SPECIAL TOWN MEETING----What happened?
Many people wondered what happened on February 23rd at Special Town Meeting. The Warrant had 22 items, yet only half were dealt with, and then the Special Town Meeting was dissolved by Moderator Garry Blank. So, what REALLY happened? Here's one man's opinion.
Special Town Meeting, which had been postponed two weeks due to snow, started with an article which transferred $140,549 to the schools for use in the reconfiguration of the Oak Ridge and Forestdale Schools in September 2015. It really was a no-brainer. The schools had money left over from nine previous town meeting articles, and rather than let it sit, and use free cash (which is not free), they "re-used" these funds. The glitch in the quick passage of this article was the Finance Committee voting 4-3 against it. I was out of the country when the Committee voted. I'd have voted "yes." There are legitimate concerns about the costs of the reconfiguration. The Finance Committee has seen no hard numbers. That's why I might have been inclined to vote no on the second article, which was giving the schools $275,000 in "free cash" for the same reconfiguration, which they say will cost around $415,000. Personally, I'm happier when school systems have money LEFT OVER, rather than having to borrow more money for underfunded improvements. It's a way to reward them for being responsible with taxpayer money. After a LONG debate, Article one passed 170-104 (or something like that.)
Article 2 passed on a voice vote, so the schools got the money they needed for the final piece of their total reconfiguration. Whether this will help retain the current students, and prevent a future Brain Drain is uncertain. We'll find out.
I'm much more unimpressed with the situation with the swimming pool at Sandwich High. We spent nearly a million dollars on it at last year's town meeting, being told we'd save the high costs of renting pool time elsewhere. The entire repair of the pool has been a disaster, with numerous setbacks that have forced the pool to remain closed, and the swimming and diving teams are STILL renting pool time elsewhere. But, that's another story.
Article 3 gave a million dollars in Community Preservation Act funds towards the design, permitting and construction towards beach renourishment. The erosion of our beaches are slowly destroying the tax base, with many homes and businesses threatened. Rentals are way down for the summer. To their credit, the Board of Selectmen and Town Manager George "Bud" Dunham have been working on the problem. This money will help reimburse the Army Corps for Engineers for dredging the canal and putting the sand up in our beach areas, and repairing the breeches at Boardwalk, and North Creek. Dunham was also able to secure a $300,000 grant, as well. It may be too little too late for the beaches. Let's hope not!
Article 4, which came from Irene Davis in her group's effort to Save the Sandwich Beaches, was to take half of the money the town receives from the meals tax and dedicate it to establishing a Beach Restoration Fund. This petitioned article was not backed by the Board of Selectmen or the Finance Committee. They both didn't think tax revenue should be dedicated to one item, but should go in the General Fund. Article four passed on a voice vote. We quickly saw how the BOS followed through on the will of the people who voted. Their follow through was to request that the legislature approve setting up the Beach Restoration Fund, but Frank Pannorfi and Jim Pierce said they'd send a letter saying the board had opposed it, with an explanation. Susan James said, "I don't think municipal finance should be managed by petition. But, we should send it up to the legislature without comment, as Patrick said." They instead sent it WITH comment, which defeated the purpose.
Article 5, another petitioned article, sought to put on the next annual town meeting ballot a non-binding question asking the residents of Sandwich to approve or disapprove any contract or sale of the property known as "The Golden Triangle." The town has already contracted with developers for the property. A purchase and sales agreement was signed by both parties. It's a done deal. Town Counsel had ruled it was an illegal motion. It would need to be petitioned at Annual Town Meeting. So, the Board voted to "do nothing." It should also be known (and it would be to readers of Sandwich News) that the developer has agreed to put in writing in the final Land Development Agreement that the entity will be a FOR-profit business, NOT a non-profit.
Article 6 gave $60,000 in CPA funds for the repair of the historic Dexter Grist Mill, which is currently run by the Recreation Department, along with the historic Hoxie House.
Article 7 provides 2.5 million dollars for constructing a brand new East Boat Basin Marina Office Building, Garage and year-round restroom facility at 12 Freezer Road on the Marina. A 1700 square foot garage with 3 bays, a 2000 square foot office space, and 680 square foot public rest room will be the final result. I'm looking forward to it! This article passed. All money will come from income derived directly from the Marina. No taxpayer dollars were spent.
