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Town Meeting ’15 – 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. 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. Sometimes I only summarize the discussion. At points I give a purely personal opinion; those are clearly labeled like this: Personal note.

Town Meeting Member Jane Howard played the Star-Spangled Banner on the piano and the meeting sang along.

The Moderator John Leone posted a test question using voting clickers: Will we finish tonight? 72-53-16. I was one of the 72. I was too optimistic! We got there, but it was a long slog.

Announcements

  • Kevin Koch – May 16 Ice Cream Scooper Bowl fundraiser for cancer research. noon-4 in front of Cyrus Dallin Museum in the center.
  • Roly Chaput – Hidden Treasure program – Old Schwamb Mill this weekend, noon-3pm both days.

Article 3 – Reports

Laurie McKinney gave the report of the Uncle Sam Committee. It was more of a diatribe than a report. Mercifully, it was limited to four minutes by rule.

Article 3 placed on the table.

Article 22 – Budgets, continued

Education, continued

Gordon Jamieson thinks that it is inappropriate that the long-term planning committee, which isn’t even created by our bylaws, is setting the rate of increase of the school budget. There is confusion about the role of the long term planning committee. The long term planning committee doesn’t set any budgets, and doesn’t set any policy. It’s a group of town officials that discusses ideas and concerns with the Town Manager. In the end, only the Town Manager proposes a budget – the committee can’t (and doesn’t) dictate what that budget should be. Finance Committee reviews that budget, adjusts the budget as it sees fit, and sends it to Town Meeting. Town Meeting adjusts the budget as it sees fit and the vote of Town Meeting is the final decision. I know there are many people who think that the the annual increase in the school budget should be maintained at 3.5%, or even increased, while the Town Manager thinks it should go to 3.25% next year and 3.0% in subsequent years. I’d suggest that the path for those people is to lobby the town manager, the finance committee, and other town meeting members. Those are the people who can actually change the budget. Of course, it makes sense to lobby the members of the long-term planning committee, too, because they give advice to the Town Manager. But it’s a mistake to think that the power of the budget lies with the long-term planning committee. The power of the budget lies where it always has – with the town manager, the finance committee, and ultimately, town meeting. There were questions about what purchases aren’t being made because of budget restrictions, including slowing the pace of curriculum improvements. John Leonard had a detailed question about using insurance money to cover a deficit. After a very confusing discussion, it was explained that the FY15 budget was supplemented with $25,000 voted by Special Town Meeting for repairs. This was seven minutes that Town Meeting will never get back. It was just a long, meandering, vaguely confrontational exploration of confusion. Jennifer Susse talked about two big financial stressors on the school budget. 1) state/federal stresses. The state keeps cutting money in little ways. Unfunded mandates keep being added – teacher training and evaluation, common core, and others. 2) student growth is second stressor. 450 student surge in the last 3 years. She explained that as enrollment increases, 25% of the per-pupil enrollment growth is covered by budget increases. She believes there is more analysis necessary to see if 25% is the right number. She said that cutting the rate of growth on the school budget is another stress on the budget. She is thankful and respectful of the financial team in the town who are looking to carefully control expenses. She made the argument that every time we have asked the voters in recent history, they have agreed to pay more and keep and/or expand services. She wants to make sure that is acted upon. Stephen Harrington thinks the school budget is going up too much. He proposed an amendment to reduce the budget by about $1 million. He estimated the school salary increases at 5%, and compared it to the municipal budgets (aka town budgets) which are increasing 2.5%. It’s an interesting comparison, but what he didn’t consider in his calculation is the increase in the number of students. The CFO further explained that some of the budget increase is “lanes and grades” as opposed. Len Kardon put up a slide that showed how our per-pupil expenditures are falling further behind the state average. He said that he looks forward to a robust debate next year on the school budget. Paul Schlichtman went into detail about the 3.7% increase in enrollment, the state funding process, and their impacts on the budget. Annie LaCourt quizzed the Superintendent about the school department’s 5-year plan. Linda Hanson thought the debate was doing well at looking at the big picture. She encouraged further, wider conversation about budgeting and compensation. McCabe terminated debate, vote was 175-37.

Libraries
Jennifer Susse talked about future renovations of Fox Library by private funds.

Health and Human Services
Zarina Memon had a series of detailed questions on the budget for this department.

Retirement
Gordon Jamieson reviewed the history of the performance of the retirement system’s investment. He said we should keep track of it carefully.

We had a break.

Stephen Harrington said that we shouldn’t make investments based on fear. Both previous speakers were waxing philosophical, but I don’t think their comments actually were on the budget. It was here that I gave up hope that we were going to get Town Meeting done tonight.  We must be funded for our pension by 2040. Our goal to be budgeted by 2032. Our OPEB liability is much larger.

