Advise And Consent: Town Meeting Opens Budget Season With Roll Call Q&A

Photo: Mike Widmer, Belmont’s Town Moderator.

While the second half of Belmont’s annual Town Meeting is dedicated to all things budgets and numbers, the reconvened gathering of the town’s legislative body tonight, Wednesday, May 29, will have the opportunity to give its “advise and consent” on the contentious matter of roll call votes.

The evening’s appetizer is six questions presented by Town Moderator Mike Widmer to the approximately 290 Town Meeting members to obtain an “informal sense” of the body regarding the parameters and procedures for recorded votes.

During the first session of Town Meeting in April, roll calls were requested on a series of votes including several which the articles passed by sizable margins. While many seeking recorded votes said their goal was greater transparency by elected members, others viewed it as “vote shaming” (there’s an app for that) to point out those who made unpopular votes.

The answers to the questions will be “strictly advisory and non-binding” and used to inform Widmer, the Select Board and “others” whether to consider any potential articles on the topic at a future Town Meeting.

The questions include yes or no answers to when an automatic roll call should be used instead of anonymous vote (all the time vs only on close margins) and what is the threshold percentage or number of members needed to have a roll call and whether to use percentages or a member count.

“Town Meeting seems quite divided on the issue of roll calls, some arguing for roll calls on every article while others wanting to raise the 35-person requirement,” said Widmer.

“I have no way of knowing how many support which position and of course there are lots of alternatives beyond these two positions. I think it will be helpful to get a sense of [Town Meeting] in order to develop a proposal with the Select Board to be presented at the fall Town Meeting,” said Widmer.

While the objective of the pre-meeting Q&A is to find the sense of Town Meeting, the decisions could dampen or accelerate citizens petitions seeking to force the issue.

An article at fall Town Meeting on the future of the hows and whys of roll call voting will likely be driven by the Select Board. And so far the three-member board is keeping an open mind on the issue.

“We haven’t made any decision to take any action at this point,” said Tom Caputo, chair of the Select Board at Tuesday’s groundbreaking for the Belmont Middle and High School. “But we’re pleased that [Widmer] is putting those questions in front of town meeting and looking to get their feedback and we’ll take action from there.”

“I think the [Select Board] wants to make sure that we are helping to support town meeting and ensuring that we are both achieving accountability, but also minimizing some of the more acrimonious activities than we’ve seen in in the last couple of Town Meetings,” he said.

Finally! Four Votes To Decide Moderator To Have Single Year Terms

Photo: The view from the moderator’s stand.

If the second time is “lucky” and a third “the charm,” what’s the idiom for a fourth vote on the same article at Town Meeting?

Whatever word you want to use, the marathon debate around a seeming inconsequential request to increase the term of the Town Moderator from one to three years ended a few minutes before 11 p.m. when Town Meeting defeated the article for the third time in four tries by a healthy margin on Monday, May 6.

The debate Monday from a town government’s perspective is whether lengthening the term “would create a more effective way for town government [to be run],” said Mark Paolillo, who stepped into the moderator’s chair when Widmer recused himself from the position.

Speaking before the body, Widmer repeated his comments from last week his reasons for bringing forth the article; principally a yes vote would bring the moderator’s position in sync with the three-year terms of other town offices (such as treasurer and town clerk) and town meeting. Today, about half of the communities in Massachusetts have moderators serving three years.

Widmer also commented on the moderator position in town government as a number of members after the first votes on the article felt they knew little of the power it wields.

The most significant role the moderator plays is selecting members of 4 – the warrant, capital budget, permanent building advisory, and bylaw review – of the 30 permanent town committees as well as the numerous building committees in town, said Widmer, who noted this function secures a separation of powers between the Town Meeting and town government.

“All of these are legislative committees and I appoint these … on your behalf,” said Widmer, noting this prevents the town’s administration from having undue influence over the committees.

When appointing the committee members, Widmer said he goes through a comprehensive “checks and balances” process – including asking for volunteers, takings recommendations, speaking to the boards and conducting interviews – “that serves Town Meeting and the town.”

“My hope is simply that ultimately [the discussion] results in an informed discussion and debate,” said Widmer.

The theme whether the moderator has too much power as to trust that it would not be abused by a future office holder.

