Town Meeting Warrant Is Open Until Feb. 23

Photo: The Town Meeting warrant is open for business

The chance to have your say before this year’s Town Meeting is underway as the Select Board voted Monday, Feb. 8, to open the meeting’s Warrant for the next two weeks.

“We’re doing is allowing resident to … submit warrant articles through citizens’ petitions or soliciting the Select Board to act,” said Roy Epstein, the Board’s chair.

The warrant was opened at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 9 and will close on Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 3 p.m.

There is already a long list of articles that have been submitted by the town and its departments, 23 in total as of Monday. The articles will be debated and voted during the first session of Town Meeting which will convene in late April or early May.

Just a few of the non-standing articles include:

  • Establishing Indigenous Peoples’ Day
  • The acceptance of Oakmont Lane as a public way
  • A resolution to the legislature to revise the state’s gas law to allow communities to approve fossil fuel free new residential construction
  • A sanitary sewage easement for 100 Common St.
  • Disposition of property at 92 Trapelo Rd.
  • Lease of a cell tower at 780 Concord Ave.
  • A bylaw to limit/restrict leaf blower use
  • Changes to the Belmont Light Board governance

Patrice Garvin, Belmont’s town administrator, said it’s likely that more articles will be forwarded from elected and standing committees and boards seeking the Select Board’s help in placing articles in the warrant.

“It’s not just time for citizens’ petitions,” said Garvin.

Town Meeting ’17: Four Citizens’ Petitions Include Welcoming Town, Pay-to-Throw, 5 Selectmen

Photo: Pay as you throw on the Town Meeting agenda.

Making Belmont a “Welcoming Town,” increase by two the number of Selectmen, placing the town’s cash into a particular account and making residents pay for trash removal. Those are the four citizens’ petitions that have been certified by the board of registers and will be before the 2017 Town Meeting in May.

“Welcoming” Town Designation (Anne Mahon, Alma Avenue)

After the election of President Donald Trump in November, Anne Mahon said she feared that the New York real estate developer and television personality would implement a series of campaign promises targeting immigrants for deportation and ban refugees and immigrants from majority Muslim nations from the country. In late January, Mahon’s trepidation came to fact as Trump signed a hastily created ban on people from seven Middle Eastern nations from entering the country. (That effort was successfully challenged in the courts).

Mahon, the president of the town’s Democrat Committee, felt that as a community Belmont could follow the lead of several municipalities to become a “sanctuary community” under which the town and its education and public safety departments would not cooperate with federal agencies involved with immigration.

Nearly 500 cities and towns are considered “sanctuary” communities, according to the Ohio Jobs & Justice Political Action Committee, which have tallied the number more than a decade.

After researching the issue and talking to others in the progressive community, Mahon decided to take a slightly different and less confrontation tack. The “Welcoming Town Designation” would reiterate Belmont’s history of “welcom[ing] immigrants from many regions around the world” who “enrich the fabric of this community.”

The petition reads that “[n]ational policies that discriminate against immigrants because of religion or country of origin run counter to our values” and so it should not assist those plans including from the federal agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE.

In many communities, local police will inform ICE they are holding a person with questionable immigration status and will accept and ICE  detainer warrant which is used to ensure transfer of a local inmate who has pending charges in the federal jurisdiction.

Under the petition, “Belmont Police Department will continue its long-held policy of not asking any individual about immigration status” when asking for help or are involved in a minor infraction while providing assistance and protection to all people despite that same status. 

The petition will seek Town Meeting’s solidarity with displaced persons and migrants from around the world and affirm its support for the police department’s current policy of not honoring ICE detainer warrants without a court order or a probable-cause warrant signed by a judge nor detain a person solely on the belief that the individual has committed a civil immigration violation.

Mahon said while she agrees that the police department and school district “are wonderful in how they treat all people in the community,” she continues to worry about “what’s coming down from [Washington] because it’s really frightening.”

My only goal here is to get this to pass, so it gives all people a sense of comfort,” said Mahon.

