LIVE: Belmont Annual Town Meeting: Second Night, Segment A

Photo: Waiting to start; Town Moderator Mike Widmer

Hello and welcome to the second night of the Segment A portion of the town’s annual Town Meeting, Wednesday, May 2 at Belmont High School. And this night is “Weed Wednesday” as the members of the legislative branch of town government will decide whether or not to send a Marijuana Retail Opt-Out question to town voters.

Tonight will also be voting on projects funded by the Community Preservation Committee 

According to Town Clerk Ellen Cushman, Town Meeting resumes at 7 p.m. (7;05 p.m. Belmont time) starting with Article 10. The Special Town Meeting which will is being opened to take on the Opt-Out will begin at 7: 30 p.m. Town Moderator Mike Widmer has indicated the presentations and discussions for the Special Town Meeting will be taken up after the Community Preservation Committee, Article 10, or at 9 p.m., whichever comes first.

It’s a busy night starting with a proclamation to David Alper, the recently retired member of the Board of Health. There will be reports from the Committee to Study the Number of Selectmen and the new trash plan before we get to the meat of the matter with the CPA article.

7:08 p.m. And we are off!

7:15 p.m.: The CPA will be first up at 7:30 p.m. after the Special Town Meeting is convened.

7:20 p.m.: What a wonderful proclamation to Dr. David Alper, who was on the Board of Health for 30 years which equates to up to 600 meetings. He thanked all the present and former Health Directors and members of the board he served with. He then thanked his wife and kids who snuck into the auditorium for a nice surprise. A deserved standing ovation. 

7:24 p.m.: Paul Rickter, chair of the Committee to Study the Number of Selectmen, presents the method and results of his group’s report. Widmer said in his long years on Town Meeting; it was one of the most complete and informative town reports he has seen. The committee voted two-to-one in favor increasing the number to five. Read the report online here.

7:34 p.m.: Jay Marcotte, director of the Department of Public Works, reports to Town Meeting on the new trash collection. All you need to know – it begins July 1, and you’ll get your new barrels the week before. The members voted overwhelmingly to receive news about trash and recycling via email with mail trailing far behind. They also say that their neighbors should be informed by the mail. Hmmm.

7:45 p.m.: The Special Town Meeting is convened and quickly recessed, and the annual Town Meeting reconvened.

The CPA article is now up and here are the six items seeking funding:

Article 10: The fiscal 2019 Community Preservation Committee budget and projects

  • $103,000 to the Belmont Veterans Memorial.
  • $5,000 for architectural drawings for the music bandstand at Payson Park.
  • $25,000 for design documents and bid specifications for the Town Field playground.
  • $780,087 for the construction of Grove Street Park Intergenerational Walking Path.
  • $250,000 to fund eligible commitments by the Belmont Housing Trust that would increase housing units where new housing is being built, provide incentives to developers to develop affordable housing units, or fund pre-development work to determine if sites are suitable for community housing development.
  • $175,000 to stabilize the McLean Barn.

Former selectmen Angelo Firenze presents the Belmont Veterans Memorial project. He presents the overall plan and discusses what the CPA funds will repair including the wall and other aspects. The Selectmen, Captial Budget, and Warrant committees ask Town Meeting for favorable action. Overwhelmingly adopted.

Tomi Olson, Pct. 5 and Payson Park Music Festival chair presents her request that will eventually create designs to build the bandstand. The Selectmen, Captial Budget, and Warrant committees ask Town Meeting for favorable action. Steve Evans, Pct. 6 ask why there is a need for a bandstand. Olson said its primary purpose would protect instruments from bad weather. Karen Bauerle, pct 6, asked if all abutters have agreed to the stand. Olson said all but one had expressed support. Corinne Olmsted, pct 1, asked if the stand will have sides which could prove to be a hindrance in seeing the many children who attend the concerts. Arto Asadoorian, pct 5, who is the school district’s art director said concerts would be 100 percent better for musicians and acoustically for audiences with a bandstand. A single no and the funding passes.

Up now is creating design drawings for the Town Field playground to start the bid process. It needs to be renovated. A quick vote Overwhelmingly adopted.

The Grove Street intergenerational path is being presented with Selectmen, Capital Budget and Warrant (11-4) seeks favorable action. Donna Ruvolo, pct 7, of Friends of Grove Street Park said it has the plans and want to implement the designs. The path will be paved and six-feet wide, seating areas, plant shade trees and accessible entries to the park. The most expenses are coming from the prep work; moving earth etc. The group has raised $40,000. It is used by so many groups, and Ruvolo is excited to see the project get started. The Rec Department supports the project. And the sledding hill will be even better! Why is it called an intergenerational path? Its name, while not technical, means it’s for everyone, said Ruvolo. Will the new features of the park effect overall maintenance costs. Don’t know. Joe DeStefano, pct 2, asks if the group had through of alternatives to the asphalt pathways which has high maintenance to be maintained. Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein said the four members who voted against the item – including himself – thought it was far too expensive when there is a great need for infrastructure (sidewalks) townwide. A few nos but the article passes.

