In Mike Widmer’s Final Election For Moderator, A Challenger Emerges For The First Time

Photo: Mike Widmer

Mike Widmer will have a challenger – his first ever – in his final campaign to return as Town Moderator.

Filing his paperwork with the Town Clerk’s Office on Feb. 5, former school committee member Michael Crowley will seek to replace one of Belmont’s longest-serving public officials in what Widmer told the Belmontonian will be the last time his name will be on the ballot.

First elected to the one-year term in 2008 when he ran to fill the open seat previously held by Henry Hall, Widmer has been unopposed in 15 subsequent town elections. Before his current post, Widmer has been a member of the Warrant Committee from 1993 until 2008 – three years as chair – and a Town Meeting Member since 1981.

Crowley was a school committee member for four years, eight years on Town Meeting, and six years on the Warrant Committee. He also served on the Long Term Capital Planning Committee, which drafted the recommendation to form the Comprehensive Capital Budget Committee.

Mike Crowley (courtesy photo)

One of the best descriptions of Town Moderator’s functions is by Town Meeting Member Paul Roberts in his “Blogging Belmont” preview of the 2023 town election.

“In addition to presiding over the annual Town Meeting, the Moderator plays a critical role in setting the agenda for Town Meeting – working with the Town’s various committees and professional staff, residents and Town counsel to set the warrant.”

“In Belmont, the Moderator also has substantial appointment powers. They appoint all members of the Warrant Committee – the Town’s main financial oversight committee – as well as three members of the seven person Capital Budget Committee, a majority of the Bylaw Review Committee and members of the Permanent Building Advisory Committee. The Moderator is also tasked with appointing members to special purpose committees, such as [building committees].”

Select Board Sends $8.4M Override To Voters With A Compact In Tow

Photo: The Select Board voting to present a $8.4 million override to voters at the town’s annual Election in April

After Belmont’s Select Board voted unanimously on Tuesday morning, Jan. 30 to place an $8.4 million override on the ballot at the annual Town Election, Board Chair Roy Epstein believed their decision will be seen by the town’s voters as the necessary course to take.

“We’re relying basically on our experiences what might work,” said Epstein after the vote. “Some people have indicated they would like it to be smaller [amount]. Others said they would like it to be larger. So I’m hoping that means we landed at the right place.”

After nearly six months of meetings, public events, and the decision to pegging how much the “ask” of residents came down to two competing figures: a $7.5 million override that would protect the current level of full-time positions in the town and schools, and $8.4 million, which will allow the town and schools to invest in specific area. In the end, the Select Board settled on what they consider is necessary to carry the town over the next three years.

“We appreciate the concerns that some residents have expressed to me,” said Mark Paolillo, who will be retiring from the board at the April election. “But I think [the override] is absolutely needed in order for us to continue to serve the residents and provide services that they expect.”

“This is not an irresponsible number,” said Elizabeth Dionne to the half dozen residents attending the Town Hall meeting. “It is a painful number.”

According to Jennifer Hewitt, the town’s financial director and assistant town administrator, with the town committed to the override, the town and school district can now release their fiscal year 2025 budgets, on Friday, Feb. 2. The Select Board, School and Warrant Committee will meet Thursday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall for the fourth Budget Summit at which time the fiscal ’25 budget will be presented.

The expected override is by no means a surprise, as the town has been struggling for more than a decade with a structural budget deficit created by ever-increasing expenses and a difficulty to raise sufficient revenue with annual property tax increases capped at 2 1/2 percent. Add to that, the board has inherited a number of costly such as a large and growing pension fund liability.

With a $6 million cliff facing the town in fiscal ’25, even a “level” budget that seeks to keep personnel and services at the previous year’s proportions would require a significant increase in funding.

While the funds will fill the budget deficit in the next three years, the board views the largest override in Belmont’s history in terms of an investment that in the long run will benefit both the town and schools. Epstein noted “a potential for restructuring certain activities to free up monies to deploy them more effectively.” Case in point: School Superintendent Jill Geiser plans to use the extra funding to lay a foundation with added Special Education staffing and planning with the goal to reduce the number of students being placed “out-of-district” for their schooling, which Dionne said is the greatest financial burdens facing future school budgets.