Elizabeth Dionne, Pct. 2, a member of the Warrant Committee who was selected to the board by Widmer, pointed out “the Board of Selectmen actually does have real power. If we are comfortable with three-year terms for the Board … we should be comfortable with a three-year term for the moderator who has far less power.”

Claus Becker, Pct. 5, said there is an assumption by supporters of the three-year term that the moderator will be a rational person when many examples of leaders on the “national scene” provide examples of those who are willing to “set things on fire and let them burn.” The 50 signature floor to get on the ballot is not a stumbling block for nearly anyone who is willing to take on the position.

Anne Marie Mahoney, Pct. 1, who has been a member of several committees over the years, said a moderator’s appointment to the Capital Budget Committee which she chair’s “will never control [it]” since he has only three selections to the seven-member board. But those three moderator appointees “are the check and balances” to the other members who come from the administrative side of town government.”

“A one-year moderator potentially could appoint many ill-suited folks to these committees and be gone in a year with very little accountability. A three-year moderator has to take the responsibility and the heat for at least three years in his or her appointment,” said Mahoney, who said a vote for a three year term was “for accountability and not power.”

Alex van Geel, Pct. 7, said committees and boards with multiple members have the ability to check the actions of “that worse person” in the group, which is unavailable when discussing an individual with legislative powers on a single person body.

When the (third) vote on the article is taken, it went down to defeated, 141-82. A roll call request was requested and the fourth, and final, vote came home at 139-79 against. 

2019 Belmont Annual Town Meeting, Segment A, Day 3

Photo: It’s town meeting

Welcome to possibly (hopefully) the final night of Segment A of the 2019 Belmont Town Meeting being held in the Belmont High School auditorium, Monday night, May 6.

Two big articles await the 290 plus members of Belmont’s legislative body, the first is voting on an extra $3.76 million for the renovation of the Belmont Police headquarters and additions to the Department of Public Works main building.

The second article will be the fourth time Town Meeting will either be debating or voting on changing the tenure of the Town Moderator from one to three years. The first vote was a razor-thin rejection of the article but in a tactical mistake worthy of the French at Agincourt, the “Nos” requested a roll call vote that resulted in accepting the three-year change.

The third time the article came before the meeting was this past Wednesday on a call for reconsideration that seeming laid on the assumption that members weren’t fully informed on the role of the moderator before voting one way or another. The debate along with a more than 90-minute presentation on a non-binding article on the town’s response to climate change resulted in the meeting adjourning past 11 p.m.

Why four bits at the apple on a seemingly non-controversial measure that Mike Widmer, the well-liked and respected moderator for the past 12 years who has come out saying he’d be in favor of whatever the meeting wants? The answer will likely come during the debate.

The under/over that the meeting ends by 11 p.m? 2 to 1 the over.

The meeting is about to start. Here’s the agenda:

7 PM: Reconvene the Special Town Meeting,

Article 1: The DPW/ Police Appropriation.

After the conclusion of the Special Town Meeting, the Annual Town Meeting resumes with the following articles in this order

  • Article 1,
  • Article 11, Community Preservation Community allocations.
  • Reconsideration of Article 10,
  • Article 9

Celtics up 5-3 in the first quarter.

7:06 p.m.: The roll call is being called to check the electronic voting. The question reveals only 2/3 of the meeting is following the Bruins this playoff season.

In a powerful speech from the moderator’s stand, Widmer said he is deeply concerned about “what’s happening with the roll call.” He said people are telling him that “people are feeling intimidated” and none of us should “be shamed” for the votes they take as the roll call is being “weaponize.”

“The fact that our democracy was built on dissent. And if we’re can’t embrace this in this town meeting, then we are in deep trouble,” said Widmer.

“Democracy is not a given,” he said. “

Anne Marie Mahoney is presenting the special town meeting for an added $3.76 million for the $7.9 million renovation of the police headquarters.

Just like the Kentucky Derby, a building project can have unexpected outcomes and the renovation of Police HQ is just like that. And the added funding is due to an added scope of work.

Ted Galante, the project architect, said the best way to do the most efficient building process and provide the most safety for the officers. He speeds through the designs.

Mahoney goes over the relocation of the police at the Water Dept. and the DPW, the trailers and talked about how the police will be traveling to and front the site. It will take 15 months.