8:48 p.m.: A five-minute break and up will come to the Special Town Meeting the pot opt-out article, which is number 1 in the special. 

9:02 p.m.: Pct 2s Tom Lowrie presents the citizens’ petition. Now George Hall, town counsel, provides an overview of the new marijuana state law approved in 2016. He points out that pot licensing is a state issue but a town can place “time, place, and manner” restrictions on retail sites but can’t limit the number of stores that are allowed by the state. In Belmont, that would be two retail operations.

The main point of the citizens’ petition is a complete opt-out. The amendments by Emma Thurston, Pct 1, would allow an opt-out with the exception for a retail operation. The Bylaw Review Committee approved the article and the amendments. The Selectmen, according to Adam Dash, is in favor of the citizens’ petition only with amendments 1 or 7 is included. But it is opposed to the complete opt-out. Lowrie made it clear the discussion is not on the legality of the 2016 ballot question number 4, it’s the law. It is about giving the town the option to vote on retail and other marijuana establishments. Lowrie said voters might have been in favor of the ballot question so that they could vote on the establishments. Will we permit a recreational marijuana establishment in Belmont? “It’s not to Town Meeting, it is up to the people,” said Lowrie. No response from the audience. 

Thurston is up to explain her three amendments, 1 and two are the same with 2 with a sunset clause. It would opt-out of marijuana-related operations except for retail operations. This a brand new industry so why kill it off before even any operation has opened its door. She said retail operations would be taxed and regulated which is far better than leave marijuana sales to the dealer down the street.

Lowrie points out the state law takes away the option of the town voters who require time to decide if it wants to have an establish at home. “Let the voters decide,” said Lowrie. 

Now … the confusion. Some members are having a hard time understanding what will be presented to voters if the amendments are accepted. So, said a member, that means we don’t have a chance for an election? Widmer is trying his best to explain it because he want’s it as clear as possible. 

If you want a bylaw that eliminates some or all of the establishments in town and limits the number, it needs to go to a town-wide election, said, Hall. How about an election with many options – a complete opt-out or a retail only choice – on the ballot? Possibly, said Hall, since you can have an election and then go to Town Meeting. But a menu of options could create mixed results. Mike McNamara, pct 7, said a local election would not have the same level of participation as it did with a national election, which would allow a small, motivated group to wield a great deal of power.

Claus Becker, pct. 5, said while people may have voted for the legalization of pot for several reasons but they didn’t want to give away local option. David Alper, pct 6, said there is local control over establishments since the Board of Health has created the first regulations in the state including raising the age of purchase to 25. Adam Dash said pot is everywhere and why to give away the potential taxes, which the town needs. Selectmen Mark Paolillo said a pot shop across the line in Cambridge could not be regulated by Belmont but having one in the Town of Homes will be. Doug John, pct. 7, said he voted for the 2016 ballot question so he could vote on the article. Silva Cruz, pct 5, said the citizens’ petition brought a question to town meeting, but it’s hijacked by the amendments.

Ann Mahon, pct 4, said marijuana is already in Belmont so why not tax it? (22) Priya Licht, pct 6, said the criticism of some who said why should there be a second bite at the apple. But that is what the original ballot question allows. Will Brownsberger, like a town meeting member, said he voted for legalization because the drug dealing culture does so much harm to many men. The public health issue is that other drugs are being introduced into pot, so it’s better to get it from licensed establishments. This is an unbelievable regulated industry, and Belmont has an incredible Health Department, so the risk to Belmont is small, said Brownsberger.

Gregory Connelly, a resident, and doctor, said just vote for or against the citizens’ petition and continued to make a strident black and white message on marijuana and how dangerous the current strength of this generation of pot. David Alper attempted to counter Connelly’s argument but quotes facts from the Cato Institute, which did not go over well with Widmer and some members in the back.

Bob McGaw, pct 1, asked Hall if the citizens’ petition failed at the election, that would allow all types of establishments into town with only the Planning Board and Board of Health regulating pot. Yes, said town counsel. Which one do you want to end up with, asked McGaw – a regulated retail operation or the Wild West.

Don Mercier moves the question. 199 to 51 to end debate. This is the vote for Amendment 2 which only allows retail with a sunset clause. It fails 53 to 193.

Now debate on amendment 1 which strictly allows retail operations without the sunset clause. Steve Rosales, pct 8, former selectmen, said people are pleading to him for the chance to have a voice to decide the quality of life. He recalled that residents voted on alcohol in Belmont, not leaving it up to Town Meeting. What are we afraid of to cast a vote. 

That was quick; the question has been called to terminate debate. The measure approved, 227-20. The moment of truth.

The amendment passes overwhelmingly, 162 to 80. The opt-out article in its original form is all but dead. Belmont will have at least two marijuana establishments in town.

Julie Crockett, one of the leading campaigners for the opt-out, calls for the meeting to be adjourned until Monday. Overwhelmingly defeated on a voice vote. The masses what to go home. 

Amendment 7, that allows two stores in town, is being voted. It passes 219-40. 