Increase the Board of Selectmen to five members (James Williams, Glenn Road)

Increasing the number of selectmen on the governing board which is responsible for the oversight town government is not a new proposal. Town Meeting rejected a pair of warrant articles to expand the board to five members in 2000 and 2002 while a few years later the League of Women Voters studied the issue but then did not to endorse the idea.

In 2009, a proposal by a Government Reform Committee would have overhauled the entire structure of town governance including giving more day-to-day power to the town administrator’s office with the selectmen adding two members and become a policy-making committee. But the plan did not reach Town Meeting that year.

In May, Town Meeting will see the return of the five-member body as Selectman Jim Williams

Under Williams’ petition, the board will increase to five members on Town Election 2018, with the election of two Selectmen for three-year terms and a member for two years.

Williams said the change would be in line with the past efforts to revamp the town administrator’s job – vacant due to the departure of David Kale – which will include removing day-to-day tasks from the board. 

While this proposal lacks the detailed governing overhaul blueprint from the 2009 Government Reform Committee, Williams told the Belmontonian that he has bandied “ideas [around] that may authorize increased responsibilities for directly-assigned functions” while eliminating the “matrix [of] duties where simply adding another layer of management to the organizational chart is not particularly useful and can be dysfunctional.” He has yet to present his proposal to the full board for its collective opinion.

Consider waste metering to save money and reduce trash (Kim Slack, Taylor Road)

Slack, who is a member of Sustainable Belmont, is calling on the Board of Selectmen as its role as financial managers to open its mind to “all options for waste management” including what is known as “pay-as-you-throw” systems. 

Familiar in with more rural and outer suburban communities – 145 municipalities out of 352 in Massachusetts that have adopted this approach, or about 40 percent – the concept is rather simple: residents pay a per-unit fee for disposal of the solid waste that they generate which incentifies recycling and reducing trash generation. 

This sustainable approach to waste removal is not a new one in Belmont; the most recent attempt to impose a PAYT system in town was 2010 when a committee suggested to the Board of Selectmen a plan where households would have free trash pickup of 39 gallons worth of garbage while being charged a $2 fee for additional bags.

But as with past attempts to include this “green” technique, you have to remember back to 1990 for context why a PATY system would be a hard sale to households

In that year, town voters approved a $2.1 million Proposition 2 1/2 operating override to pay for unlimited weekly curbside trash pick up. As the $2.1 million has grown by 2 1/2 percent annually, the override currently brings in $3.7 million this past year, nearly twice as much as the contracted cost for garbage and trash collection by F.W. Russell which is $1.8 million for fiscal 2017.

Simply put, why, asked residents, pay for a service that you pay for in your quarterly tax bill? 

But Slack says that the “needs and goals have changed since the 1990 override” and the selectmen “will be better equipped to align the town’s policies for waste with the current financial and environmental goals” which includes 2009’s Climate Action Plan. 

Transfer unappropriated available funds … a sum of money to the General Stabilization Fund” (Robert Sarno, Waverley Terrace)

This is pretty straightforward: Take a portion of the town’s certified “free” cash balance and put it into the town’s General Stabilization Fund.

The GSF was created after the town approved the $4.5 million 2015 Proposition 2 1/2 override and has managed to provide a financial safety valve for the town’s schools which have been under fiscal pressure by an unprecedented wave of enrollment.  

But the fund is quickly being drained. At the same time, the town’s “free” cash (also known as its Rainy Day Fund) account – typically includes actual receipts more than revenue estimates and unspent amounts in departmental budget line items for the year just ended – has been quite healthy coming in at:

  • $7 million in fiscal 2014
  • $6.2 million in fiscal 2015
  • $4.1 million in fiscal 2016

The free cash amount is one element in Belmont’s impressive AAA credit rating; in fact, the town’s rainy day fund could be lower without impacting the town’s gold star rating

And that free cash has come in handy over the past few years, paying for the renovation of Belmont Center ($2.8 million) and installing modular classrooms at the Chenery Middle School ($1.45 million.) 