Article 8 was a housekeeping one, transferring $100,000 to the FY '15 Group Health Insurance Account. Article 9 established a new revolving account for future revenues collected from alternative energy. Article 10 gave $60,000 from the Golf Enterprise Fund to the Sandwich Hollow Golf Club for repairs and improvements to the club house and course. Again, no taxpayer funds expended there.
Article 11 was to transfer the property in front of Sandwich High (where the old outdoor street hockey rink was) from the schools to the municipal side to make a place for a proposed public safety facility. It was turned down by the remaining voters at Special Town Meeting. And, it should have been. Anyone who drives by there on Quaker Meetinghouse Road knows that ambulances, fire trucks and police cars would have a very hard time navigating there. That is NOT the place for it. However, the BOS and Town Manager gave indications that because the crowd has thinned down to under 100 people that they were going to discard the will of the people. The BOS was the ones who recommended and helped pass a ZERO quorum at Town Meeting. Even if two people were there voting, it was a LEGAL vote. Would they do the will of the people, or stubbenly cling to the idea of a public safety building in the wrong place?
The police and firefighters headquarters are embarassing and not up to standards. But, if we're going to provide them with new facilities, lets do it RIGHT the first time. Some public safety officials (not the Chiefs) have told me, off the record, that the Quaker Meetinghouse location is a HUGE mistake. But, something needs to be done, so give the BOS credit for trying.
"I challenged the issue of traffic. Fire Chief Carrico, our expert, convinced me he was comfortable with the location," Selectman Frank Pannorfi said. Town Manager Dunham says the public safety building would actually HELP the traffic problems. Selectwoman Susan James said traffic is busy on Quaker Meetinghouse Road. But, "if lighting is appropriate, cars will stop."
Pierce said, "Between 50 and 100 people were there. The school committee took this issue up. They unanimously voted in favor of the concept. Having a public safety facility built that close to the high school would make students safer." (In fact, the school committee vote was actually 4-2, with Jim Deverand Sean Rausch voting no.)
Ellis said, "We have to look thoughtfully at where we'll put a future station. We hoped people would go along with our choice. It doesn't pre-empt a future discussion. We're in tomorrow as a Board today. Even if we weren't proposing a substation at the high school, we'd have to do a study of that interchange anyway."
The Board's Chair, Ralph Vitacco said "You have to perform introductory tasks before you get to the end task. That's what Article 11 was about."
"We did a very shortened presentation. If we had more time, we'd have touched on much more," Dunham said.
"I'm not sure if we're ready to bring this to Annual Town Meeting. Our whole thing was to do a combined station at Cotuit and Quaker Meetinghouse," Pannorfi said. "My concern is not doing the due diligence that this project required."
"God sent us a message where Rt. 6A had breaches in three locations. That pretty much eliminated the East Sandwich locations," Dunham added.
"I'd like to give the voters a chance to weigh in on this. If they say no dice again, then we need to do something else, a Plan B, in small chunks," Pierce added.
Vitacco concluded, "There may have been 75 people left. Can less than 1/2 of 1% of the residents put a stop to public safety? We need to try again in May."
Selectman Patrick Ellis was going to do a short presentation after Town Meeting the other night as an introduction to a public outreach. Susan James said that the BOS needed to "go out to the people where they are (at the grocery store or wherever) to answer questions and provide information and not do what we did before, which was to make the people come to us. We had several public meetings the last time and fewer than ten people came to each meeting, and they were the same ten people every time."
"We'll get comments at how arrogant we are for coming back after people voted against it at the high school," Pannorfi added, "But some will see it as leadership. There's more in this town than the professional critics and naysayers"
It appears the selectmen will take away some of the promised money to the public works department for needed road repairs, and instead will commit funds to this new public safety facility. Patrick Ellis gave information as to why he believed that the highway department did not need the planned capital exclusion request this year.