Agreeing to the larger override amount “is the starting point of making that investment with potential long-term benefits,” said Warrant Committee Chair Geoff Lubien.

“That’s why I believe the $8.4 million is necessary to make that even a possibility,” said Epstein.

The alternative to the override would be cataclysmic to all municipal and educational functions in Belmont. A forecasting exercise on the impact of a “no” vote would force painful cuts in staffing and programs in public safety, public works, library and all other town services while the schools would see significant reduction in staff as students will be without extra curriculum activities, the elimination of popular classes and higher students-to-teacher ratios.

“It’s really easy to destroy institutions, it’s very difficult to rebuild,” said Dionne. “If we don’t have a successful override, we will lose a cadre of talent we cannot replace easily. It will cost us far more to rebuild and to maintain.”

Acknowledging the large “ask” of residents, the Select Board will attempt to placate voters anxiety voting for the override by “hammering out” what is being called a compact with the community. Under this informal agreement, the board, school committee and other town entities will work together to implement policies – such as revamping zoning bylaws to facilitate business creation – and initiatives to manage expenses in an attempt to “bend the curve” of ever rising costs all the while look for ways to maximize revenues.

“What we [as a town] have to be … is faster, better, smarter,” said Dionne.

Under the compact, the Select Board will commit funds to specific public concerns. One discussed Tuesday is appropriating override dollars to repair and replace the town’s threadbare and increasingly unsafe sidewalks, which have been a lament among residents for nearly two decades.

The compact will also “force us to be more fiscally disciplined” using one-time funds such as free cash and from out-of-town sources such as government grants, according to Lubien.

Belmont Voters To Decide Assessors Future As Town Meeting OKs Change To Appointed Board

Photo: Select Board Chair Roy Epstein

It will be up to Belmont voters to decide the future of the Board of Assessors when a special session of Town Meeting voted 156-87 with two abstentions to place a ballot question on this April’s annual Town Election to change the structure of the three-member board from an elected to an appointed body.

The vote, which took place virtually on Monday, Jan. 22, came nearly a year after a special Town Meeting voted 185-46 to change the town treasurer’s post to an appointed position, which town voters seconded in April 2023.

For Roy Epstein, chair of the Belmont Select Board, who shepherded the article through the public process and at the special town meeting, the article’s passage was a nod by the majority of Town Meeting Members on the willingness of town government to employ town resources to improve the town’s fiscal future.

“I would like to think people responded a little bit to what I said, but in a large sense, the vote was an expression of competence in the town administrator [Patrice Garvin],” said Epstein a day after the meeting. “It’s a vote of confidence of policy changes that the town will value and improve governance. That’s what people are looking for. And I think [Garvin] has been incredibly thorough in identifying ways to improve how government works, and I’m glad people are recognizing that.”

Supporters of the article were willing to agree that while there is a consensus the current assessors “operate at a very high standard” in determining the value of the real estate in town, said Epstein, there is an increasing need for the board to become a partner in the finance team – which includes the town’s appointed treasurer, the financial director, the town accountant and – that sets the town’s fiscal policy. The select board and town officials point to areas such as creating a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) program and assisting in significant changes to the town’s zoning map in which the assessors’ knowledge and data will be the final critical piece in formulating “a more cohesive, collaborative working finance team,” said Garvin.

The select board or town officials expressed little confidence the current elected assessors are willing to support the town’s requests as both Epstein and fellow Select Board member Elizabeth Dionne each voiced their disappointment with the board’s response to numerous requests – such as establishing senior tax relief – from town committees and the board which were allowed to die on the vine.

“It didn’t happen and after four years of trying to make [senior tax relief] because it is a tax policy question. I just don’t think the collaboration between the Board of Assessors and the Select Board in the current form is working out. My view at this point is that there are better prospects for that type of coordination between different parts of town government if the board of assessors became appointed rather than elected, and that’s my principal reason for supporting the article in its current form,” said Epstein.

