Town Meeting: Limits Placed On Civil Service Debate; Clarifying Amendment Added To Civil Service Article; 9 PM’s The Limit

Photo: Mike Widmer

Due to what nearly everyone at the Special Town Meeting expects to be one of the most contentious articles for many years, Town Moderator Mike Widmer this afternoon, Wednesday, Sept. 23, has placed a limit on the scope of debate on Article 10, the measure which would end civil service for rank and file Belmont Fire and Police personnel.

Here is Widmer’s announcement: 

One of the most important responsibilities of the Moderator is to determine the scope of permissible discussion under any article. In the vast majority of articles that determination is straightforward. But in a minority of instances, often the most controversial issues, it takes considerable research and consultation to determine the approach that is in the best interests of Town Meeting.

In terms of Article 10, I have probably spent more hours considering proper scope than I have with any other article in my 12 years as Moderator. As part of this process I have had extensive discussions with Town Counsel George Hall.

My conclusion is that the only correct and fair way to proceed with Article 10 is to limit discussion purely to the merits of the proposal advanced by the Select Board:

Should the Belmont police and fire departments be withdrawn from Civil Service? Only the merits of this policy proposal are the province of Town Meeting.

The process by which the Select Board decided to bring this article forth is not an appropriate matter for debate. Much of the public discussion, certainly brought forth by the unions, is that the Board should have negotiated with the unions before bringing this issue to Town Meeting. But how are Town Meeting Members to know the unbiased facts of what happened at the negotiating table since those are legally mandated to be private matters? Process issues between union and management are inextricably tied to collective bargaining which definitely is not the province of Town Meeting.

Our role as a legislative body is to debate issues advanced by the executive branch or by citizens’ petitions. We have no authority to insert ourselves into the collective bargaining process. Those questions are clearly out of scope of the article as well.

This reality may be frustrating to individual Town Meeting Members, and Members are free to vote yes or no based on whatever factors they choose. But I am sure you all agree that we should not break longstanding and bedrock principles of the separation of powers.

Mr. Widmer can be reached at

A clarifying amendment for Article 10

Roy Epstein, Chair of the Select Board and Precinct 6 Town Meeting Member has moved to amend the main motion under Article 10 by adding to the end of the motion the following clause: “,said revocation not to take effect until March 1, 2021.”

The resultant motion will now read: 

Motion: That the Town remove the Police and Fire Department from the provisions of the Civil Service Laws, and the rules and regulations relating to the same, by revoking the Town’s acceptance of Section 37 of Chapter 19 of the General Laws voted under Article 15 of the Warrant for the 1915 Annual Town Meeting and of Section 48 of Chapter 31 (as both have been recodified in G.L. c. 31, § 52), said revocation not to take effect until March 1, 2021.

The rationale for the clarifying amendment is to correct a drafting error in the motion. The intent of the motion is to allow anyone promoted, as a result of taking a civil service exam in 2020, to remain grandfathered in civil service after their promotion.

A Town Meeting session too long? Pumpkin time is 9 p.m. Wednesday

Town Moderator Mike Widmer will be keeping a watch on the clock on the wall at Wednesday’s Special Town Meeting:

On a related matter, some Town Meeting Members have expressed a concern that the meeting went too long on Monday night. I do want to emphasize to Town Meeting Members that we time every speaker; presenters have specifically assigned time limits. Town Meeting Members have three minutes as their limit. Tonight we have two important matters to discuss and I want to allow for a full discussion of Civil Service. If we are able to complete action on Article 9 by 9 p.m, I think it makes sense to proceed to Article 10. However, if it is after 9, I will ask for a vote of Town Meeting Members whether we continue with Article 10 or whether we adjourn to Sept. 30.

Roll Call Bylaw Motion Likely To Send Special Town Meeting Late Into The Night

Photo: Town Moderator Mike Widmer

If a recent public meeting is any indication of the feelings of both sides of the issue, Belmont Town Meeting Members would be advised to bring their pillows and mugs of coffee to the night in mid-November the Special Town Meeting takes up revising the roll call bylaw.

Not that the discussion on the three changes to the bylaw at the meeting held Tuesday, Oct. 15 at the Beech Street Center could be described as contentious – this is Belmont – but rather the depth of personal conviction by several members would lead many to forecast a long night of hearing countervailing arguments on a long list of amendments to the article.

