Town Meeting ’13, Session 5

I take notes during Town Meeting. They are not official in any way. As I listen to people speak, I type notes. I’m sure that, at times, I mishear or misunderstand the speaker, but my notes represent what I hear at the time. I try to publish the notes every night after the meeting, as time allows. I do go back and make a few edits as errors are pointed out to me.  I do not try to reproduce my entire notes for this online version. Sometimes I relay a quote from a specific speaker. Most of the time I only summarize the discussion. At points I give a purely personal opinion; those are clearly labeled like this: Personal note.

Town Meeting Member Charles Gallagher played the national anthem.

The moderator noted we might finish Wednesday. I had been hoping that we finish tonight – but it wasn’t meant to be. We took our time with the budgets over the last two nights.

  •  Marvin Lewiton announced a large cancer study that Arlington is an enrollment center for and invited others to participate. cancer.org/cps3ne
  •  Patricia Worden gave the report and history of the Affordable Housing Task Force. It has not met in five years. She asked that the task force be dissolved.
  •  Sean Harrington Monday May 13th benefit show for Krystle Campbell Memorial. regenttheatre.com
  •  Barbara Costa gave the report of the Arlington Cultural Commission.
  •  Angela Olszewski was confused about whether we were in reports or announcements. She’s right; we have not been careful about the delineation.
  •  Bob Tosi announced that May 11 US Postal Service food drive. Arlington Food Pantry.

Article 3 taken from the table.

  •  Brucie Moulton gave the Vision 2020 report.

Article 31 – Budgets continued

Education, continued: Stephen Harrington moved to increase the education budget by $300,000. He said he also intended to move to place less in the stabilization fund as well in order to balance the budget. He suggested the money be used to reduce student activity fees. FinComm Chair Al Tosti spoke. He requested that substantive amendments be provided in advance – it would be appreciated. Tosti noted that in past years changes in state aid, good and bad, are shared by the town and school budget. Tosti noted the history of school budget increases. He noted that this motion would violate the agreements and commitments of the 3-year plan. Carl Wagner asked if a motion to terminate debate was in order. He was told that it was in order, but he was not permitted to make the motion because he had said other words. I disagree with the enforcement of this rule. The spirit of the rule is that you shouldn’t be able to both speak to an issue and terminate debate; you can only do one. Carl Wagner did not speak to the issue, even obliquely, so his motion to terminate should have been in order. Gordon Jamieson asked for the rationale for the amount of $300,000 – Mr. Harrington said it was the amount of unexpected revenue. Superintendent Kathy Bodie was asked what she’d do with the money, and she feels bound by the 3-year plan. Mr. Harris disagreed with some of the arguments of both sides. “The last time we reduced fees we had a plan. This time, we’re apparently hoping for a visit from the magical fee fairies” – it got a chuckle from the crowd.  Mark McCabe moved to terminate debate, which carried 142-45.

Tosti moved to table Articles 31-33 so that the Minuteman Superintendent could speak.  A loud minority forced a standing vote on the motion to table. 145-41 we tabled.

Article 34 – Minuteman Vocational

Tosti asked for 10 minutes for the presentation which was granted. Superintendent Bouquillon gave a presentation on the school district’s budget. He also gave an update on the school rebuild feasibility study. In answer to a question, we found that Arlington is 34% of the operating budget. Six towns have approved the budget, and 6 are voting tonight, so the budget will probably get it’s 11 required votes tonight. Dean Carmen talked about the problems with the regional agreement – we have 1/16 of the votes but 1/3 of the budget.  Bouquillon noted that the feasibility study is looking at two numbers for school size – a member-only version and a version that includes non-member students. Chris Loreti asked about marketing money – the answer is that they market to students, and not about the school rebuild project.  There was a question about enrollment numbers. Michael Ruderman asked about whether or not Dr. Bouquillon was going to leave the school district, and it was ruled out of order. Swilling moved to terminate debate.  Budget approved.

Break for 10 minutes.

31-33 came back from the table.

Article 31 – Budgets continued

Libraries. The budget does meet state requirements. John Deyst talked about the finance committee process.

