Light Board Goes Independent After Vote At The First Night Of Town Meeting

Photo: The first night of Segment A saw a change in the governance of Belmont Light

The first night of Belmont’s annual Town Meeting held Monday, May 3, attended virtually had a few hiccups – final vote results were delayed, members forgot to unmute themselves and one rather loud commuter rail whistle was picked up by Town Clerk Ellen Cushman’s microphone – but, all in all, it was a successful start of the yearly gathering.

In the big vote of the night, Belmont will have another list of candidates to vote for at the next Town Election in 2022 after the meeting voted overwhelmingly to support a five-member independent board to manage Belmont Light, the town’s electrical utility.

The final tally was 223 for the article and 43 against with a few “emergency” votes.

Article 2 was rather straightforward with those supporting the article were seeking to transfer oversight of the department from the current Light Board which is made up of the members of the Select Board. The Select Board’s Roy Epstein who spoke in favor of the article said due to the lack of expertise the select board has in running a modern utility, the Light Board has been increasingly reliant on the advice of the Municipal Light Board and Light Board Advisory Committee made up of appointed volunteers many with real-world utility experience. It would be best to have a group of experts beholden to the electorate to run the utility, said Epstein.

“The Light Board does require considerable technical expertise in running a utility,” Epstein said. “This is not just something that lay people can do easily. This does require a genuine expertise” in areas such as renewable energy and sustainability, conservation policies, strategic electronification of homes and other industry topics “that were never issues in the past.”

Select Board Chair Adam Dash presented the “no” position, asking “why change what’s not broken” as Belmont Light was been winning praise for its green power initiative and quick response to local outages. “This is a bad time to be introducing structural inefficiencies into town government when we just had a failed override and we have a Structural Change Impact Group doing just the opposite.”

Dash also warned an independent board – like the school department or the library trustees – doesn’t need to coordinate with the town on anything under its purview including increases in electric rates, the future use of sale of both the incinerator site and the former headquarters of the Light Department adjacent to the newly-renovated Police Station and possibly reducing or outright rejection to make the annual $650,000 PILOT to the town.

“What do you want more from Belmont Light that you’re not getting now?” said Dash.

When debate was opened to members, it was clear early on the “yes” argument was trending upward.

Steve Klionsky, Precinct 6, who for five years was the chair of the Advisory Committee, said he saw the Select Board being “stretched so thin with all its other duties to the town that they just did not have the time or expertise need to make decisions on certain matters.” Since his committee had no really authority to institute reforms and changes without the Light Board’s consent, “it was very difficult for Belmont Light to work through complicated issues.”

Having worked in the utility sector of 40 years, running a municipal electric company is much more complicated than it ever has been, said Klionsky, “I believe it’s time we acknowledge that complexity and put in place a governance structure that provides the needed assistance and oversight to Belmont Light. An elected board would be a huge step forward.”

Paul Roberts, Precinct 8. said the current reliance by the Light Board of the Advisory Committee has a detrimental impact on the running of Belmont Light as the department has two competing bodies – the advisory committee which it works closely on creating policy and the board which has ultimate control – it must heed to. Roberts alleged the lack of the clear leadership forced out General Manager Chris Roy from Belmont Light in the midst of his modernizing the department’s infrastructure and strategies.

Bonnie Friedman, Precinct 2, countered the “yes” enthusiasm by favoring an appointed rather than an elected board based on reading 10% Less Democracy: How Less Voting Could Mean Better Governance (2020) by economist Garett Jones, in which Jones found that elected light boards are more concerned often with being elected arent as necessarily more professional. Cosmo Macero, Precinct 6, joined Friedman in opposing electing members as the board becomes a political office. He suggests creating an expanded appointing committee – made up of more than just the Select Board – to select the “men and women of different walks of life who can bring that expertise to this kind of body.”

David Webster, Precinct 4, said if the new board moves in the direction Dash was worried – not making PILOT payments or allowing the former Light headquarters to fall into disrepair – “I think the voters will be holding them accountable.”

Article 4 Changing the Composition of the Capital Budget Committee

The debate on changing the membership of the Capital Budget Committee didn’t come down to who was coming onto the board, but rather, who is doing the placement.

The measure passed 174 to 77 with 6 abstentions and three emergency votes.

The article is fairly simple: after a number of years it was determined that the representative of the Planning Board on the seven-member committee is “not really essential to what the committee does,” said Anne Marie Mahoney, chair of the committee. Instead, a new at large member would be selected by the Town Moderator to replace the Planning Board’s delegate.

While seemingly a non-controversial issue – Stephen Pinkerton, chair of the Planning Board, agreed with the change – the major area of concern would be the influence of the Town Moderator on the reconstructed board as he will be selecting a majority (4) of the body.

Micheal McNamara, Precinct 7, said by adding another at-large member “now the moderator is now essentially in power” over the committee. Joining McNamara was Paul Roberts who worried that the majority of members will likely be reappointed to the board without the chance of new members being selecting until the three years are over.

Kate Bowen, Precinct 4, said “This is not the right time to make a change the Capital Budget Committee.” She pointed to the recently formed Long Term Capital Planning Committee, and wants that group’s work completed before making any alterations to Capital Budget.

Article 6 Cushing Square Road Modification and Property Conveyance

The new owner of the gas station at the corner of Trapelo Road and Common Street wants to take nearly 1,000 square feet of a public way to allow an awning over the pumps at the gas station. The Zoning Board of Appeals is OK with it so all that needs to be done is covey the land to the owner at cost.

201 yes, 38 no and two emergency votes.

Some members expressed the concern that the town should hold on to its stake in the land for reasons. Round and round the comments went for a conveyance that both sides agreed to. Roy Epstein said this push back to the article could be a prime example why Belmont is perceived to be at least somewhat hostile to businesses.

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