“The idea [of bringing the article to Town Meeting] being to have a full democratic debate, reach whatever decisions that are the will of the Town Meeting and then put the issue behind us,” said Town Moderator Mike Widmer whose state goal was an attempt to make roll calls more efficient in its application.

There has been a universal push to “improve” the bylaw since the annual Town Meeting in May when requests for a roll call on several amendments were viewed as having alternative motives rather than the stated intent of increasing transparency of the town’s represented body.

The argument for and against greater use of the roll call option comes down to protecting members from “vote shaming” versus the right of the public to know how their representatives cast their votes.

The changes of the bylaw involve making certain votes automatic roll calls, the number of members needed to call a roll call and who can make a request for reconsideration.

Anthony Ferrante

Anthony Ferrante (Precinct 8) said unlike “real” politicians, Town Meeting members are “normal townspeople.” While he has sponsored unpopular amendments that were destined to “go down in flames,” that is not the case with the majority of the 290 members. “It’s hard to get up in public and vote the minority view,” he said.

Ferrante particularly points to call a roll call on an amendment or motion that passes with an overwhelming majority, referencing a vote on climate change at the annual Town Meeting earlier in the year when the votes against the measure were reduced from the aggregate vote and the roll call.

“The only reason to call for a roll call is to shame the few people who don’t” vote with the “right” side,” said Ferrante. “I want those people to be able to vote their conscience and if they don’t want to admit they are doing it, great. They are representing the minority view in this community.”

“I’d rather know that they’re out there than have people keep quiet,” said Ferrante.

Jill Clark

Jill Clark (Precinct 7) countered Ferrante, noting “I’m concerned that we’re missing a fundamental principle of a representative democracy which is transparency.”

Saying that residents deserve to know how each member voted on amendments, Clark said, and can deny them re-election if they vote against their interest “[a]nd they can’t do that if they don’t know how they voted.” She contends with electronic voting, results are quick and easy – there are no “time sucks” as there were before e-voting so all votes should be roll calls.

“I fail to see the abuse,” said Clark going to Ferrante’s argument, “I’m really concerned about throwing around the word ‘bullying.’ Bullying implies a differential in power that does not exist between equally represented officials.”

“When I look at the counter arguments to me, none of them stack up against the need to have transparency,” said Clark.

Other participants spoke on procedural themes such as Jack Weis (Precinct 2) who said rather than take a second vote on a close decision – a measure passing by 10 or fewer – just use the technology available with electronic voting to reveal how members voted initially.

“It just seems to me that people shouldn’t be able to change their vote based on whether or not that will be recorded as to how they vote,” said Weis.

Surprisingly, it was two Town Meeting members with extensive backgrounds in IT who expressed the most apprehension of roll calls, not only the possibility for its more frequent use but also the technology that allows it to occur.

John Robotham

“I have to say that I think electronic voting was a huge step backwards,” said John Robotham (Precinct 2) as the technology is pushing Town Meeting to “enshire” all votes a roll call.

Robotham said before electronic voting, Town Meeting was more of a deliberative body and not simply a legislative one, where you could “actually learn stuff” about a measure from other members. He hopes at the Special Town Meeting there will be an effort to “walk back” the reliance on electronic voting.

Kevin Cunningham (Precinct 4) made a passionate case against the use of electronic voting as it foregoes “the sociology of Town Meeting.”

Before electronic voting, the focus of Town Meeting was on “the topic of discussion” and the rules were written to lead the town’s legislative body towards a consensus, said Cunningham. What the electronic roll call vote has introduced to the meeting is the politicization of how members voted.

“It’s all about partisanship and I’m just totally anti partisan. I can’t stand the partisanship that’s going on in the country, and I don’t like it happening in Belmont and I see it happening [here],” he said.

Cunningham said there are nuisances to casting a vote; “you could be voting ‘yes’ because you positively meant that or because you didn’t want this other consequences.”

“But people are ready to take your vote and say, ‘You voted for that and look we have the record.’ ‘And now let’s target that person,’ not ‘let’s argue the topic,'” said Cunningham. Roll calls have now personalize voting as opposed to focusing on on the truth thing which is what’s best for Belmont, he said.

