Photo: The Wenner Field House.
Calling restrictions on communities including Belmont a “deliberate attempt to depress the vote,” the Board of Selectmen is sending an urgent letter to the Minuteman Regional Tech School Committee to reconsider its recommendation of using only one location for a vote that could increase Belmont’s property taxes by half a million dollars over nearly three decades.
“To limit the number of polling places ensures there will be lower voter turnout. And if that what you are attempting to do, then we disagree,” said Selectmen Chair Mark Paolillo of a series of moves by Minutemen officials that he and the board believes will dampen voter turnout in Belmont to decide, for a second time, on the future of a new technical school on the Lexington/Lincoln border that will cost nearly $145 million.
The comments, made during the Selectmen’s Monday, July 11, meeting at Town Hall, came after the board heard from Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman that unless Minuteman retreats from its earlier position, nearly 6,000 voters will be forced to abandon their regular polling locations and tramp over to Belmont High School to vote on the final days of summer.
Paolillo said a possible reason for Minuteman’s effort to suppress the vote specifically in Belmont is to thwart any avenue town officials have to leave the district. Belmont Town Meeting member rejected the current project as being too large for the ten communities – six towns have petitioned to leave the community once a final vote is cast on the new school – which will remain in the Minuteman system after the election.
If approved by an aggregate of voters in the 16 communities and with Belmont remaining in the district, taxpayers would likely foot a bill of up to $500,000 in annual capital costs– on top of tuition expenses – to house the approximately 30 students the town averages annually at the technical school.
Paolillo said Belmont would still be able to exit the district if a majority of voters reject the plan on Sept. 20. That would start the clock for town officials to call a Special Town Meeting 60 days after the election where those seeking to withdraw from the district will need to capture a two-thirds majority of Town Meeting members.
“So it’s in [Minuteman’s] interest to keep overall voter participation down while they push [the new school] supporters to come out to vote,” Paolillo told the Belmontonian after the meeting.
The vote was called by the Minuteman School Board after Belmont rejected the earlier plan at the town’s May Town Meeting. Under state law, since the regional district could not convince the Town Meeting in each of the 16 municipalities to approve the bonding for a $144 million project, the school committee was able to use a “second chance” that calls for a referendum in which a majority vote will determine if the $100 million bonding package – the state is expected to pitch-in $44 million – is approved.
Since it “called” the election and is paying $100,000 to hold it in the district communities, state law allows the Minuteman district “alone, in consultation with the Selectmen, gets to decide how this vote for the debt occurs” including what day and times it will take place and number of locations where the vote will take place, said Cushman.
The Minuteman Board has set the time and date of the referendum, to be held on Tuesday, Sept. 20 from noon to 8 p.m.
While Belmont usually opens seven polling stations for its eight precincts, Cushman said Minuteman is expected to limit voting to a single location as one way to control costs. While clerks in the other towns – whose Town Meetings voted for the bonding plan – are expected very low voter participation in single digits, Cushman expects a healthy turnout of about a third of registered voters, which would likely be the highest among the towns voting.
Cushman heard from Kevin Mahoney, the tech school’s assistant superintendent of finance who is heading the election campaign, that Arlington has also requested Minuteman to approve that town’s request to allow it to use its usual ten voting locations (for 22 precincts) rather than a central spot.
That decision is yet to be made.
Belmont has until July 22 to petition Minuteman to utilize its seven polling places, “however they have the final say since the warrant is issued by them and not you,” said Cushman, who has already sent that request to the school district.
Cushman said the only site large enough to handle the estimated 6,000 voters expected to vote is the Wenner Field House on the Belmont High School campus off Concord Avenue. It would require placing a temporary floor on top of the new court and install between 50 to 60 polling booths.
While Minuteman’s reasoning for a single site for the vote is cost, Cushman told the Selectmen it’s likely the cost of holding the election at the high school will likely exceed the $12,000 expected cost of using the traditional seven locations and could pass the $16,000 price tag to use the seven sites for an all-day election.
Also, the Field House, home to Belmont High School volleyball home games and the locker rooms for the fall season, will need to be closed on that Monday and Tuesday to prepare for the vote. The midweek election would likely impact a varsity girls’ swimming meet on that Monday and cross country races on the Tuesday election.
The Belmont Selectmen feels the unfamiliar voting location and difficulty for residents using the site – a limited amount of parking is on the other end of the campus from the field house which could be a burden for the many older voters – is troublesome for what it implies.
“I’m all for wide voter turnout, and there is no [better] way to suppress the vote than to limit the locations, change where people are accustomed to and make it inconvenient because of long lines,” said Selectman Sami Baghdady.
Complicating matters further, since voters will not be using their regular voting locations, Cushman is required by state statue to send an official notification to all voters 20 days, on Sept. 1, for the election of the change of voting venue.
She noted that mailing would occur a week before voters head to the polls for the Massachusetts state party primaries a week later on Sept. 8. Cushman worries that many residents will misunderstand the notice and head for the high school to vote during the primary and Presidential election in November or ignore the document and attempt to vote at their regular precincts on Sept. 20.
Speaking about the difficulty of conducting a vote at the Field House during a school day and restricting locations both in Belmont and Arlington, “how can this not result in lower turnout? It has to,” asked Paolillo.
“Whether you’re for or against the building project, it’s important to have as broad a representation as possible regarding community involvement,” said Paolillo.
It is likely that the Board of Selectmen will call for an informational meeting sometime before the election to “educate the public on the ramifications of their vote,” said Paolillo.