Reserve Fund
There was no special ed reserve fund article placed on the warrant. FinComm and School department made an agreement for the schools to have $200,000 come back to the general fund at the end of the year, and $200,000 go into the reserve fund. It’s a wash for the town.

Water and Sewer
There was confusion about indirect costs and how they work.

Recreation – pass

Ed Burns Arena – pass

Harrington’s amendment lost 24-164-6.

Final budget approved 192-4-1.

Article 20 – Collective Bargaining was taken off the table.
At Tosti moved a substitute motion with updated numbers based on successful collective bargaining results. John Maher congratulated the town manager and unions on reaching an equitable conclusion so quickly. 194-3-1. Passed.

Article 23 – Revaluation
Director of Assessments Paul Tierney said that this is for the three-year cycle of revaluation.

Article 29 – Committees and Commissions.
Approved unanimously.

Article 30 – Town Celebrations.
Approved unanimously.

Article 31 – Miscellaneous
Approved unanimously.

Article 32 – Public Art East Arlington
Town Manager. This is to fund the planning, but not installation of the art. Sean Harrington noted that two years ago the Public Art Fund was created without appropriation and with no intent to fund. There were speakers in favor, describing the amount as modest. Paul Schlichtman moved to terminate debate, and it was by voice vote. 130-62-3 it was approved.

Article 33 – Human Rights Commission
Al Tosti explained that $4500 for staff work for this committee is sufficient. He explained the recommendation of FinComm to have the Board of Selectmen and Town Manager look at the need for his positions. Stephen Harrington thinks that the study should be done by a committee of 5 people. There was a question about elevated suspension rates for minority student groups. The moderator told the speakers to stay on the scope, the question of whether or not to create a committee of one type or another. There were speakers in favor and opposed of further review of the committee’s work. Deshler moved to terminate debate, done on voice vote. Harrington’s amendment failed 42-151-2. Tosti’s language amendment approved by voice vote. 161-24-7 main motion passed.

Article 34 – Water bodies
Unanimous

Article 35 – Harry Barber
Stuart Cleinman is concerned that the program doesn’t have enough publicity.

Article 36 – Scenic Byway
John Leonard thinks we should repair the signs for Paul Revere’s ride. Budget passed by voice vote.

Article 37 – Pension Fund Adjustment
Passed unanimously.

Article 38 – Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB)
Passed unanimously.

Article 39 – Survivor Benefits
No action.

Article 40 – Long Term Stabilization
Passed unanimously.

Article 41 – Overlay Reserve
Passed unanimously.

Article 42 – Transfer Cemetery Funds
Passed by voice vote.

Article 43 – Use of Unencumbered Funds (free cash)
Passed unanimously.

Article 44 – Fiscal Stability
Passed unanimously.

Article 45 – Town Meeting Member Removal Process
Selectman Diane Mahon spoke for the majority of the board, a 3-2 vote. The board wants to have the discussion on Town Meeting floor. Jim O’Conor asked for a sense of the meeting. There were speakers opposed to the idea of removal. Swilling terminates debate on voice vote. 107-79-5 the committee was created to study the issue.

11:02pm. Motion to adjourn failed on voice vote. Despite certain long-winded town meeting member’s attempts to send us to a sixth session, the body was intent on completing the business of the town tonight.

Article 46 – Master Plan
ARB Chairman Andrew Bunnell gave a detailed explanation of how the Master Plan was written, what it’s impact is, and what the vote of Town Meeting means. Brian Rehrig explained the importance of the Mugar parcel for wetlands and noted how the Master Plan renews and repeats the town’s public policy of preserving the site. He proposed a resolution to endorse that. Stephen Harrington proposed a further amendment that the resolution call for the use of CPA funds to preserve the space. League of Women Voters in favor of the Rehrig resolution. Michael Ruderman was opposed to the resolution. He thinks that the wetlands might be improved by development. He thinks the Master Plan will have too much negative budget impact. A second motion to adjourn failed. I was part of the vote to keep us going.  I think we had a decent conversation about the Master Plan and the Mugar property.  We could have had the same conversation on Wednesday.  I preferred to do it tonight, however, because I think it kept a lid on some of the repetitive comments.  People were more judicious in choosing whether or not to speak. It was noted that Mr. Harrington’s amendment would not be a binding vote. John Worden was in favor of both amendments. He wants zoning to protect us from McMansions. He said it was the latest we had run town meeting since before he was town moderator. Bill Kaplan noted that there are good and bad things in the Master Plan, and that no one will be in favor of all it. Karl Wagner moved to terminate debate. 128-43-7, Rehrig’s amendment was approved. 62-114-3, Harrington’s amendment failed. 136-41-3 the Master Plan was adopted.