Q&A: Warrant Meeting On Articles Before Special Town Meeting Tuesday, Oct. 30

Photo: Poster for the event 

The public and Town Meeting members are invited to attend a Warrant Briefing tonight, Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.

Residents and voters will have the opportunity to ask questions about the Warrant Articles prior to Special Town Meeting scheduled to begin on Tuesday, Nov 13.

The articles that will be before the “Special” will include:

  • Appropriation of debt to build the Belmont High School construction project.
  • Amendment to the zoning bylaw to create an overlay district along South Pleasant Street.
  • Amendment to the zoning bylaw to create an adult use marijuana overlay district.
  • A Community Preservation Committee off cycle request for $400,000 for the design of an Alexander Avenue underpass.
  • A citizen petition to extend the temporary moratorium on marijuana establishment for an additional six months til June 30, 2019.
  • Reduction of the senior property tax deferral interest rate from eight percent to four-and-a half percent.

Town officials and department heads will be present to provide information. Roy Epstein, chair of the Warrant Committee, will preside. Tonight’s meeting is cosponsored by the Warrant Committee and the Belmont League of Women Voters Education Fund.

Special Town Meeting Warrant Opens Tuesday, Closes Wednesday

Photo: A Brookline town meeting warrant from the time of Belmont incorporation in the late 1850s.

The Belmont Board of Selectmen voted at their Monday, Oct. 15 meeting on the dates in which the warrant for the Special Town Meeting beginning Nov. 13 will be open and closed.

The Special warrant will open at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 16 and close a day later on Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 4 p.m.

The most prominent of the eight article coming before “the special” is the authorization to borrow $213 million to construct a new 7-12 High School. The overlay district maps for adult retail marijuana sales and South Pleasant Street will be on the warrant along with changing the tax deferral for seniors from 8 to 4.5 percent, a Community Preservation Act off-cycle request for $400,000 for design work on the Alexander Avenue underpass, an extension of the DPW/Belmont Police Committee and a pair of financial issues.

The warrant is a document issued by the Board of Selectmen to call a town meeting. Warrants are essentially a list of items to be voted on by the approximately 300 Town Meeting Members which represents the residents in Belmont’s eight precincts.

The selectmen and town committees, boards and staff can place an article in the warrant. Residents can also insert an article on the warrant through the citizen’s petitions process. In a special town meeting, the citizen petitioner must gather 200 signatures to be accepted. Once received by the town clerk, the selectmen have 45 days to call a special town meeting or place it in the warrant of an existing town meeting. 

After the warrant is closed on Wednesday, the selectmen will meet with Town Moderator Micheal Widmer this coming Monday to determine the order the articles will be taken up and if there are any issues pertaining to conflicts with any of the articles. 

Dates Set For Fall Special Town Meeting, Town-Wide Election On Pot In Belmont

Photo: Town-wide vote Sept. 25.

The Belmont Board of Selectmen wasted no time putting the proposed marijuana “opt-out” bylaw before the people, voting Monday, May 7 to hold a town-wide election on Tuesday, Sept. 25. Polls will be opened from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Voters will be asked to either accept or reject legislation allowing the town to opt-out of permitting pot-related industries authorized under state law with the exception of retail operations. In addition, voters will also cast a ballot OKing two pot shops in Belmont.

“The voters will have the same language that Town Meeting passed [last Wednesday] with the one permitted use,” said Selectmen Chair Adam Dash. “There is no new language.”

The selectmen also set the date for a fall Special Town Meeting, to take place on Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 13 and 14. The town meeting is being moved from its traditional Monday start due to the observation of Veterans Day on Monday, Nov. 12.

The agenda for the “Special” will likely include new zoning restrictions on “time, place and manner” of retail marijuana operations in Belmont and the approval of a large debt exclusion for the construction of a new Belmont High School. But the exclusion will only be presented to Town Meeting if it’s first passed by town voters at the general election on Nov. 6. 

Special Town Meeting, Nov. 13 [LIVE FEED]

Photo: Moderator Mike Widmer at the start of the Special Town Meeting, 2017.

Hello and welcome to the Belmont Special Town Meeting being held on Monday, Nov. 13 at the Chenery Middle School.

7:05 p.m.: Moderator Mike Widmer gets the proceeding underway five minutes late, or as we all know it as “Belmont time.”