Mahoney runs through the financing, a total of $12.5 million and explains that the $1.9 million in contingency which is more than the standard 10 percent. “This is an old building,” said Mahoney and there will be issues that pop up doing this work. If the meeting does not approve the article, it means the entire project must start over with either keep doing costly repairs or build a new headquarters for up to $60 million. Mahoney does her usual masterful job “selling” a project (or passing a budget) that there is cheering at the end of the presentation.

Questions include the energy efficiency of the future building and if the DPW is just as

Jamie Murphy, pct 5, asked why didn’t the building committee know that the scope of work could change resulting in an additional “ask” of $3.76 million, deeming it as a “bait and switch.” Mahoney said that was a “fair” complaint but the added funding comes with more information.

More questions on energy issues with the building, such as electrifying the building rather than using natural gas for heating.

The vote is underway and it passes 223-16.

The special town meeting is ended and the town meeting returns with the Community Preservation Committee requests. There are eight requests and seven projects for funding.

Bob McLaughlin, Pct 2, questions the work of the committee, whether it takes a vote on each of the project or if it simply “check the boxes” on its acceptability under the rules. Another question, who oversees each of the projects to get the best value for the bucks paid.

Now the projects:

  • the historic preservation of the facade of the Belmont Police Station for $787,575.10. Passes on a voice vote, some “nos” out there. 
  • repair of the slate roof at Town Hall, Homer Building and the School District Building for $100,000. Voice vote – overwhelming yes, two or three nos.
  • The request for the clock tower at the First Church is being removed due to some question of separation of church and state and could lead to litigation. Will likely come back next year after more work.

So there is a five-minute break. About time!

  • $1 million for the design of the community path from the Clark Street Bridge to Brighton Street. Selectman Adam Dash going over the history of the community path and its a long one. This is the second request for design work on the complete path, the first was $400,000 for an underpass at Alexander Avenue. The design phase is for the north side of the commuter rail track. “But until we start digging” the path could go back to the south side. But at least the design work is moving forward. A little extra – Belmont is requesting $300,000 from the state’s MassTrails Grant Program; while not a sure thing, it would be great to get to reimburse the town for the design work. A voice vote, all but one vote positive.
  • $60,000 to prepare for construction and bid documents of the Town Field Playground restoration. The cost of construction of the playground and courts will come back next year looking for $640,000. Voice vote, unanimously approved.
  • Payson Park Music Festival Bandstand for $90,000, to protect musicians during the festival concerts. Linda Oates, Pct 6, ask that the request be postponed because it’s not a “gazebo” which she said she supported in the past and that neighbors were not sufficiently informed. “My neighborhood is important to me,” she said. The postponement would last until there is a meeting the neighborhood and abutters. Anthony Ferrante, chair of the Rec Commission, said he was surprised that neighbors were not contacted and if that was the case, he would support a postponement. The vote for postponement passes 208-23.
  • $20,000 for preservation and restoration of vegetation around the bank of Clay Pit Pond. “This has been a disaster from what I see,” said John Robotham, pct 2, “Does anyone know what’s going on?” The path being built around the “pit” is different than the vegetation project. “Why isn’t this project part of the regular town budget?” is asked. Many questions on the effectiveness of such a project, the timing as the new high school is being built and pesticide use. Still passes 157-72.
  • Finally, $25,400 for preserving the meadow at Rock Meadow from invasive vegetation. It is adopted unanimously.

Now for the fourth time: Article 10, the term of office from one to three years for the Town Moderator. Mark Paolillo is taking over as moderator. This debate is if going from one to three years would be a more efficient way of governing.

Mike Widmer speaks why he presented this article. He points out what the duties of the moderator, he appoints four of 30 committees. He talks about the four committees (Warrant, Capital Budget, etc); these are legislative bodies as he acts on the Town Meeting’s behalf. This is done for the separation of powers. When he makes these appointments, he asks several people, Town Meeting members and groups while performing interviews before selecting that person. It is the process that moderators have been performing for years.

The debate comes down to this: those in support of the three-year term is that the moderator doesn’t actually have that much actual power and can be held accountable for their actions. Those who want to keep it at one year is that moderators have too much power and can be unaccountable for their personal whims. It’s interesting that a few members bring up the current political climate (not naming the administration in Washington DC, of course) to defend the one year term.

So the third vote on article 10; yes for three years; a no, one year.

The article is defeated, 141-82. And guess what? A roll call request! Who would have thought! And it passes with 39 votes. There will be no scrolling this time.