Town Meeting was dissolved by vote.

I’m tempted to add a new feature to my notes next year. I should keep score on how many times each town meeting member stands to speak. If I’m really ambitious, I’ll time them. I love town meeting, and I love a good debate. But I believe there are some repeat offenders who quickly pass the point of diminishing returns and speak far too many words for too little contribution to the debate.

Comments

Comment from Nathan Swilling
Time: May 12, 2015, 10:46 am

I flip-flopped on the adjournment issue. I voted to adjourn the first time as I thought the Master Plan needed a more thorough discussion and shouldn’t be rushed, but once we got into it I voted to keep going as I feared coming back another night we might not even get a quorum.

Personally, I felt like the Master Plan doesn’t really address hard trade-offs. It says that we like parks, and good schools, and travel infrastructure that is safe and efficient, and keeping Arlington affordable. But, what if some of those good things are in conflict? What do we do then?

More specifically, the Master Plan talks about how we prefer mixed used development over conversion of commercial property to residential development. Sure, I think we all agree about that. But, do we want more development at all?

I think Arlington is a wonderful place to live that is getting increasingly expensive due to economic forces that are beyond our control. I also see it as a place where the basic infrastructure that makes it a wonderful place to live is just about tapped out. Our streets are choked with traffic. Our schools are busting at the seams. Our parks and open spaces can’t really handle more people (try finding a place for soccer practice on a weeknight in Spring). I completely understand that without more development, it creates the need for more tax overrides. But, maybe that’s just what we’ll need to do to preserve Arlington the way we want it to be. This is the sort of discussion that I think should have been a part of the Master Plan discussion, not just a laundry list of all the good (fairly obvious) things we like.

Comment from Len Kardon
Time: May 12, 2015, 11:06 am

Dan, both the town manager and the finance committee treat the long term plan as policy. The town manager discusses the long range plan in great detail in his budget message and the finance committee also makes sure budgets submitted are in compliance with the plan. The only way things have been changed is bringing them to the long range planning committee (enrollment growth factor for example). If you ask him, I think the town manager would be extremely reluctant to make changes to the budgeted amounts outside of the plan, although certainly that is something town meeting can do. As I stated, I hope next year we will be able to have that debate in a more participatory manner than the long range planning committee. Perhaps we can do a session in the fall as we did in 2011 leading up to the override.

Comment from Joann Keesey
Time: May 12, 2015, 11:07 am

Dan, thanks for these informative summaries. I hope to be present at town meeting sessions next year. Thanks for letting me know what I am in for..

Comment from Sean Harrington
Time: May 12, 2015, 11:49 am

I kept track on how many times I got up to speak; two pre-budget (it was simply presenting substitute motions or amendments). During the Budget I got up on four issues, however on one of them only used less than a minute (I timed myself) on the remaining three I believe only two of those went over 3 minutes. Following the Budget I got up twice. My amount of times I spoke were seven (not including facilities or any motions to terminate debate.) If I had to guess I spoke a total of 30 minutes in Town Meeting (give or take). However I tried to make sure every time I got up it was on an issue not yet discussed. We shouldn’t be accosting those whose speak, at lest they are willing to speak. We need to encourage TMMs to get up and ask questions and debate. This was the most interesting budget discussion I have watched in my four years in Town Meeting. Also Dan what you consider a useless speech another may consider useful, it’s all in the eye of the individual.

Comment from Adam Auster
Time: May 12, 2015, 12:59 pm

I think the Moderator is right to allow some latitude in the budget discussions, at least until and unless there is a better way to talk about some of these “big picture” issues.

Gordon Jaimieson’s pension presentation was an antidote to John Bilifer’s remarks on Night 2, which you (Dan) missed.

Bilifer told Town Meeting that the Town pension board’s own investment portfolio had a better track record than the state fund. Apparently it did–for 2008.

Jamieson showed how the state fund has outperformed Arlington over time, cherry-picked one-offs notwithstanding.

Comment from dunster
Time: May 12, 2015, 2:48 pm

Nathan – I agree that the Master Plan has conflicting goals. I personally have been comfortable endorsing it despite that. Part of the value of the document is that it gets those competing ideas out in the open and drove a discussion around them, and will continue to inform the discussions around future changes.

