Will A ‘Poison Pill’ Amendment Doom Opt-Out Supporters’ Hopes For Town-Wide Election?

Photo: Marijuana on the agenda at Belmont Town Meeting.

One usually hears the term “poison pill” when a business is under attack from some Gordon Gekko-type and uses tactics like let shareholders purchase stock at a discount to keep the corporate raiders at bay.

Lately, the poison pill has creeped into politics – enter Ted Cruz – where amendments are made to bills that would make the proposed legislation mute or unattractive to even its supporters. Here’s an example curtesy of the junior senator from Texas.

And it now appears the tactic is being introduced to Belmont Town Meeting as supporters of the proposed Opt-Out Article to be debated tonight during a Special Town Meeting within the annual Town Meeting – which resumes at 7 p.m., Wednesday, May 2 – view amendments to their citizens’ petition as toxic to its chances of passing.

“Oh, yes. It’s a poison pill,” said Julie Crockett, one of the campaigners said of the amendments being presented by Precinct 1’s Emma Thurston.

“The amendments prevent either of these votes from occurring and allow a retail establishment without an in-depth study and public input on the issue,” she said later in an email.

The title of the citizens’ petition clearly explains its mission; allowing the town to opt-out of the retail sale of marijuana to adults that is allowed under the state law passed by voters in 2016. Supporters contend while Belmont voters approved Ballot Question Number 453 to 47 percent, the law also provides municipalities the opportunity to vote on whether they want a pot shop(s) in their communities. It’s that election opt-out supporters are seeking.

“All were asking is that it go to a vote of Town Meeting (and the amendments fail) and so we know how Town Meeting feels, and then if it goes to a townwide vote, we find out the will of the people,” said Crockett in an email.

But already the campaigners for the opt-out article are behind the eight-ball as the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously against the citizens’ petition. Two members – Adam Dash and Mark Paolillo – have publically stated they would not call an election even if the article passes members muster. And now they face an immediate challenge from a supporter of marijuana sales in Belmont. Read Thurston’s view on her amendments and the reasoning behind them.

The amendments Thurston is presenting to Town Meeting – she started with seven but that has been pared down to three – allows members to both support the town opting out of all forms of marijuana sales and manufactoring while allowing it to be sold. The most significant amendment is number 1 allowing the town to “prohibit establishment of Marijuana establishments” as prescribed in the citizens’ petition, with one huge “but”: with “the exception for Marijuana Retailer, as defined” under state law, effectively gutting the amendment of its purpose. Amendment 2 is the same language as number 1 but with a sunset clause to terminate the amendment on April 30, 2021.

Crockett believe the amendment’s purpose is to force the issue of retail sales before members have the opportunity to vote on the citizens’ petition.

“Why do you need an exception to our [article]? If you are opposed to it, just vote no on the article. It’s only to confuse members,” she said Monday.

If the amendment passes, opt-out supporters are left with few options. While the option of tabling the article to a latter date is possible, it is unlikely as campaigner will need a two/thirds vote to move the vote to the future which Crockett deems a stretch.

Nor is it only Crockett’s opinion Thurston is attempting to kill the petition before it reaches a full Town Meeting vote.

“It sure sounds like one,” said Town Moderator Michael Widmer of the poison pill comparison, who said he wouldn’t be surprised if the opt-out supporters would themselves urge a “no” vote on the citizens’ petition to wipe the slate clean.

Thurston’s maneuvering has also changed how Widmer is going to “referee” the night’s debate. Earlier Monday, he expressed a desire to limit the scope of the discussion to the technical question of whether members desired to have a town-wide vote to decide the issue. But after reading the amendments, “what is really before Town Meeting is what contents members wants to send to the voters,” he said.

Due to the still evolving nature of the public’s understanding of the article, amendments and the state law and how they all will impact the town, Widmer said he and Town Counsel George Hall will present “a long preamble” before the presentations on the article and amendments to provide both an overview of the state law and the significance on how the members vote.

At a Monday meeting before the opening night that included bursts of amused laughter, the Board of Selectmen were advised by Hall that many of the board’s and town’s assumptions made about the state marijuana law “is just fiction” including limiting the number of storefronts selling pot which is currently more than one. Thurston’s third amendment, number 7, address that question by restricting the number to a single store.