Reserve Fund. Ted Peluso thinks the budget process within Town Meeting is broken.  I can’t say that I agree with him on this point.  As time goes by, the process has to keep changing, and there are improvements that can and should be made.  But broken is a strong word.   I think Churchill said it best: “Town Meeting is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”  Or, at least, that’s what he should have said.

Water and Sewer. We don’t borrow all the money we could because we don’t have the revenue to repay it.

Stephen Harrington’s amendment went down 42-127.  He asked for roll call, but he did not have enough support to force one.  I note that next year this won’t be an issue.  Electronic voting will get us roll call records for votes like this without any additional effort.  Of course, I voted against it.  The integrity of our multi-year planning process depends on us sticking to our commitments to spending limits.

Budgets were approved.

Article 32 – Special Education Reserve Fund

Transferring funds from last year to this year – no new appropriation. Approved unanimously

Article 33 – Capital Budget

Charlie Foskett gave the report of the committee. He outlined the people, process, and major projects that are in progress. Chris Loreti moved that the money proposed for the parking study be changed to pay for new trees instead. There were questions on the school fire alarm and the school clocks.  I spoke about parking and the trees, and I tried to explain how one of the problems is already managed and the other one isn’t.  We need to manage parking better. Question about ADA. Question about leases and software licenses being capital – they are. My notes are thin here as I was listening more than taking notes. Carl Wagner moved to terminate debate. It was terminated. Loreti’s amendment defeated by voice vote. Capital budget approved through the several procedural votes.

We adjourned.  I feel like we came up about a half-hour short of a 5-night meeting.  We’ll finish Wednesday, and hopefully early.

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7 Responses to Town Meeting ’13, Session 5

  1. Rich Carreiro says:

    As an FYI — your site has been loading vvvvvvverrrrrrrry ssssllllllllowlllllyyyyyy.

  2. Wes Beal says:

    Unfortunately debate was terminated before members could hear my amendment, the “Trees for Fees” plan.

    Plant a Tree, Save a Fee.

    I’m hoping the Avocado can write up a good explanation of this for folks at home, and we can finally put these issues to rest, perhaps as early as next year.

    On a serious note, it would be nice to consider these issues seriously, and not as surprise amendments from the floor.

    If the intent is to solve a problem, respect the problem enough to let us consider it appropriately.

    The Town of Arlington would not be well served by someone like myself doing budget arithmetic in my head on the floor.

  3. dunster says:

    @rich – I know, been driving me crazy. I think I finally resolved it with my hosting provider this morning.

    @Wes – I agree. It’s both polite and good practice to distribute proposed changes in advance. We had two surprise amendments last night on budgets that have been out for weeks. There is no reason those amendments couldn’t have been shared last week, or even over the weekend.

  4. Adam Auster says:

    When I’m at Town Meeting, I try to see if there is any particle of truth inside of those statements or proposals to which I do not agree.

    In the case of the budget comments, it is this. There’s just no good way to challenge the priorities represented in the budget.

    Granted Harrington picked a particularly bad way (turf war with School Committee? No advanced notice?), making his an easy target.

    But what if you think the schools, or the library, or the police should have more money? What if those reflect your priorities, or what you think are Arlington’s true values? What if you give everyone plenty of notice?

    The short answer I think is that you are out of luck, because you are constrained by the promises of the multi-year plan, or the O’Neil formula, or some other part of Arlington unwritten constitution. At best you will be told to wait until 2017 or so, when the same agreements will be reentered into.

    I happen to think these things are pretty good decisions or at least the best we could do, but there is something very un-Arlington about how they are made.

    Also, over time they should be reappraised and renegotiated by a process that is more open and public than the one we use (fraught with peril as that may be).

    Ted Peluso is no bomb chucker and though I agree that “broken” is infelicitous I suspect that this whole issue is what he meant by his remarks.

    Sir Winston aside, other town meetings handle these issues differently and are at least as democratic as us, so maybe our way could be improved after all.

  5. dunster says:

    Adam, I completely agree that improvements are possible.