7:15 p.m.: The first presentation concerned the creation of Veteran’s month in Belmont and an update on the Veteran Memorial fundraising (it still has $150,000 to go to reach its goal of $350,000). And Patty Mihelich is given a warm welcome on the recognition of the 25th anniversary of the Belmont Food Pantry. 

7:35 p.m. AnnMarie Mahoney, the chair of the Major Captial Project Working Group, discusses the process of coming to a solution to the four major building project in town: Police headquarters, DPW facility, the Belmont Public Library and the High School. The high school and the library have their own plans, so police and DPW are the best. candidates for “emergency solutions” that will increase the “humane employee working conditions, safety, accessibility.” 

The DPW needs adequately sized break room, changing area, locker rooms and office space. This is the easier of the two. Police headquarters is difficult because it needs an elevator which is problematic due to infrastructure barriers. It also needs adequate space for male and female officers.

The long-term plan for the DPW includes a new building and a place a new access road to Pleasant Street. 

Police headquarters will be in the DPW yard off Woodland Street. It will also have an access road to Pleasant Street. There are a lot of advantages to this area. 

The preliminary estimate for emergency solutions is $1.6 million for the DPW and $2.8 million for a total of $4.4 million with funding from the capital stabilization fund, capital budget, and free cash, Cushing Square parking lot money.

New buildings will cost $20-$25 million. Funding with a debt exclusion. Love to raise revenue with innovative solutions.

Prioritising projects other than the new high school. Criteria include condition, cost, readiness and public use. 

“We can do short-term solutions, but it is just not practical,” said Mahoney. 

Sample timetable: High school will have a debt exclusion in 2018 and construction in 2020 to 2023 with the library debt exclusion in 2020 and the DPW and Police in 2024. 

And there are other projects that need to be renovated and to be constructed – parking in Belmont Center and renovating Belmont schools. 

Tonight Mahoney wants $383,230 from the Kendall Insurance Fund for the emergency funding of the DPW/Police and forming a building committee for both projects. 

Mahoney’s detailed and entertaining update on her group’s work is given a big hand. For anyone who wants a primer on how to make a presentation at Town Meeting, review her deft handling.

8 p.m.: Bill Lovallo of the Belmont High School Building Committee is providing an update on the new high school which is coming along quite nicely. “This is a critical time for community engagement,” said Lovallo. By the end of August, the committee will give a presentation to the selectmen on how much money it will need to create the new school. The debt exclusion vote will occur either in Nov. 2018 to April 2019. “This is not a building committee project, a selectmen project or a school committee project. It is a Belmont community project,” he said.

8:10 p.m.: And here we go with the first article for a vote: the revolving fund article. George Hall, town counsel, said this article is mostly a technical issue to follow the lead of the legislature that now requires the funds to be part of the town’s bylaw. PASSED unanimously. 

8:15 p.m.: Article 3, this is the reason for the special town meeting: to fund the purchase of modular classrooms and improvements at the Burbank at the cost of $2,734,000. Belmont Superintendent John Phelan said the modulars are needed due principally to the system’s biggest bugaboo: just too many kids entering the system. Projected enrollment at the current rate will be 25 kids in each elementary classroom. The modulars will add one teacher per each grade which will reduce the class size. The district is also adding teachers, finding space and other things. At the Burbank, there will be four classrooms, improvements in parking, playground areas. Treasurer Floyd Carman said the program will be paid from a 10-year bond at 3 percent at $321,000 a year. 

Jim Gammill, Pct. 4, questioned that use of the funding but it was considered beyond the scope of the question which is all about authorize funding, not spending. Katherine Poulin-Kerstien, Pct. 6, of the Burbank PTO, said she is in support of the project as a short-term solution to enrollment problems until a new High School is built which likely have a 7-12 grade configuration which will lessen the enrollment problems. Bob Sarno, Pct. 3, asked Carman if the funding could come from a debt exclusion. Carman said that yes, it’s possible but for the town “This is mission critical,” so why to spend money and time on that method. The questioned as been moved and the vote on the article is up which needs a 2/3’s margin. The vote is 229 for and 14 against; it carries.