For Sarno, the best place for some percentage of free cash is to “stretch as far into the future as possible” the money in the GSF, “thus delaying and limiting the need for a future operating override. And by placing the money there, it will be Town Meeting rather than town officials who will have the “opportunity to evaluate and vote on any proposed appropriation.” 


Town Meeting Warrant Opens in February for Citizen Petitions

Photo: Belmont Town Meeting.

Have you ever said, “There ought to be a law in this town!

Here’s your chance to do just that.

The town warrant – the document that calls for the annual Town Meeting which Board of Selectmen voted to approve at last night’s Selectmen’s meeting – will be “open” from Feb. 1 to Feb. 29 for residents who wish to add their own article to be heard and voted on by the 290-member Town Meeting in May.

“Citizens are welcomed to submit petitions,” said Belmont Town Clerk Ellen Cushman.

Under Massachusetts law, residents may place articles before the annual Town Meeting without approval by the Selectmen by petitioning the Town Clerk to insert the article into the warrant. Officially, it only requires ten signatures on the petition from residents to secure a place on the warrant although Cushman recommends 15 to be on the safe side.

While not all petitions are successful, a good portion succeeded to become bylaws. In the past few years, citizen’s petitions on banning smoking in town playgrounds, combining school and town building supervision, restricting yard sales and requiring residents to shovel snow from sidewalks have passed Town Meeting muster and included into the bylaws.

For those residents thinking about putting their stamp on the town’s bylaws, Cushman advises petitioners to do their homework and be prepared to work with town officials and government groups to construct their appeal to have the chance of a favorable vote before Town Meeting.

For those seeking changes to the town’s zoning bylaws should meet with the Planning Board and the town’s Office of Community Development while those looking to alter the town’s budget priorities need to get in touch with the Warrant and Capital Budget committees and the town’s financial departments, said Cushman.

With all petitions Town Counsel, George Hall will review each, to determine that they do not violate the state or US constitutions.

“So it’s important that citizens start the process earlier than later to receive advice in drafting their petitions and getting the support they need to give themselves a good chance before Town Meeting,” said Cushman.

Six Citizen Petition Articles Approved for This Year’s Annual Town Meeting

Six citizens’ petitions ranging from a restriction on how tall a new house can be built, a slew of financial transparency articles and holding a non-binding referendum on solar power pricing will be before the annual Belmont Town Meeting in May.

The petitions were approved by Town Clerk Ellen Cushman before the closing of the Town Meeting Warrant on Monday, March 2, having secured at least 10 signatures from eligible voters.

One article has been in the news since January, as the Belmont Citizens for Responsible Zoning is seeking a one-year freeze on the construction of so-called “McMansions” in the neighborhood adjacent to the Grove Street Playground in the Shaw Estates neighborhood.

Four articles deal with financial reporting and why important opinions before Town Meeting are made. Jim Williams, a candidate for Board of Selectmen, said the “overriding purpose” of the language is to improve “the transparency around articles in the Warrant and thereby … improve the quality of Town Meeting decision making.”

The four articles will:
  • Require the Town Administrator to issue to Town Meeting Members a quarterly Free Cash account report including the amounts received and disbursed since the last report and the sources and uses of the funds received and disbursed. 
  • Require the Board of Selectmen, the Warrant Committee and the Capital Budget Committee – when they issue opinions on Town Meeting articles – to reveal the rationale for their recommendations in writing at the least one day in advance of the article being taken up.
  • The Town Administrator will now maintain a 30-year “steady state” projection model of the town’s budget.
  • The creation of a formal Risk Management Function in the Town Administrator’s office reporting on both the long- and short-term risks and opportunities identified to exist in the operations of the town’s governmental, school and enterprise activities. 

Finally, a group of solar power advocates is seeking Town Meeting approval to place a non-binding referendum before voters to gauge the community’s support for either the newly-created buy back pricing program approved by the Light Board or one which provides a greater payback to households using solar energy.