meeting can be amended.

I do believe there are likely restraints on how far the amended article can stray from the original intent. (The Moderator has exercised his authority in the past to limit amendments to Town Articles based on not having provided sufficient notice to voters.)

Halting the Regionalization of Public Safety Dispatch services

The Select Board has been pursuing an effort to partner with other towns to create a regionalized dispatch center.

Two petitions were submitted on this issue. I believe both are non-binding, which means it will be up to Select Board members to decide whether or not to follow the will of the voters.

Both are looking for voters to tell the board that regionalization shouldn’t occur now and only happen in the future if a majority of TM voters first approve it.

But there is a significant difference between the two versions. 

A petition from former Select Board member Bonnie Phaneuf calls for voters to “request” the board to withdraw from the specific Inter-municipal Agreement the board is planning to sign for a proposed center in Westborough. It further asks “not to enter into any IMA for similar purpose without first presenting the principal terms thereof to Town Meeting for its recommendation thereupon”.

Days later, a petition was submitted by the dispatchers’ union president, Kyle Devincent. It more strongly directs the board to “require” that dispatch remain under the Town’s “sole control” and the board “cease and desist any regionalization efforts” unless first supported by a majority of TM voters.

One question that version clearly raises is, “What is covered by ‘efforts’?” It would seem to prohibit the board from researching and putting together details for an alternative IMA to present to voters in the future without first convincing the majority to pursue the concept. 

Parkerville Road Driver Feedback signs

Last summer, residents asked the Select Board to pursue lowering the speed limit on the northern section of Parkerville Road to 25 mph. (That is the segment between Route 9 and Main Street.) Although a school zone exists around the driveway to Neary and Trottier schools, the speed outside of that section was 35 mph.

The Board agreed to pursue the change, which first required having the state approve rescinding of a Special Speed Regulation past by the Town years ago for the 35 mph speed. That was granted, and the board voted to approve the new speed on December 20th. 

Earlier this month the SPD posted that new speed limit signs had been installed and officers would be “out enforcing the new speed limit through education, warnings, and eventually fines”.

Resident Peter Lapine’s petitions ask to go further. He is asking voters to approve $18,000 be added to the Dept of Public Works’ budget to purchase the signs, and that voters “direct” the Board to have them installed on the road.

Change appointing authority for Public Works Planning Board

Regular readers and those who closely follow Town politics should be aware that the Public Works Planning Board has been publicly criticized by some residents who believe it should be meeting more frequently and advising the Select Board on more matters.

One of the board’s critics is Patricia Burns Fiore who filed an Open Meeting Law complaint related to the board’s minutes. Now she has filed a petition seeking to change how members are appointed. 

Currently, only two members of the board are appointed by the Planning Board in public meetings. The other three are appointed by the Moderator behind the scenes.

The petition seeks to eliminate the Moderator’s role in the process. One member would be appointed by the “Health Department”. Since that isn’t the “Board of Health”, that member could still be appointed outside of public meetings.

Planning’s role would be expanded to cover the four remaining members.

Lower Voting Age for Town Elections to 17 years old

This petition would lower the age by one year for voting in the Town’s annual election in the spring. It would not apply to state elections and primaries.

The initiative was the first petition submitted this winter. You can read petitioner James Nichols-Worley’s letter to the editor making his case here.

[Editor’s note: Full disclosure, my 17 year old is one of the volunteers trying to turn out the vote in support of this measure.]

Change Zoning District for three Parcels

A petition by David Parry seeks to amend the Zoning Map for three properties with frontage on Route 9: 84 Turnpike Road, 88 Turnpike Road, and 2 Woodland Road. 

Parry’s petition claims the properties are “not properly zoned”. His rewritten map would change the zoning from Business Village “with an existing boundary line of 400 feet from Turnpike Road” to Business Highway, with an 800 ft boundary.

The petition argues that this would support the intention of the “applicant” to collaborate with the town on a public pathway network connecting open spaces. 