The Assessors’ long-time chair, Robert Reardon, defended the elected board in its current form since the town’s incorporation in 1859, calling it “an important aspect of checks and balances” in town finances with the prime role of the assessors “to set the [real estate] values independent of the budget process.”

While the assessors answer questions at public meetings and work with the town and committees on several fiscal areas, Reardon said the board rarely ventures beyond their core responsibilities of appraising real estate, deciding to grant or deny abatements, and voting on exemptions based on the person – such as seniors or disabled veterans – who owns the property. It has not expanded its reach into town fiscal policy due to state directives from the Department of Revenue.

“We don’t make policy,” said Reardon. “We have to take an oath to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and that oath is to uphold the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And by doing so … we’re limited on what we can do. We cannot implement any new tax policies in the town without the approval of the state legislature.”

Reardon also said that an elected board of residents “shows a commitment and a dedication by the candidates to serve the town,” which would be lacking by an appointed body that doesn’t have a residence requirement.

For most of the meeting, Town Moderator Mike Widmer successfully limited the debate to changing the board’s structure rather than discussing how either variation would alter town policies or finances.

Cosmo Macero from Precinct 5 said he would vote against the article as “there is accountability in elections … and being an elected official.” As for the lack of collaboration with town boards and elected officials, “it’s possible that the Select Board may need to look elsewhere as to what the problem was with the collaboration.”

“As a non-policy making body, I want them to only collaborate a little on policy. I want them to perform their very important duty which is to measure and assess the value of our property for the purpose of tax information,” said Macero.

Angus Abercrombie, Precinct 8, who submitted the citizen’s petition to bring the article before Town Meeting, asked if changing the Town Treasurer to an appointed post had produced efficiencies in that department that could be replicated in the Assessors’ office. Garvin said Treasurer Lesley Davison’s experience and knowledge in the position have resulted in “finding efficiencies every day which will only benefit the residents of Belmont.”

“I believe, based on the town and [its] managerial structure, we will be able to implement efficiencies that have long been long wanted by the finance team,” said Garvin.

Ira Morgenstern, Precinct 7, advocated the belief first mentioned by Liz Allison, Precinct 3, at a public forum a week earlier: Don’t fix what’s not broken.

“It’s not needed,” said Morgenstern of the article. Calling the current board “a great team,” Morgenstern then suggested that a “yes” vote would be “a further concentration of power to the Select Board [who would have appointing powers] and the Town Administrator … while reduces the oversight and … our internal controls.”

But for Claus Becker, Precinct 5, giving the Select Board the final say in appointing the assessors’ is the correct step as residents voted for the three-member body to enact its vision of the town’s fiscal future.

And just like last year’s vote to make the Treasurer an appointed position, the tally wasn’t that close, with the “yes” category garnering 64 percent of members.

School Committee Race Gets Competitive With Incumbent, Newcomer In The Mix

Photo: Meg Moriarty and Matt Kraft

It’s now three candidates seeking two open seats on the Belmont School Committee in the annual Town Election as the incumbent chair of the committee and a prominent professor in education submitted the necessary papers to the Town Clerk this past week.

Meg Moriarty is seeking a second three-year term on the board. While in her initial stint on the board, Moriarty has been chair since April 2022, garnering praise from her colleagues on her leadership and collaborative skills when negotiating educators and staff contracts, navigating the district through two budget cycles, managed the transfer to the committee of the new Belmont Middle and High School and helping in the hiring of Dr. Jill Geiser as Superintendent of Belmont School District.

The mother of two who attend Belmont Public Schools, Moriarty runs MegMor Research and Evaluation which helps organizations assess the impact of Science Technology Engineering & Math (STEM) programming. The Precinct 2 Town Meeting Member matriculated at Brown and earned her master’s and doctorate in education (science education) from Boston University.

