Three ‘Modest’ Proposals Frame New Regs For Town Meeting Roll Call Votes

Photo: Moderator Mike Widmer discussing changes to the roll call bylaw with the Select Board

The most impassioned moments of the 2019 annual Belmont Town Meeting didn’t involve a vote but how they were reported. And next week, Town Meeting members and residents will hear and comment on changes to the roll call bylaw sponsored by three mainstays of town government.

At this year’s Town Meeting a group of members sought roll call votes on the outcome of several articles including measures that passed overwhelmingly on a voice vote.

Unlike the usual aggregate vote when just the grand total of yea and nay are presented to the meeting, a roll call requires each member’s vote to be recorded and made public. With electronic voting in Belmont, member’s names are projected on the main screen for the assembly to see how each member voted.

While roll call proponents said knowing how a member voted is an expected part of representative government, others called out the rarely invoked process “harassment” and “vote shaming” by revealing who may have voted against “popular” measures.

The town is holding a public meeting to discuss proposed Roll Call Bylaw changes on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 7:15 p.m. at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.

It culminated with a vote favored by the pro-roll call caucus going down to defeat during the roll call after initially passing with an aggregate tally. Soon after, there was some confusion on who could ask that the article be reconsidered, resulting in a decision by the moderator that left Town Meeting in a kerfuffle for a few days.

At a recent Select Board meeting, representatives of the Town Clerk’s Office, the Town Administrator and Town Moderator presented an initial draft article which they will bring to the fall Special Town Meeting in November supporting, as moderator Mike Widmer describes it, three “modest” proposals that will clarify and codify what constitutes a roll call vote.

“The proposal is based on the informal survey of Town Meeting members after the annual meeting … and we have done our best to reflect the will of the majority of members,” said Widmer.

Assistant Town Clerk Meg Piccione announced the proposed changes to the bylaw:

  • a roll call will be automatically conducted for the final action on any article or motion that requires a 2/3 majority vote.
  • an automatic roll call will be done when a motion or article is passed by fewer than 10 aggregate votes.
  • If a member requests a roll call vote for any other article, the measure will require 50 supporting members, up from 35.

Widmer noted the bylaw change also includes redefining reconsideration – when a matter that was voted on is brought back before the Town Meeting for a second time – which was also an issue at the annual meeting. The new bylaw will only allow a member who voted in the majority be allowed to request a motion to reconsider.

Widmer said he does expect some to question the group’s bylaw change and possibly challenge some aspects of the new bylaw.

“We’re under no illusion that there won’t be any amendments to this proposal,” said Widmer. “But our hope is to have …the one article so we can make it a smoother process rather than having one citizen’s petition for an article and another for something else.”

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.

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┬áconcerts. 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.