Since it is a proposed zoning change, the Select Board referred the article to the Planning Board. Their role is to hold a public hearing and write a report for Town Meeting.

It’s worth highlighting that Town Administrator Mark Purple told the Select Board on February 7th that the current owner of the properties, Robert Heavey, called to let him know that he is not involved and has no interest in the petitions moving forward. Purple said he advised Heavey that Planning’s hearings were probably the more appropriate forum for that discussion.

Updated (2/22/23 11:28 am): I added more detail for readers interested in submitting their own petitions. I also added more information about the potential for Articles to be amended.

Updated (2/22/23 12:49 pm): I added missing links for two petitions.

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Al Hamilton
1 year ago

I am as big a fan of Town Meeting as anyone. However, when I served on the Town Admin. By-Law committee we did a fairly deep dive on the inherent powers of both Town Meeting and the Select Board.
Town Meeting has some awesome powers. Principle among them is the power to tax and to broadly direct where those tax dollars are spent. Additionally they can pass laws (By Laws), authorize certain types of transactions (eg real estate) and a few others. What Town Meeting can’t do is direct the SB or any other elected executive body what to do.

  1. The SB, or any other elected executive, does not work for Town Meeting. They report directly to the voters and derive their just authority by virtue of standing for and winning an election.
  2. Like Town Meeting the SB and other elected executive bodies have substantial inherent authorities which are defined by state law. Town Meeting cannot impinge on those authorities any more that the SB can raise taxes on their own. Examples of those authorities include hiring town employees, settling lawsuits, preparing the warrant, supervising town departments under their control, setting the commercial and residential property tax rates, paying town bills and many others.

There is a natural friction between any legislature (Town Meeting, Congress, the General Court) and any elected executive body (President, Governor, School Committees, Select Board, Planning Board, Board of Health, Library Board, Clerk, ect.). It is important for each side of the democratic equation to respect the proper authority and roles that the other side plays. Just as the SB should not try to end run around Town Meetings authority to authorize real estate transfers Town Meeting should not try to end run around the inherent authority of the SB to manage the operations of municipal operations under its control with advisory articles.
Town Meeting is a legislature not a poll of the voters and should behave as such.