Newcomer Matt Kraft enters the Belmont political scene from academia as a leading scholar in education economics. The St. Louis native is an associate Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University with a focus on efforts to improve educator and organizational effectiveness in public schools. He is also a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“I care deeply about Belmont public schools because my two children will be in the [Belmont schools] for the next decade,” Kraft said. The schools are at the heart of the town and I am excited tp serve and add a voice that brings experience and knowledge to addressing the challenges we face

Kraft received his B.A. from Stanford while earning a M.A. and doctorate from Harvard. Kraft taught 8th grade English as a long-term substitute teacher in Oakland, CA, while receiving his M.A. than teaching 9th grade humanities at Berkeley High School.

Moriarty and Kraft will join Emerson student Angus Abercrombie on the ballot for the annual Town Election being held on April 2.

Pair Of Historic Wins For Belmont High Grapplers At Annual Brendan Grant Wrestling Tourney [VIDEO]

Photo: Ava Suistunov and Jaden O’Connor with their first place medals at the 2024 Brendan Grant Memorial Wrestling Tournament

A pair of Belmont High wrestlers made history by winning their weight divisions at the Brendan Grant Memorial Tournament held on Saturday, Jan. 6.

Sophomore Ava Suistunov powered through the competitors to win the 106 lbs. weight division in the inaugural girls’ division competition. Wrestling since she was in kindergarten, Suistunov came to the finals having pinned her first two opponents before scoring early against Jailyn Edmonds of Boston’s Joshua Quincy Upper School, giving up just a single point in her 6-1 victory.

“It was good. Tough competition, obviously,” said Suistunov. “I didn’t give up, and I stuck to my plan in the matches,” she said, as she is looking forward to competing in the postseason.

Senior Jaden O’Connor became the first Belmont wrestler in the long history of the competition to win consecutive Brendan Grant titles as he prevailed at 150 lbs., defeating Seamus Olohan from Catholic Memorial via a pin in the second stanza. Last year, O’Connor took the 145-pound crown.

“It really feels good because last year a lot of people told me the first time was a fluke … and to win the whole tournament again is [great],” O’Connor said.

According to Casey Grant, this year’s contest attracted nearly 600 athletes, the most wrestlers to participate in the annual event over 14 hours in the Wenner Field House.

Belmont first-year student Eva Cohen was Belmont’s third finalist in the meet. A football team member who also plays the sousaphone in the band, Cohen took the final distance, losing to Logan Murray of Woburn, 11-1. The Ava/Eva partnership secured third place in the girls’ high school team competition with 44 points.

The Marauders’ varsity scorers included O’Connor, Luke Coelho (3rd place at 132 lbs.), Andre Sweet (4th at 138 lbs.), and Michael Wessman (4th at 120 lbs.), racking up 92 points for 11th place in the team event.

Belmont’s junior varsity squad placed a strong fourth, with Darmir Neal winning the 153.6 lbs. category, Ben Warinner (197.6 lbs.) and Shayan Rostamnezhad (135.9) taking home seconds, and Fergus Williams placing third in the 153.6 weight division.

Once A Holiday Tradition, Cardboard Drop Offs Are No Longer A Gift That Gives

Photo: Cardboard stacked for recycling (credit: Marek Ślusarczyk or

In recent years, the end-of-the-year holidays in Belmont meant festive meals, family get togethers, presents and cardboard drop off, where the town would take away all their cardboard packages at one for a small fee.

And the drop offs were once as popular as Santa. In January 2021, nearly 350 vehicles waited an hour at the Department of Public Works’ Yard as the town collected 22 tons of cardboard filling five 40-yard long containers, two truck bays and six 6-wheel dump trucks. Just last year, the Belmont Select Board proposed three drop off days before and after Christmas with the expectation of a similar high demand for the service.

Well, this holiday, it appears the Select Board is declaring “bah, humbug” to a new set of drop offs. While there has been initial discussions between the DPW and the town on holding a single event, the Select Board has squashed those plans.

“Cardboard? We’re not going to do it,” said Roy Epstein, chair of the Select Board, who overheard a conversation on the subject before the start of its scheduled meeting. To have that declarative statement coming from Epstein was a bit of a surprise as he himself said, “I was the original advocate of the drop off.”