Len – Your points are well taken. I’ve gotten a few different conversations with people saying related things. I’m not sure what mechanism makes sense. I don’t know that Town Meeting is equipped to have a broad conversation about service levels and overrides either. It’s better at answering yes/no questions, or acting on recommendations. It is not good at finding a consensus or median answer on a complex issue. Remind me about the 2011 session you’re referring to?

Joann – you’re welcome.

Sean – If everyone in Town Meeting spoke for 30 minutes we would finish the week before Thanksgiving. (At 150 minutes of business per night it works out to about 50 business sessions, and we would skip sessions for Memorial, Independence, and Labor Day).

Adam – I think the majority of the budget discussion was pretty good, I wasn’t trying to poke at that. As for Gordon’s remarks, they do make sense in the context of rebutting Bilafer’s report, but they simply didn’t need to be 7 minutes long. His point could be made in a third of the time.

Comment from Sean
Time: May 12, 2015, 9:04 pm

30 minutes is a lot… for one night of town meeting. For two nights that 15 minutes a night (i.e. speaking on two warrant articles in a night). 30 minutes for 5 TM Sessions is 5% of the amount of time we spent at TM. I will though admit there are people who spoke more than me and did get up to speak and were completely out of scope. But the problem with direct democracy like town government is your leaving an open mic for anyone to talk.

On avg I would say there are about 10 to 20 of us that speak on more than three issues (correct me if you think otherwise). There are 6 people who regularly terminate debate (myself included in that list). Of those 6 I don’t remember ever hearing 2 of them doing anything but terminate debate. We have a mixture of talkers, terminators, and viewers in TM. But I would like to point out that over time the amount of nights we spend at TM has been going down. I’m not saying let’s bring back the 12 min speaking limit, what I’m saying is we shouldn’t be necessarily going after members for getting up a lot to speak, rather only when their comments are out of order or scope.

Comment from Wes Beal
Time: May 13, 2015, 9:01 am

I would like to point out that I have spoken once at Town Meeting over the past 3 years – and that was for something I really didn’t want to advocate, just felt too obligated to do so.

Nonetheless I feel I’ve been able to contribute my fair amount to the dialogue around issues in town.

Now granted, I’m a damned poor public speaker, and have a face that’s adequate enough for the internet, so long as I don’t include many photos.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t get up and contribute to the discussion on the floor of Town Meeting. I’m just saying there are lots of ways, besides that, to participate effectively.

The other problem/benefit of direct democracy is that people can choose to do exactly what Dan proposes. Personally, I think it’s a wonderful idea.

Insofar as it would be perceived as “critical” of people that do speak a lot, it would hopefully encourage at least some to speak meaningfully, succinctly, and on topics that contribute to the overall movement of an issue.

For myself, I’m of the opinion that the only reason for me to get up and speak is if I believe I will say something that hasn’t been said, one, and second that if it is said it will change the outcome of our votes.

There are very, very few times when that test is met. But that’s just me. There are definitely multiple legitimate sides to the issue.

Go for it Dan – it’ll be interesting and it’ll also generate some good discussions.

Comment from Peter Fuller
Time: May 13, 2015, 10:07 am

Dan wrote: “I’m tempted to add a new feature to my notes next year. I should keep score on how many times each town meeting member stands to speak. If I’m really ambitious, I’ll time them. I love town meeting, and I love a good debate. But I believe there are some repeat offenders who quickly pass the point of diminishing returns and speak far too many words for too little contribution to the debate.”

I too say go for it – it would be interesting to have some actual data on who speaks and for how long.

This year I got up I think six times, mostly to ask questions about things I didn’t understand or things I felt needed further illumination. I suppose I could have asked many of these things offline, privately, but then the answers wouldn’t have been available to the meeting as a whole. Hope that does not consign me to the class of repeat offenders!

When I was first in Town Meeting, the speaking time limit was 15 minutes. It was reduced first to ten minutes, then to seven. As Sean points out these limits have shortened the average number of Annual Town Meeting sessions, and perhaps have made it possible for more people to be heard before debate gets terminated. Those are good things.

Next time we meet the time limit used this year for non-actionable things – announcements, resolutions, committee reports – will be memorialized in the bylaws at four minutes. That will continue to help speed things up, but more can be done if the Moderator or the members themselves tighten up on announcements, many of which are for events well publicized elsewhere. The roughly 300 people who attend Town Meeting – members, Town officials, department heads, etc. – are likely already the best informed group in town, so most announcements constitute preaching to the choir!

Thanks Dan for again posting your informative Town Meeting summaries, they are much appreciated.

Comment from Adam Auster
Time: May 14, 2015, 12:33 pm

Brevity is, indeed, the soul of wit.

Thanks Dan.