8:45 p.m.: Article 4 is up, and Mahoney is back up, asking for the $383,230 for schematic designs for emergency repairs and the creation of a building committee for both issues. Stephen Rosales, Pct. 8, introduces a video that was created by the Belmont Media Center to give a tour of the conditions inside the DPW building and Police headquarters. Liz Allison, Pct. 2, is concerned that voting yes on Article 4 will likely result in a lack of impetus to fund a long-term solution. Ariane Goodman-Belkadi, Pct. 3, of Woodland Street, said she is not in favor of spending the money on short-term relief without knowing more on a permanent solution. Opposed to placing a police station on a dead end street, she asked if the MBTA doesn’t allow access to Pleasant Street, will the working group look for an alternative location. Mahoney said she’s not sure. Mark Paolillo said it’s high time that the town made repairs to the town facilities.

The question has been called, and the vote is 223 yea, and 12 nays, the funding passes.

9:25 p.m.: Article 5 is up which the Belmont Board of Library Trustees is seeking $150,000 from the Kendall Insurance Fund (the Library Foundation will put in $150,000 to meet the total funding) to move forward on schematic-level design and the creation of a building committee. Kathleen Keohane, head of the Trustees, gave statistics on the library and Ellen Schreiber talked about the private fundraising campaign that will be required to start the process towards building the new library. Joel Semuels, Pct. 6, asked the town to support the funding needed to create a plan that can be brought to investors and donators. Steve Rosales, Pct. 8, said the town had spent $301,000 in past planes and designs. What’s to say the $150,000 will not be wasted as funding in the past. 

The motion has been moved, and the vote to take $150,000 from the Kendall fund is 215  yes, and 21 no. It passes. 

9:50 p.m.: We are going to finish the special town meeting tonight! Last up is the citizens’ petition on creating an elected planning board. Paul Roberts, Pct. 8, is introducing his petition. The Selectmen are unfavorably inclined to the article. “This is a simple amendment to make Belmont government better,” said Roberts. Roberts said an elected board – which Belmont had from 1922-72 – would only change the way the board is populated, by the people. Co-sponsor Wayne Mesard said an elected board would bring the full breadth of talent within the community and provide a defense against bureaucratic overreach. If approved, the planning board will resemble qualified people like our other boards, as other towns do. Co-sponsor Anne Mahon said everyone in the room ran and were elected; it will be the same with the new planning board.

Selectman Adam Dash said an elected board would politicize the board – and make them susceptible to public pressure – and that the town would not get the number and quality of people who would run for the position. Ellen Schreiber, Pct. 8, said she’s opposed because people don’t run for “significant” positions because they are “hard”, incumbents are re-elected and won’t provide the accountability the proponents seek, there should be a change in the appointment process, and elected boards will be impacted by upcoming elections. “We are not in a rush,” said Schrieber. 

Michael Crowley, Pct. 8, said “we are adults” and the public can make the decision through voting. Corinne Olmsted, Pct. 1, said Planning Board serves the residents and so the residents should have a direct voice to support the board. Ian Todreas, Pct. 1, said if you have the energy and commitment to run for such an important position, you will have the drive to do a good job.

The question has been moved and the vote is … 87 yes and 141 no; it’s defeated.

And the town meeting is over.

League of Women Voters Holding Special Town Meeting Preview Monday

Photo: Modular classrooms.

The Belmont League of Women Voters and Warrant Committee is co-sponsoring a warrant briefing to acquaint Town Meeting members and residents with the articles in the Special Town Meeting warrant.

The meeting will take place Monday evening, Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. in the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.

This is an opportunity for Town Meeting members and the general public to ask questions of town officials and department heads concerning any of the warrant articles prior to the Special Town Meeting to be held in one week on Monday, Nov. 13. Articles will include the financing of modular classrooms at the Burbank school and changing the selection of Planning Board members from appointed to elected.

Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein will lead the meeting.

Two Nights? Now Six Articles Before Special Town Meeting

Photo: Moderator Mike Widmer at the February 2016 Special Town Meeting.

A citizens’ petition seeking to elect members of the Planning Board brings to six the number of articles in the warrant for the Special Town Meeting next month.

The warrant – which was open and closed on Tuesday, Oct. 10 – will likely take more than the traditional single night to vote on the measures before the 290-plus member legislative body.