James told me, "There was much discussion, but the BOS did NOT vote to change the five-year plan that was voted last year. Consensus was that (DPW Director) Paul Tilton would be consulted before any vote would be taken." Ellis said that "if the Town was not under so much pressure to approve both the road funds and the public safety building, it might be easier for them to approve the public safety plan, which is a priority."
After Article 11, Moderator Garry Blank asked the crowd if they wanted to continue past 11 p.m. They voted that down. So, according to Town Meeting Times, two things could have happened. The Special Town Meeting could have been adjourned to another time or be dissolved. Both required a motion, second, and a vote.
What happened was the Selectmen and Town Manager told Blank that all the remaining articles would be handled at the Annual Town meeting in May. Dunham could be heard saying, "No interest" at the end of the meeting in regards to scheduling another night. Blank then announced that the Special Town Meeting was dissolved and sent everyone home.
As someone who spent over two decades as an elected Town Meeting member (in Stoughton) including many as a Precinct Chairman, this didn't feel right. And, Facebook exploded, with over 130 comments following rather quickly on Sandwich News. I placed calls to Blank and Dunham on the 24th. I heard back from Blank, who is a busy attorney, today.
Blank, who appointed me to the Sandwich FinCom (yes, he's a genius), told me "In the back of my mind, I had read that under certain circumstances, I can dissolve the meeting without a vote. But, it would have been better to put it to a vote. I heard from the BOS and Town Manager and they told me they'd put everything into the Annual Meeting warrant in May. I only wish we'd gotten to the Ambulance article. All the rest were housekeeping and zoning articles, which are frequently in the Annual. The fire one has some importance. But, I've gotten good calls from most people. Next year will be my 20th year as Moderator. I've always tried to be careful of expenses, and a second night of town meeting could be costly. I've never had to go to a second night in all those years. When the selectmen asked, it seemed reasonably expedient. The selectmen may have had other reasons, besides costs, to put everything into May. I don't know. I made a decision that may have been in error on the dissolution. But, bottom line there's an expense to another night, and part of my job is not to incur expenses. It was cold, icy and late. May is right around the corner!"
Another thing that may have entered this equation--in the past Blank had to be concerned about a quorum. A second night would be tough to garner one. But, with the new Zero Quorum (which was passed in 2007, but didn't really come up until this year's STM), it would not have been as important.
Bottom line, a lot of work got done. Some speakers droned on too long, while others were downright rude. There was an anger in the air that hung like smoke in the auditorium. The Moderator is human, and was trying to do his job.
The only harm done was Article 13. That one was for four automatic chest compression systems for the Sandwich ambulances. That money was being transferred from the Ambulance Fund, which is from money taken in by the ambulances. Town Meeting is the only body that can make that transfer. However, the fire department could ask the Finance Committee for an emergency transfer of the $60,000. That means that the money would come from the General Fund, rather than the Ambulance Enterprise Fund.
Selectman Chairman Ralph Vitacco was disappointed Monday night. "Some of the speakers were uninformed and took shots at our integrity. We have to look after the entire town. I'm not the Forestdale selectmen, public safety selectman, or beach selectman. I'm a selectman for the entire town."
Selectman Patrick Ellis said, "I regret that we didn't put the petitioned articles last. The petitioners and their supporters would have been compelled to stay until their articles came up, and wouldn't have left. Usually people are more willing to stay after 11. We need to strategize where we put articles. It's distressing to watch people walk out of town meeting which they came to for their one article."
Selectman Frank Pannorfi added, "The two and a half hours on a couple articles is a function of running the meeting, to be honest. I know people watch Town Meeting on TV. Maybe we could move to electronic voting."
Selectman Jim Pierce added, "If someone just shouted move the question and seconded it, we could have moved things along."
Interestingly, Massachusetts law has something to say about Town Meeting decisions. If you search Secretary of State William Galvin's website, you'll find, "No action of a representative town meeting can be reversed unless at least 20% of the registered voters do such." The Selectmen didn't technically reverse anything, but sending a request to set up the Beach Restoration Fund, with a letter opposing it, is not proper, in my opinion.
(Posted on 2/26/15 @ 9 p.m. Updated at 10:15 p.m.)
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