Epstein pointed out that while the high point of the drop off program occurred during the height of COVID restrictions, circumstances have changed to where “the program has failed the market test ever since.”

Pointing to the most recent events, Epstein said barely 250 of Belmont’s 10,000 households participated in the program as residents have become increasingly happy to cut up or fold their cardboard in the green/blue recycling carts.

“As [DPW Director} Jay [Marcotte] has said many times that people get very personal about their trash. This is one example,” said Epstein.

And the town was not seeing a financial pop from collecting cardboard. While the Wall Street Journal has reported late in 2023 a modest “cardboard comeback,” the limited number of participants and expenses placed on a small producer such as Belmont would require the town to increase the $5 per vehicle fee just to break even, according to Patrice Garvin, Belmont’s town administrator.

“Remember, Select Board members reached into their own pockets to fund the deficit the last few times we had drop offs,” said Epstein. “I don’t see what the advantages are for the town.”

So Long, Mike … And Welcome Back! Long Time Town Employee Retires, Than Is Appointed Belmont’s Tree Warden

Photo: Recently retired DPW Highway Department Director Michael Santoro receives a gold ceremonial shovel from Select Board members Mark Paolillo (left) and Roy Epstein as Belmont acknowledged Santoro’s 42 years of service.

It’s not everyday when the word “beloved” is used when speaking about a town official. But it is when talking about Mike Santoro, Belmont’s manager of the Department of Public Works’ Highway Division and assistant Public Works Director, who retired Dec. 31 from his post.

Mike Santoro

The soft spoken, life-long resident has served the people of his home town for 42 years, advancing from his first position as a laborer in 1981 to becoming, in 2005, the head of a department responsible for the repair, patching, and maintenance of Belmont’s 78 miles of public streets and roads and 97 miles of paved sidewalks, caring for the town’s sewer lines and storm drain system, and assisting in the care, removal, and replanting of Belmont’s 10,000-plus public shade trees.

And when a winter nor’easter deposited tons of snow on the town’s byways, it was Santoro who would spend days in his cramped, cold office in the pre-renovated DPW building directing an armada of town-owned vehicles and heavy equipment along with dozens of contractors in keeping the roads open.

“First of all, Michael, thank you for your exemplary service for our community. It’s been outstanding and we are going to truly miss you,” said Select Board Member Mark Paolillo at Monday, Jan. 8. “You always had an answer, you always returned our calls and you always have been incredible helpful.”

The proclamation noted Santoro was instrumental in the successful consolidation of the highway, water, cemetery and the parks and recreation departments into what today is the Department of Public Works, all the while working “long tireless hours” taking leadership roles on numerous projects that required a steady hand and a calming voice of experience.

“Michael has set a high standard of commitment and dedication that serves as an inspiration to the citizens of Belmont,” read the proclamation.

So it wasn’t surprising when those attending the meeting gave Santoro a standing ovation.

Santoro was presented with a going away gift from the town; a gold-colored commemorative shovel with an inscription on the shaft: “Michael Santoro. For his many years of Dedication and Commitment to the Department of Public Works. 1981-2023.”

“As I’ve been saying to everyone, it’s not goodbye, it’s ‘I’ll see you later’ because there are other things that I’m gonna try to do around town,” said Santoro, who was accompanied to the meeting by his wife, Susan, children and family.

No truer words were spoken as the next item of business before the board was naming a new town tree warden: Mike Santoro.

“There is no rest for the weary,” said Board Chair Roy Epstein.

After the retirement of Tom Walsh in July 2021, the warden post had been vacant with DPW Director Jay Marcotte acting as interim tree warden with Santoro assisting in the field. In the past months, Santoro completed the necessary training to be certified by the state to hold the position.

Precinct 1 Voters New Polling Location At Temple Beth El During Belmont Library Construction

Photo: Beth El Temple Place

Beginning with the Massachusetts Presidential Party Primaries on March 5, voters reciding in Precinct 1 will be casting their ballots at Temple Beth El Center located at the corner of Concord Avenue and Blanchard Road on the Cambridge/Belmont line.

