Roll Call, Wrong Call: 2019 Town Meeting Starts With A Topsy-Turvey Result

Photo: Belmont Town Moderator Mike Widmer

Those who are successful at the card table will agree a basic rule to stay in the game is not to “overplay your hand,” which the Cambridge Dictionary describes as “spoiling your chances of success by saying or doing too much.”

Oh, if only those Belmont Town Meeting Members who battled to keep the term of Town Moderator to one year had heeded that warning. After beating back an article to lengthen the moderator’s term to three years by a razor thin margin, they said “too much” by asking for a roll call vote.

And within mere minutes, those members snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as the legislative body went topsy turvey and


For a meeting seemingly devoid of “blockbuster” articles or amendments, the start of the 2019 Belmont Annual Town Meeting on Monday, April 29 sure had its share of memorial moments.

One hundred and sixty years of tradition was set aside, increasing affordable units in larger private developments, and were actions by the 290 member legislative body on Town Meeting’s first night.

But it was a seemingly inconsequential amendment changing the term of the Town Moderators tenure from one to three years proved to be the night’s highlight, demonstrating, as the great American philosopher Mike Tyson noted, “everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.” And in this instance, the injury was self inflicted.

Supporting the article, Town Moderator Mike Widmer told the meeting he was not advancing the article for any personal reason; many municipalities have moved to a multi-year term for moderators as it provides continuity to a position that has taken on more roles and responsibilities in the past century. The change would take place in 2021. Widmer admitted he would happily accept any decision made by the legislative body he has presided over for the past dozen years.

The “no” group concerns were based on that expanding powers of the position which includes appointing the members of several important town bodies including the Warrant, Capital Budget and all building committees. They contend that this is too much responsibility for one person to have over that “long” period of time who could “stack the deck” for one side or another.

“There is on the national scene some great examples of people who are not component get appointed to roles that we really should think about,” said Claus Becker, Pct. 5.

And in one of closest votes in modern Town Meeting history – Town Clerk Ellen Cushman couldn’t say for certain if there were any tighter in the past century – Town Meeting rejected the article by two votes, 124 to 122.

But rather than taking its winnings and running for the door, the group that prevailed in besting the article suddenly requested a roll call vote, a second tally of members which their individual votes are recorded and made public on the main screen.

While a fairly rare occurrence in past Town Meetings, the action was not unexpected on Monday as a group of members declared on social media and at the auditorium they would request roll calls on three articles including the Moderator’s term.

Those promoting the planned roll calls said it was an attempt to bring a great level of transparency at Town Meeting, said Julie Crockett, Pct 6.

“Calling for a roll call is all about accountability,” said Crockett after the meeting. “It’s not an attempt to make anyone feel uncomfortable. For far too long Town Meeting has hid behind [aggregate] voting.”

Others town meeting members were not so kind to this tactic, calling it “vote shaming” as it identified the decisions of members who may take unpopular decisions. Earlier roll calls Monday on affordable housing and changing the name of the Board of Selectmen – both which passed by large numbers – saw the number opposing those articles fall from the first to the second vote as apparently some members didn’t want to be recorded on the “wrong side” of an issue.

“It’s intimidation,” said one member who while voting in the majority in earlier votes, was not happy with “taking down names. It’s not right.”

In an outcome that surprised many in the room, the subsequent vote resulted in the “yes” supporters victorious by two votes, 126 to 124. By zealotly sticking to its preconceived blueprint, the proponents for keeping the one year stint were left to rush to the Town Clerk’s office Tuesday morning to seek a reconsideration of their overplayed hand and a third bite of the apple. The reconsideration has been accepted, according to an email from the Town Clerk’s Office.

Name That Change

In other articles, a more than a century and a half tradition came to an end when the members overwhelmingly struck a blow for gender neutrality officially changing the name of the board of selectmen to the select board. The new name will become official in about three months, according to Town Counsel George Hall. The article initially passed, 238-11, with a roll call vote, the article was approved 243 to 4 with 4 abstaining.

“I only wish he had done this some time ago,” said Selectman Adam Dash.

The yearly gathering also approved by a more than two-thirds needed majority increasing the potential number of affordable housing units in large residential and for the first time in mixed-use projects by changing the existing bylaw. In the first vote, the measure passed 224-25.

“The impacts of these amendments will make Belmont more consistent with our peer communities, increase the production of affordable homes in development projects with 20 or more units, treat single and mixed-use developments the same … and make sure we are suited for the current environment. When development happens, we want to be ready by having a strong, inclusive policy in place,” said Rachel Heller, chair of the Belmont Housing Trust.

The members easily passed a zoning change to provide the same height and massing limitations on expansions and renovations of homes in the relatively small neighborhood along the east side of Pleasant Street adjacent the Route 2 off ramp as other neighborhoods in town. It passes 236 to 15.