John Kendall
1 year ago

Bonnie Phaneuf’s petition regarding the regional communications center

John Butler
1 year ago

While I agree with Al’s point when traditional roles are respected, the Regional Dispatch agreement, just signed by the Select Board, is a radical departure from our fiscal management traditions, stripping Town Meeting of its normal authority over taxation and appropriation. For that topic, I draw the opposite conclusion, that all citizens should attend this Town Meeting and have their views heard on whether they want this departure from past fiscal practice. I’m sorry that the explanation here is long.
The main issue is that the Regional Dispatch agreement takes the ability to raise taxes in Southborough, normally held exclusively by Town Meeting, and turns it over to the vote of three employees, two of those employees of other Towns, without any taxation caps or limits. A majority vote by the Town Managers of Westborough and Grafton, can, year after year, raise taxes on the voters of Southborough, regardless of the will of Southborough Town Meeting. Furthermore, this new Region can issue debt, again with no prescribed limit, of which we must pay our share, without the usual Town Meeting approval, but with only a veto power over new debt resting with the Select Board. This is also a power which is otherwise never held by employees, much less those of other Towns, or ever been given to the Select Board. In the whole history of the Town such authority outside of Town Meeting has never before been granted anywhere. Town Meeting voters ought to now consider whether this is what they want.
Just as, in the normal case, Select Board can only request budgets be approved by Town Meeting, Town Meeting can only request, if it so votes, that Select Board withdraw from this Inter-municipal Agreement. The Board has until June 1 to do. After that it becomes functionally impossible to get out without onerous costs.
I raised this issue of the radical departure in taxation authority in a letter to the Select Board. When it came up for discussion, Mr. Purple, the Town Admin, told the board it was like the Regional Schools. That is entirely false. The taxation authority given in this new agreement to the Town Managers and Select Boards is completely unlike the Regional Agreements that have successfully governed the Northborough Southborough School District and the Assabet Regional School District for many decades. Those are our two other major Regional agreements. Under those Agreements only elected School Committee members can vote to propose a budget to the Town Meetings of several Towns for approval. Each governing agreement has different democratic provisions to handle the case that one or more Town Meetings fail to pass the budgets, but at no stage are the votes of employees able to tax citizens. Nothing about the long successful history of Regional Schools suggests that this stripping of fiscal authority from Town Meeting is needed to operate a Regional function.
This relocation of the power of taxation in the contract is not illegal. The power to do this exists in State statute, but the Town is not required to adopt it. Of the seven municipalities that began this consideration with us, most of them, four out of seven, have dropped out. Our Select Board voluntarily chose this. Furthermore, whatever one thinks of the concept of Regional Dispatch, it is possible to create such Regions without these draconian powers of remote taxation. The State has made these taxation procedures legal, totally unnecessarily, but has not removed the traditional ability to create districts for any municipal purpose with traditional democratically controlled taxation that would model those of our successful Regional School systems. Since the majority of the nearby communities have dropped out of this plan, it is not as though we’re going to be without potential partners in the future if we leave this but still want Regional Dispatch. However, a full review of the risks, merits and problems of regional dispatch is not my purpose here. I just want to explain why Town Meeting is justified in having a say by explaining the stripping of its traditional fiscal authority.
Voters should also be aware that our Select Board has acted as if they did not want to tell Town Meeting of this stripping of Town Meeting’s authority over taxation. They may have been led in this direction by Town Counsel, but they went along with it. A draft of this inter-town Agreement from a month ago called for approval by Town Meetings. At that time I wrote to Select Board members and expressed my concern about the taxation change and said that I wondered if our Town Meeting would vote to yield its power of appropriation and taxation to employees. In the next draft, our Town Counsel had removed the Town Meeting approval language in the contract. However, because Hopkinton Select Board did, voluntarily, want to seek the approval of their Town Meeting, a cancellation date was left in the contract text, without any tell-tale description as to its purpose, so that Hopkinton Select Board could seek its TM approval before that date, June 1. As it turned out, Hopkinton citizens so hated the Regional Dispatch concept that they convinced their Select Board to kill it before it got to the Hopkinton Town Meeting, but the June 1 date remains in the text. I also raised concerns, about the early draft, that it gave the power of issuing debt without Town Meeting approval. This reference too was removed from subsequent drafts. Again, however, the change is only cosmetic, because while the modified contract text no longer explicitly references the authorization of debt, the text also accepts the terms of a State statute that gives the District that power anyway. Thus, just reading the contract, you might not know what is afoot.
Regional Dispatch as a concept has some good and bad points. In my view, however, this particular Regional Dispatch plan for Southborough is very bad for many reasons. Above I have limited myself to why I think that its usurpation of traditional taxation authority moves it into needing debate at Town Meeting. The host of other problems with this particular plan will now also be presented at Town Meeting.
In the largest sense if Select Board treats Town Meeting as if it does not want it to know about the unique taxation authority for Regional Dispatch, because it claims such an agreement as its sole authority, then Town Meeting can reciprocate with a deaf ear, or negative vote, on Select Board requests for its normal budgets, as that is the sole authority of Town Meeting. Neither party would have legal recourse, but we will then have worse government all around. To have good government, Select Board and Town Meeting must trust one another. There is no other way. I hope that Town Meeting does not need to exercise its exclusive powers to demonstrate that fact to Select Board. It is unfortunate that our Select Board didn’t choose the path that Hopkinton’s did by planning to put this before Town Meeting, but now, thanks to Citizen Petition, we will move forward with a debate as best we can. I hope people choose to participate.