11 p.m.: Now the neutered opt-out article with the poison pill amendments is being debated. Not that much to debate. The vote is coming. Widmer asks if anyone has any questions since this is a “moving target.”

Now the vote on the article as amended: 135 to 112. That was close but undoubtedly one time supporters threw their vote to the no vote. 

Now a call for an electronic roll call vote, basically getting those who voted on the article to have their vote recorded. 134-103.

11:25 p.m.: And that’s it. What a night in Belmont. See you   

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.”

Selectmen Reject ‘Opt-Out’ Vote On Pot Sales; Chair Still Wants Residents To Decide

Photo: The Belmont Board of Selectmen: Paolillo (left), Williams and Dash.

Belmont is open for the recreational sale of marijuana when the Belmont Board of Selectmen rejected a proposal by Chair Jim Williams on Monday, Jan. 8 to hold a town-wide vote in February to ask residents their opinion on the controversial measure.

The 2-1 vote, with selectmen Mark Paolillo and Adam Dash voting no, did not sit well with Williams, who said it was the responsibility of the board to ask residents whether a majority wanted to town to “opt out” of the retail sale of weed in Belmont. While acknowledging that the town voted 52 percent to 48 percent in favor of the state-wide amendment in Nov. 2016 to end the prohibition of marijuana sales in the Bay State, Williams strenuously contended the result was not a green light on sales.

“Forget about Belmont’s representative democracy,” said Williams in an email to the Belmontonian after the board vote.

“[I]t’s actual democracy [that] took it on the chin last night … actually preventing the electorate from deciding whether to allow recreational marijuana retail sales in town or not. Opinion: Truly astonishing,” noted Williams.

In an attempt to revive the issue, Williams said he will schedule a reconsideration vote on the agenda when the selectmen next meet on Jan. 22. 

“I’m aware that this schedule will likely not enable us to effect an ‘opt-out’ before the existing April 1st deadline, but may allow us to put the question on the [Town Election] April 3rd ballot to avoid the obvious disenfranchisement inherent in Monday last’s 2-1 decision,” said Williams in a second email to the Belmontonian. 
“It also has the benefit of allowing an informed community discussion on the matter between now and then,” wrote Williams.
To place a marijuana sales question on the April 3 ballot, Williams would need to convince one of his colleagues to switch his position at the Jan. 22 meeting.

The need for the proposed “opt-out” special election in February is it would allow the town could “get ahead” of the April 1 date when the state’s licencing board begins accepting applications for retailers, according to the Town Counsel George Hall. With Belmont’s Town Election on April 3, retail applicants would have a small but critical three-day “window” to apply, effectively grandfathering their application if the town’s voters decided to ban the sale of weed in town. 

In the past few months, residents in Lexington and Winchester have voted “no” on sales and have submitted local bylaws to the state Attorney General for a review. 

Williams said not placing a question whether to “opt out” on the April 3 annual Town Election “is putting someone [ie retailer and the state] else in charge of the town,” as he advocated for a special election. 

“I am not in favor of doing nothing” since the board has “no idea, zero” on the electorate’s support or opposition to pot sales in the Town of Homes.

“We have to respect the will of the people and to do that we have to know what it is,” said Williams. 

But for the majority of the Selectmen, the vote and Special Town Meeting to ratify a new bylaw – at a cost of approximately $23,000, according to Town Clerk Ellen Cushman – would be counter to the will of the voters who originally passed the question 14 months ago.

For Paolillo, a special election “would be somewhat decisive” in a town where 70 percent of registered voters – about 14,000 – came to the polls and a majority casting a “yes” vote. He also said the public understood that voting yes “could mean sales in our town.” 

“We are representing the will of the people and they have spoken,” said Paolillo to Williams’ earlier statement.

In addition, local pot retailers will come under significant local controls including “the time, place and manner” of store operations and with the ability of the Health Department to mitigate the effects including by raising the age limit on the purchase marijuana and from the Planning Board in which business zone they can set up shop, said Paolillo and Dash.

Events outside of Belmont is also playing a role to limit applicants in Belmont as the federal government issued new guidelines this week which advised US Attorneys they can now enforce national laws that views marijuana as an illegal drug. Selectman Dash said the new harsher view by the feds will likely dampen retailers “jumping in here … with the uncertainty of the federal government.” 

In addition, the town would lose out on a three percent cut on sales that would go towards drug prevention and police, and education said Belmont Health Committee member Dr. David Alper. “Three percent is better than nothing,” said Alper.

Dash said while he was leaning towards a special election last month, “the more I thought about it and talked to people … that I’d rather do nothing than opt out but regulated appropriately.” 

“There’s going to be marijuana in Belmont whether we like it or not,” said Dash.

After Monday’s vote, Alper said the Health Department, along with the Planning Board, would begin creating comprehensive regulations on marijuana sales, singling out Brookline as a template as it has experience writing regulations with medical marijuana.

While the Health Board can unilaterally create regulations without the approval of Town Meeting, “we will hold public hearings so the public can be heard on this important matter.”