“It looks like we’ll need to plan for two nights to complete the meeting,” said Town Clerk Ellen Cushman as she accepted the planning board petition on Tuesday. 

The articles are:

  • Reports from town departments and committees, residents.
  • Amendment to the General Bylaws: Revolving Funds,
  • Appropriation for modular classrooms at the Burbank School ($2.6 million),
  • Appropriation of funds ($370,000) for schematic design and authorization of a Building Committee for a Department of Public Works short-term option and a Police building short-term option,
  • Appropriation of schematic design ($150,000) and authorization of a Library Building Committee.
  • Citizens’ Petition to create an elected Planning Board. 

The first night of the Special Town Meeting will take place on Monday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. at the Chenery Middle School. If needed, an additional night will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 15. 

Special Town Meeting Rejects Interior Cell Tower Special Permit Demand

Photo: The view from the front row.

A citizens petition that would have required an applicant seeking to install telecommunications equipment for interior spaces to obtain a Special Permit was handily defeated by Town Meeting Members at the Wednesday, June 7, Special Town Meeting.

The article, brought by neighbors of the Plymouth Congregational Church on Pleasant Street in an attempt to place a new roadblock to Verizon’s proposal to put six antennae in the church’s steeple, went down to crushing defeat, 164-89, not coming anywhere near the needed two-thirds approval margin to change the bylaw.

After the vote, a church representative said the installation of the cell equipment will now quickly move forward. 

“I would anticipate, yes, it will be moving forward,” said Plymouth’s Chet Messer, who attended the Town Meeting vote.

“We indicated at the Planning Board hearing (in May) on this matter that we would have accepted whatever the town [meetings] decision was, and they have spoken,” said Messer.

For one of the leaders of the petition, the plans of those opposing the proposal are wide open. 

“I think were disappointed that the scope of the discussion was so limited,” said Glenn Herosian, referring to Town Moderator Michael Widmer’s insistence the discussion steer clear of the issue of health and safety allegedly from cell towers. He pointed to federal legislation that prevents municipal or state governments from refusing to grant permits on that subject. 

With the defeat of the citizens petition, the opponents have run out of governmental processes to question as Verizon won design and site review approval by the Planning Board, and the Historic District Commission signed off on the plan. 

Herosian told the Belmontonian the next step for the opponents would be determined soon.

“We obviously are going to consider what our options are; we do have options,” he said.

Asked it, one venue was through the courts; Herosian was hesitant to commit to a legal challenge. 

“We have counsel. But we certainly don’t want to do anything to add anymore disharmony to the neighborhood,” he said.

“We are disappointed that so many of the citizens of Belmont didn’t realize what an advantage they would have if they were able to employ experts at the expense of applicants or if they were able to have a meaningful discussion about the correct usages … of interior cell phone tower type installations,” said Herosian.

Presented by Precinct 4’s Judith Sarno, the article would have allowed nearby residents and businesses “to have their voice heard and have meaningful discussions during a special public hearing.”

“The Special Permit process takes a more transparent comprehensive and considered approach … then the limited design and site plan review.” Sarno noted Belmont’s bylaw regulating cell towers had not been updated in the past two decades, “this article goes a long way in catching up to those of our neighbors” Lexington, Arlington and Watertown have each taken steps to require applicants to submit to the Special Permit process.

The new requirement would also review auxiliary impacts from the antenna including the use of generators and when testing and servicing the equipment would occur. It would also ask the applicant to attempt first to place the material on municipal buildings and properties.

“By requiring a Special Permit, we ensure that these installations will require a public process which neighboring residents are given an opportunity to provide meaningful input into the decision-making whether they are in favor … or opposed to it,” said Sarno. 

If Sarno or the petitioners were hoping for a groundswell of support that proponents of the successful Special Town Meeting article to corral the construction of “mega-homes” instead found a growing number of Town Meeting members waiting in line to speak against the measure.

Bob McLaughlin, Precinct 2, said he was troubled with what he said is a “built in preference” to place the telecommunication equipment on a town building.

“As a Town Meeting member, I’m here to represent citizens, people who own property, and people who have the income from a Verizon (tower) … and we should not be competing with our constituents” especially since the town has the power to make law that “tilts the competition in favor of Belmont,” he said.