Al Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  John Butler

I read the agreements and, is will come as no surprise, John Butlers description of the agreement is correct. A portion of the taxing authority which for over 275 years has been the sole prerogative of Town Meeting will, for all intents and purposes, be transferred to 3 Town Employees one each from the 3 towns that are part of the agreement.
I believe there are many good reasons to enter into a regional dispatch system. In any regional agreement, like the ones that govern our various regional schools, there needs to be a mechanism that resolves conflict when budgeting or other matters arise. It necessarily means that we have to agree to share some of our taxing authority with other communities for the enterprise under consideration. This agreement renders Town Meeting’s role in authorizing taxes and debt related to a Regional Dispatch Center irrelevant and effectively strips Town Meeting of any effective way to disapprove of the levels of spending in this operation. This is not an acceptable compromise.
The SB should immediately inform the other 2 communities that it intends to withdraw unless this serious flaw is resolved.
I am afraid that like the St. Marks mess, this is a case of a hastily taken decision done to take advantage of a possible grant. Like the St. Marks mess, the SB has chosen to run rough shod over the role of Town Meeting. Given this second “thumb in the Town Meetings eye” by the SB I regret to say that it may be time for Town Meeting to take out the BIG HAMMER and remind the SB where the money comes from. I can think of several budget nails that might be driven home. This would be regrettable. An eye for an eye will leave both of us blind.
“Just because it is legal does not make it right.”

Al Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  Beth Melo

You are correct, the Chief Executive of the Town of Southborough is the Select Board. This is different than the Board of Director members from the 2 other communities which are their Town Administrators/Managers. But, let’s look at the budget process in total.
1.      The budget is developed by the finance committee which is made up of the Town Admin/Mgr and the Town CFO both of which are unelected employees of their respective towns.
2.      The budget is presented for approval to the Board of Directors. It appears it can be that this approval requires a majority vote (2 of 3).  Thus, it is possible that a budget can be developed and approved even if the Southborough member does not approve.
3.      Once the budget is developed, it is presented to each town meeting for a meaningless vote.
4.      If a Town Meeting rejects this budget the funds are still collected from the town property taxes. There is no mediation process. Once the Board of Directors vote on a budget that is for all intents and purposes the end of the process. There is no reason for Town Meeting to vote on this matter.
5.      Thus, it is entirely possible for the Town Employees of Grafton and Westborough to dictate a portion of our taxes with our having no recourse or path for mediation.
This is secondary. The real issue is that the Southborough SB decided to sign an agreement that unilaterally strips Town Meeting of a portion of its taxing authority. What is more galling is that, for the 20+ years I have been going to Town Meeting, the body has been incredibly generous and consistently funded the requested levels of spending. In what now must be 1000’s of votes I can recall less than a handful of instances where the various executives budget requests have not been fully and overwhelmingly granted.
I am reliably informed that it is unwise to bite the hand that feeds.

Kelly Roney
1 year ago

[Town Clerk Jim Hegarty] also noted that while a previous Town Counsel opined that petitions could not be amended at Town meeting, the current counsel has stated that every Article at Town Meeting can be amended.

Current Town Counsel is plainly right about this. Town Meeting Time, section 4, “The Warrant” is plain as day:

[N]o action at a town meeting is valid unless the subject matter is contained in the warrant. This requirement does not mean that the warrant must contain verbatim the language of the votes to be taken, but the warrant must contain a sufficient description of what is proposed so as to constitute an adequate warning to all the inhabitants of the town.

This text later in the same section is plainly on the lesser topic of the printed language of the warrant:

Suppose the substance of the request is proper, but the form of it is improper. May the selectmen [sic] edit it, with the advice of town counsel? The Massachusetts … statutes merely require the selectmen to insert “the subjects” requested…. [Once the petition is filed], it is a public document, and editing depends on a liberal construction of the statute. The safer course is to use the petitioners’ language without change so that the selectmen may not be accused of changing the sense of it.

Citizen’s petitions can be amended from the floor, subject to the usual requirements that amendments are within the scope of the original article, subject to the discretion of the Moderator.

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