So the fourth vote is in and its 139-79 against.

That’s it. I lost my bet by two minutes! At least the Bruins won.

Roll Call, Wrong Call: 2019 Town Meeting Starts With A Topsy-Turvey Result

Photo: Belmont Town Moderator Mike Widmer

Those who are successful at the card table will agree a basic rule to stay in the game is not to “overplay your hand,” which the Cambridge Dictionary describes as “spoiling your chances of success by saying or doing too much.”

Oh, if only those Belmont Town Meeting Members who battled to keep the term of Town Moderator to one year had heeded that warning. After beating back an article to lengthen the moderator’s term to three years by a razor thin margin, they said “too much” by asking for a roll call vote.

And within mere minutes, those members snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as the legislative body went topsy turvey and


For a meeting seemingly devoid of “blockbuster” articles or amendments, the start of the 2019 Belmont Annual Town Meeting on Monday, April 29 sure had its share of memorial moments.

One hundred and sixty years of tradition was set aside, increasing affordable units in larger private developments, and were actions by the 290 member legislative body on Town Meeting’s first night.

But it was a seemingly inconsequential amendment changing the term of the Town Moderators tenure from one to three years proved to be the night’s highlight, demonstrating, as the great American philosopher Mike Tyson noted, “everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.” And in this instance, the injury was self inflicted.

Supporting the article, Town Moderator Mike Widmer told the meeting he was not advancing the article for any personal reason; many municipalities have moved to a multi-year term for moderators as it provides continuity to a position that has taken on more roles and responsibilities in the past century. The change would take place in 2021. Widmer admitted he would happily accept any decision made by the legislative body he has presided over for the past dozen years.

The “no” group concerns were based on that expanding powers of the position which includes appointing the members of several important town bodies including the Warrant, Capital Budget and all building committees. They contend that this is too much responsibility for one person to have over that “long” period of time who could “stack the deck” for one side or another.

“There is on the national scene some great examples of people who are not component get appointed to roles that we really should think about,” said Claus Becker, Pct. 5.

And in one of closest votes in modern Town Meeting history – Town Clerk Ellen Cushman couldn’t say for certain if there were any tighter in the past century – Town Meeting rejected the article by two votes, 124 to 122.

But rather than taking its winnings and running for the door, the group that prevailed in besting the article suddenly requested a roll call vote, a second tally of members which their individual votes are recorded and made public on the main screen.

While a fairly rare occurrence in past Town Meetings, the action was not unexpected on Monday as a group of members declared on social media and at the auditorium they would request roll calls on three articles including the Moderator’s term.

Those promoting the planned roll calls said it was an attempt to bring a great level of transparency at Town Meeting, said Julie Crockett, Pct 6.

“Calling for a roll call is all about accountability,” said Crockett after the meeting. “It’s not an attempt to make anyone feel uncomfortable. For far too long Town Meeting has hid behind [aggregate] voting.”

Others town meeting members were not so kind to this tactic, calling it “vote shaming” as it identified the decisions of members who may take unpopular decisions. Earlier roll calls Monday on affordable housing and changing the name of the Board of Selectmen – both which passed by large numbers – saw the number opposing those articles fall from the first to the second vote as apparently some members didn’t want to be recorded on the “wrong side” of an issue.

“It’s intimidation,” said one member who while voting in the majority in earlier votes, was not happy with “taking down names. It’s not right.”

In an outcome that surprised many in the room, the subsequent vote resulted in the “yes” supporters victorious by two votes, 126 to 124. By zealotly sticking to its preconceived blueprint, the proponents for keeping the one year stint were left to rush to the Town Clerk’s office Tuesday morning to seek a reconsideration of their overplayed hand and a third bite of the apple. The reconsideration has been accepted, according to an email from the Town Clerk’s Office.

Name That Change

In other articles, a more than a century and a half tradition came to an end when the members overwhelmingly struck a blow for gender neutrality officially changing the name of the board of selectmen to the select board. The new name will become official in about three months, according to Town Counsel George Hall. The article initially passed, 238-11, with a roll call vote, the article was approved 243 to 4 with 4 abstaining.

“I only wish he had done this some time ago,” said Selectman Adam Dash.