As for transparency in the review process, McLaughlin stated he “doesn’t care what goes on in your attic or your building, and you shouldn’t care what goes on in my attic,” to the applause of the meeting.

He added that a Special Permit should only be used when there is a countervailing public good that outweighs it, ” but I don’t see it.”

“There is one good reason for a Special Permit process, and that’s because it’s great for lawyers,” said McLaughlin, a long-time attorney.

Those members for the article approved of adding more opinions and transparency from telecommunication firms in the process. Steven Pinkerton. Precinct 7, who “had no dog in this fight,” said the added dialogue among neighbors before the Zoning Board Appeals “and not on the street” would result in the installation of much-needed cell coverage “just more carefully designed.” 

Helen Golding, Precinct 1, believed the article was a “Trojan Horse” where issues of how the equipment would be used and maintained were “hiding” the opponents health concerns that is prohibited by federal law.

“This is just subterfuge. I feel as if the applicants have not been transparent,” said Golding.

Melissa Irion, Precinct 8, who complained that “I can’t get a decent cell phone call” on Dean Street, said the article was just another “unfair measure against business and development in town. Better service makes us a more desirable town.”

Ellen Schreiber, Precinct 8, said the introduction of the Special Permit process will not be “simple or quick” as advertised by proponents, especially if there is considerable opposition to the tower.

Schreiber added that spotty cell reception in Belmont Center and the Winn Brook neighborhood was a public safety issue. She pointed to data that found that two of every five calls to Belmont 911 comes from a cell phone, a trend that is only growing.

“If you can’t call 911 and 41 percent who call 911 uses a cell phone … that is a public safety issue,” she said.

There were only two attempts to tread on possible health worries, each time to the consternation of the assembled members. Selectmen Vice Chair Sami Baghdady, who along with Jim Williams voted for “favorable action” on the article, explained his vote by saying that regardless of what the scientific or medical studies may say, “wireless telecommunication facilities or cellular antennas do incite public concern and panic” if placed in a residential neighborhood.

“Imagine having a cellular antenna in close proximity to where your children sleep or where your children play,” said Baghdady before the meeting exploded in jeering and catcalls as Widmer said the comments were “beyond the scope.” Baghdady concluded that he sought “meaningful dialogue” to “mediate concerns” that residents do not have within the design and site review process. 

Dr. Martin Steffen of School Street and Boson Univeristy Medical Center – who was providing the petitioners with scientific insight and expertise – called an earlier assertion that cell towers produced 50 watts of energy (compared to a light bulb) “a real red herring” as it was not from radiofrequency radiation. He then submitted that such radiation “creates health effects” an assertion left unexplained as Widmer ruled that line of inquiry “out of order.” 

When the vote was flashed on the screen, the margin surprised members since the petition had signees from each of Belmont’s eight precincts. 

After the meeting, Herosian told the Belmontonian that it appeared to him that there were “more personal issues [expressed by Town Meeting Members] verses really clear efforts to improve the way the town manages its utilities and manages its neighborhoods.”

Herosain said the crux of the issue is not the short term use of a cell phone to make a call; it’s the long-term, 24/7 exposures are not part of the current FCC criteria.”

Belmont Town Meeting Rejects $144 Million Minuteman Funding Proposal

Photo: The vote at Town Meeting.

With many members expressing a great amount of frustration with the process and the school’s administration, Belmont Special Town Meeting voted down the $144 million bond issuance plan for a new Minuteman Career and Technical High School building, 141-81, Wednesday night, May 4.

The overwhelming rejection of the project now places the future of the 628 student school in jeopardy as Belmont appear likely to be the only one of 10 communities in the Minuteman School District to vote against the plan.

“[T]his is the wrong school at the wrong time,” said Belmont Board of Selectmen’s Chair Mark Paolillo, who spoke against the plan which would have saddled Belmont with an annual bill of $350,000 to $500,000 to pay for its portion of the nearly $100 million to build the school.

Paolillo said approving a new school among the ten communities would end any meaningful incentive for cities and towns, including Watertown, Waltham, Medford, and Everett, outside the district that sends nearly 45 percent of the student population to join the district and help pay for the building.

While voicing its disappointment with the vote, leaders of the Minuteman administration contend they will move forward with the project and will push for the final two towns – Arlington and Needham – whose Town Meetings vote on Monday, May 9, “to stay the course” and approve the funding proposal, said Dr. Edward Bouquillon, Minuteman’s superintendent.