    I think your point about “what if you think X should get more money?” is a very good way to tackle it. Let’s say that hypothetically you think that we’re not investing enough in our playing fields, or maybe you think we should be doing more support in youth counseling. If you show up at town meeting on budget night and make an amendment, you’re probably going to lose. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. It’s bad because you might be right, but it’s good because you’re probably underprepared – certainly the rest of the meeting hasn’t had the luxury of consideration and conversation.

    But lets say you’re more prepared. For town fields, you show up at recreation meetings and capital planning meetings and you make your case. For youth services you meet with Christine Connolly and Adam Chapdelaine and you show up at FinComm meetings and ask to make your case. If your case has merit, you’re probably going to get what you want, or some compromise version thereof, right there. Is that too much work? I don’t think so – I think that’s an inevitable and reasonable cost for our form of government.

    But let’s say they don’t see your wisdom, and you decide to keep pushing it through. You wait for the FinComm report to come out and then you email out your alternate budget proposal with amendments to line items. If your budget doesn’t balance you’re going to have a hard time swaying town meeting. But if you present a sound case, you’re very well might win. The question will be, what is it that Town Meeting sees in your argument that FinComm didn’t?

    I’ll give you one quasi-example of this in practice in Arlington. In 2005, Capital Planning proposed a budget. FinComm voted to amend their budget and remove Park Circle fire station from the budget. Town Meeting had the choice of approving the FinComm budget or the substitute motion proposed by the Capital Planning committee. That’s not exactly what you’re looking for, but it’s pretty close. Two competing budgets were on the table, and town meeting got to choose.

    I think the part of this that is the least town meeting friendly is, as you say, the multi-year plan. The commitments in the 5- and 3-year plans were voted by the Selectmen and School Committee, and obviously only the Selectmen can actually put the override on the ballot. I’m not sure how I’d unravel that one. Proposition 2.5 has some really good points and some really bad ones, and it’s hard to make modifications.

    I’m open to suggestions on all aspects of this. Now is a great time to consider it. There is no immediate budgetary gun being held to our temple, so we have the luxury of time to debate and consider.

  6. Ted Peluso says:

    Thank you, Adam Auster. I am a Dan Dunn supporter as a Selectman, plus he does a great job of reporting. Public written comments, back and forth, may not be the most effective way of getting things done, in my opinion. But in view of the above comments, I’ll join in the festivities. I’d be very happy to meet with Dan and Adam, or others to talk about possible ideas, if they like. As usual, I have suggestions.

    In the meantime, a few points: (1) I had to look up that great word “infelicitous”, please keep it simple for us old guys. And I cannot chuck anything very far these days; (2) in a pure Democracy (or even a Republic, I’d guess), I’m likely entitled to use any word I choose, absent libel and slander, and I like “broken”, which I believe could mean anything from damaged and fragmented to shattered and crushed. I opt for fragmented in my use of the word broken; (3) quotes can be deceiving. Didn’t Churchill live his life under a Constitutional or Parliamentary Monarchy? And isn’t the USA a Republic? At least that’s what the Nuns and Brothers taught me. And would the Town Government routine likely qualify as a democracy in its purest sense, since we have elected representatives?

  7. Adam Auster says:

    Dan, your scenario is instructive but I think it really applies to a budget amendment similar to that proposed by Chris Lorretti, which would have had a neutral impact on net spending.

    The scenario for a budget amendment like that proposed by Stephen Harrington is a little different, since he would have altered the terms of the multi-year plan by about $300k per year, not trivial over the life of the plan.

    Suppose someone did want to alter those terms, or the informal agreement that divvies up revenues between school and town?

    I agree this should be difficult, certainly not a last-minute move, but it seems to me that there is never any moment where anyone but the most adroit insider could credibly propose such a thing. There is a difference between difficult and impossible.

    We’ve been working under these multi-year plans for nearly a decade and you can perhaps tell me how long the O’Neil formula has been around (the 80s?) They have been beneficial to the town, the discipline of the multi-year plans enormously so.

    But would it be so dangerous to the public good to make these more explicit, more generally known, and perhaps subject to public comment at a hearing or workshop? If so, then Arlington is not as well-equipped to be self-governing as it ought.

    And thanks, Dan, for keeping these reports going in the face of all your other obligations.