The yearly gathering also approved by a more than two-thirds needed majority increasing the potential number of affordable housing units in large residential and for the first time in mixed-use projects by changing the existing bylaw. In the first vote, the measure passed 224-25.

“The impacts of these amendments will make Belmont more consistent with our peer communities, increase the production of affordable homes in development projects with 20 or more units, treat single and mixed-use developments the same … and make sure we are suited for the current environment. When development happens, we want to be ready by having a strong, inclusive policy in place,” said Rachel Heller, chair of the Belmont Housing Trust.

The members easily passed a zoning change to provide the same height and massing limitations on expansions and renovations of homes in the relatively small neighborhood along the east side of Pleasant Street adjacent the Route 2 off ramp as other neighborhoods in town. It passes 236 to 15.

Annual Town Meeting Gets Underway Monday, April 29

Photo: Town Meeting in action.

While there doesn’t appear to be any “blockbuster” articles before them, the Belmont annual Town Meeting which convenes at 7 p.m., on Monday, April 29 at Belmont High School, there will be a few items that will spark interest of the 290 member body.

One of those items is likely to be Article 1 of the Special Town Meeting on May 1 when the building committee for the renovation of the Police Headquarters and the DPW returns to request up to $3.5 million over the $7.4 million last year’s meeting approved to do the job. The extra money is needed to relocate the police personnel offsite, for more extensive renovations and the higher cost of construction. It’s not unusual for Town Meeting to scrutinize any second go-around for funds after approving a project the year before they assumed was complete.

Another is the proposed change to the inclusionary housing zoning bylaw – which sets the number of affordable units in residential housing projects – bringing Belmont’s By-Law into alignment with peer communities and clarifies and simplify subsections of the By-Law by reducing the threshold for when affordable housing is required, from 40 dwelling units to 20 (in which 12 percent of the development will be affordable); deleting a provision that regulates mixed-use developments differently and simplifying the cash option to building affordable units. These measures could come under fire as dampening future large residential development in Belmont.

The Town Meeting will hearing the motions in the following order: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 8, 9 and 11.

  • The first two articles are housekeeping items.
  • Article 3: Amending the “Inclusionary Housing” Zoning By-Law (needs a two-thirds vote)
  • Article 4: Another Zoning By-Law change which involves a small section of Pleasant Street within two blocks of the Route 2 off ramp that will “ensure that tear down/rebuilds and additions reflect the current character of the neighborhood in terms of density, mass, bulk, height, etc.”
  • Article 5: Article on kennels and dogs.
  • Article 6: The one which will do away with 160 years of tradition by making gender neutral the name of the Board of Selectmen to the “Select Board.”
  • Article 7 will be withdrawn as it was a citizen’s petition that is now taken up by Article 6.
  • Article 10 is to support a home rule amendment to change the term of the Town Moderator from 1 to 3 years.
  • Article 8 and 9 are non-binding articles; 8 is the Belmont Climate Action Resolution while 9 is to support efforts on the state level to allow the right to repair on electronic equipment.
  • Article 11 is to approve projects to be funded by the Community Preservation Committee.

If the meeting does not conclude the Segment A warrant articles on Monday, April 29, it will continue th meeting to Wednesday, May 1 at 7 p.m.   

On Wednesday, May 1 at 7 p.m., the meeting will reconvene starting with a report by Anne Marie Mahoney, chair of the DPW/Police Project Building Committee. At 7: 30 p.m. the meeting will recess from the Annual Town Meeting warrant and take up the articles in the Special Town Meeting, in the order: 2, 3, 4 and 1. 

  • Article 2 of “The Special” will approve transferring $3,663 excess premiums from the sale of general obligation bonds to the Kendall Fund.
  • Article 3 will approve the spending of a State Transportation Infrastructure Fund which will go to the improvement of the intersection of Lexington and Sycamore.
  • Article 4 is the paying of old bills.

It’s anticipated Article 1 of the Special will be taken up on Monday, May 6.

If all of the business of Segment A of the Annual Town Meeting and the Special Town Meeting does not conclude on May 6, the Meeting will resume on May 8.

Segment B Articles – all budget-related items – of the Annual Town Meeting will be taken up beginning Wednesday, May 29.  

Correction: In an earlier version of the article, there was a reference to an amendment to the planning board’s change to the “inclusionary housing zoning bylaw” as watering down the number of affordable units. That was an incorrect reading of the amendment and has been corrected.