With so many pot in Belmont questions still being juggled, Widmer said he is likely to quickly turn to Hall “more than once” to help to talk us through this all.”

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  1. jim williams says

    Disenfranchisement is disenfranchisement by any name. Local elected officials should serve the people first. This is particularly true in a representative democracy such as Belmont’s government. People depend on their elected officials to make “for the common good” decisions. People’s faith in local government is dependent on how well that’s done. So, please imagine for a moment how you would feel about what happened Wednesday night if you were: one of the Article 1 petitioners; one of the 6,868 11/16 No voters; one of the 11/16 Yes voters who relied on the State’s voters’ guide; an 11/16 No voter of Precincts 8, 2, 1, and 3 which defeated 11/16 Question 4: or even a 11/16 No voter in the other four 11/16 majority Precincts? Mike Widmer did an excellent job of trying to keep the discussion within the scope of the original Article1/motion and the permitted amendments. However, the confusing manipulation of the “amendments” and especially that of Amendment 7 cynically transformed the original motion into a pro/con marijuana motion and derailed the discussion on the opt-out question. To argue that the question was voted in 2016 is obvious sophistry because it wasn’t. The reason the petition existed in the first place is that the BOS voted 2-1 not to have an opt-out election because Mark and Adam “assumed” the question had been voted in 2016 which it wasn’t. If the original motion had been voted first and failed, then Town Meeting could have moved on to a thoughtful pro/con marijuana discussion. What happened instead was the two decisions were conflated and a procedural trick was employed to avoid answering the opt-out question which Belmont voters on both sides of the issue had every right to expect from their government.

    So what was the policy created last night for the special election ballot? First, Amendment 1 “permanently” banned everything related except for retail establishments without any discussion on the merits of that idea. Secondly, there is a proposed limit of two retail establishments which could have been imposed otherwise if the opt-out vote failed. However, most importantly, if these questions are defeated in the special election to be called by the BOS, Belmont will be stuck with the current marijuana status quo. This outcome would be arguably worse than opt-out for some marijuana pros like Mark Paollilo who supports retail marijuana, but want some limits beyond what the Board of Health or the Planning Board can impose. This Kafkaesque outcome is reminiscent of the Belmont Center kerfuffle, the Uplands decision, the Cushing Square story, and the pension and OPEB snafus.

    Here are my lessons learned if this is how Belmont’s Representative Town Meeting Government works in practice: 1) Make sure your amendment is last submitted and therefore first voted. 2) Hijack the amended article by deleting and inserting language which disenfranchises the petitioners and, in this case, nearly 50% of the voting population. 3) If the facts don’t support your position, make up some new ones and repeat them often as necessary. 4) Hope that the STM discussion is allowed to focus on your last amendment and not the purpose of the original motion. 5) Make the decision at 11PM. As noted, I think one possible outcome of this engaged evening will be a defeat of the agreed questions at the ballot box in the special election. This outcome will result in a return to the so-called status quo with no restrictions or limits on the number of establishments. What a mess! I don’t think we’ll be holding hands around Clay Pit Pond on this one. So much for Community tranquillity. Maybe an opt-out write-in vote will prevail instead, no? We’ll see what happens.

  2. Rev. Bob says

    Why is there a special election over something that has ALREADY been voted on by the public?
    Members of the board who did not get the results they wanted in previous elections, keep trying to push for a different result.
    Its a handful of people undermining the will of the community in order to get their way. It subverts democracy and is an insult to voters.

    On top of that the incredible bias here is sad. It is basically an editorial as it is all opinion based on statements by Crockett but includes no other voices.
    Its supposedly about an amendment but does not interview the person, Thurston, who proposed it or its intent.
    And the ‘poison pill” commentary is ridiculous, implying someone that has had no experience in politics has a devious agenda, while as far as I can tell she is just a mother and local business owner sick of a handful of actual politicians pushing THEIR agenda of the will of the community.

    All special elections on already voted policies are special interests seeking to subvert the will of the people.

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