The Town Meeting vote – coming after two hours of presentations and debate – indicated that Minuteman could not close the deal with Belmont voters, as it was already starting behind the 8-Ball after the Board of Selectmen (unanimously), the Warrant Committee (8-6) and Capital Budget Committee (6-1) recommended “unfavorable action” in the article. 

Jack Weis, a Town Meeting Member from Precinct 1 and Belmont’s representative to the Minuteman School Committee, presented the case for accepting the plan for replacing the deteriorating existing facility that has aged since it was built in 1974.

Since 2010, the school has been conducting a feasibility study that resulted in the administration would not support building a school for less than 600 students as it would limit the number of fields of study which they contend is critical to attracting students to fill the building. Weis told the assembly that building a school for about 400 students would cost about $120 million, which is not much savings. 

While Weis admitted he believes the building is too big, “I get tripped up” when asking himself “will be better off if we vote ‘no?’” With nothing on the horizon in alternatives for Belmont students now and in the future, the better path, said Weis, was to seek approval of the new school funding.

Paolillo countered Weis and Minuteman, saying while he was prepared to vote ‘yes’ for a facility that met the needs and demands of the ten member districts, a 628-student building proposal was far too big for the municipalities who would be backing the bonds to fund the structure.

“I just can’t get to yes with a $144 million building,” said Paolillo, noting that the funding would need to be paid for via a debt exclusion vote, likely on the same ballot in 2018 as the possible $100 million debt exclusion for the renovation and new construction of Belmont High School. 

Paolillo did not believe a “no” vote would kill a new building, just allow communities to continue negotiations.

“Maybe I’m an optimist, but I think that we can strike a new deal,” he said, rejecting the call by some that Belmont leaves the district and find an alternative school or program to educate the 26 students currently attending Minuteman.

When the floor was opened to residents, most speakers spoke of a frustration born of wishing to support vocational and technical education yet being unable to back the only project placed before them.

Bob McLaughlin, of Precinct 2 who with Paolillo and Weis worked on Belmont’s task force to the district, hammered the deal accusing the Minuteman administration of building a “Cadillac” school – it would become the most expensive vocational school in the Commonwealth if built – which could cost Belmont as much as $36,000 per student tuition but only if the school reaches the 628 maximum. 

Long a critic of a larger high school building, McLaughlin said assertions by the Minuteman administration that out-of-district communities would pay their fair share of the capital expenses with a surcharge or by joining the district will not occur after the funding is OK’d.

“We are going to repeat history. The non-member towns are going to get a free load or a much cheaper load on the backs of the member towns,” he said.

Some members defended the proposal for the sake of all the students “who want more than doing college prep courses,” said 

Roy Epstein, Pct. 6, and Warrant Committee member (who was one of the six “yes” votes) said there is no contingency plan [if it leaves the district] and we will have 60 days to decide to leave and then to do what? No one knows.”

Epstein said the town should take the risk that out-of-town communities will want to secure student spots in a brand new school by joining the system, “and build a new school.” 

Carolyn Bishop, Pct. 1, said she had not heard any options for Minuteman. “What do we do with the students we can’t send because we didn’t approve a new school?”

“How can we meet the needs that Minuteman currently provides?” Bishop said, adding that she would “rather see something too large, we never erred on the side of too large. There are always ways to fill the spaces.”

But it soon became apparent that even members who were inclined to back the building plan due to the numerous questions that could not be answered.

Some pointed to the declining enrollment at Minuteman – a steady fall from 1,200 district students in the late 1970s to only 331 today – while other technical schools around the state are filled. Others focused on the non-member communities and their lack of cooperation in paying for the school. 

“It’s starting to feel like this whole concept of member towns is totally ludicrous,” said Suzanne Robotham, Precinct 2, suggesting the town leaves the district and send the 26 students at the reduced rate. 

Then there was the concern of which school the town should

“We may have only one realistic opportunity to go to the till of Belmont voters and ask for money, and my laser focus is on the 1,200 than the 26,” said Peter Whitmer from Precinct 6.

In the end, the combination of what many believed to be an oversized school without the assurances that it could be filled sent the proposal to a crushing 60 vote defeat.