The move is required with the pending demolision of the Belmont Public Library, the tradition home for Precinct 1. Speaking before the Select Board on Monday, Jan. 8, Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman said the two had considered two possible locations, Beth El and All Saints’ Church on Common Street, to relocated the polling place. But it was soon evident that Beth El, at 2 Concord Ave., was a superior site as it has ample parking and a large community room to accomindate the voting stations. The temple is declining a fee and will provide signage during elections.

“There is great handicapped access … and nice and secure separate spot for us. So we’re thrilled that they were so kind [to become a polling place,] said Cushman.

Belmont Woman’s Club Free To Manage Its 11 Parking Spaces As It Deems Fit

Photo: The Homer House’s parking spaces.

In a split decision, the Belmont Planning Board voted to allow the Belmont Woman’s Club to manage “on their own” the 10 parking spaces and single handicapped space located at the historic Homer House across from Belmont Town Hall at 661 Pleasant St.

“I believe it’s the Woman’s Club property [and] they should be able to manage that parking spaces as they wish,” said Planning Board Chair Jeffrey Birenbaum. He called the decision a “minor modification” to the former parking lot use plan approved by the Planning Board in July 2021 which restricted the lot’s use “to Women’s Club activities and functions.”

The new language states that parking “to allowed the Belmont Women’s Club to utilize their on-site 10 parking spaces plus one handicapped for them to handle.” If any problems arise with the change in status, the Club would be required to meet with the Building Department and later with the Planning Board.

Daytime parking at the Town Hall lot – which includes the School Administrative building and several town departments in the Homer Building and Town Hall – is currently a tight fit. When the lot is full, visitors and staff are required to use on-street parking – which has time restrictions – or travel to the municipal parking lot on Claflin Street.

And it appears the Woman’s Club spaces may have an interested party to claim the lot. Town Planner Chris Ryan said he had conversations with Town Administrator Patrice Garvin expressing that “it would be fine to have town staff parking there,” albeit a memorandum of understanding would need to be negotiated to identify any possible issues, a stipulation the Club’s President Wendy Murphy said would be “very easily” completed.

“I think one of the concerns that [residents] had was some of the town staff were parking on the sides of the driveway,” said Ara Yogurtian, the Planning Board’s staff member, who advised writing in the decision and MOU that parking can only occur in the designated spaces.

Yet the decision was not unanimous. Planning Board Member Thayer Donham reminded the board that “we had a lot of meetings on this case and … a lot of history to get to the original decision.” Donham believes that a new shared parking use should not be granted unless the club returned to the Planning Board with a new application.

“I just don’t feel comfortable overturning it,” said Donham, who was the sole “no” vote in the 3-1 decision.

But Birenbaum, noting the town bylaws does speak on accessory use of shared parking spaces including a lot used by town departments.

“I don’t think what I’ve read … that we need to come down with a hard hammer and say they need special permits or they can’t use their lot.”

Belmont Winter Special Town Meeting: Virtual Session Set For Jan. 22 On Board Of Assessors

Photo: The current board of assessors (from left) Charles R. Laverty, Robert P. Reardon, Patrick Murphy with Dan Dargon, the Assessing Administrator

A winter Special Town Meeting is all set as the Belmont Select Board opened and closed the warrant for an all-virtual meeting assembly dedicated to a single proposition: to transition the Board of Assessors from an elected to an appointed council.

The fully remote meeting will occur on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, at 7 p.m.

The article awaiting the members originated as a citizen petition from Precinct 8’s Angus Abercrombie for the fall Special Meeting in November. Due to the heavy agenda facing the meeting, Moderator Mike Widmer asked Abercrombie to have the petition moved to the new year, where it would receive the attention it deserved.

A recommendation in a 2022 review of the town’s financial structure by the Edward J. Collins, Jr. Center for Public Management at UMass Boston, the change in the Board of Assessors structure will bring an essential element in the town’s fiscal structure under the umbrella of the financial director. Earlier this year, the post of Town Treasurer was made an appointed position.

The current board comprises long-time Chair Robert P. Reardon, Charles R. Laverty, III, and Patrick J. Murphy, IV.