Photo: Mike Widmer, Belmont Town Moderator, opens the 2023 annual Town Meeting on May 1
It was a clean sweep for the seven Community Preservation Act projects as they were overwhelmingly accepted by members on the opening night of the annual Belmont Town Meeting held in person for the first time since November 2019.
“I’m delighted we’re back in person,” said Town Moderator Mike Widmer as he greeted the approximately 235 members to the Belmont High School Auditorium on Monday, May 1.
Widmer acknowledged several members remained concerned about being indoors with the coronavirus remaining a health issue, which was one of the reasons Belmont trailed other communities returning to public meetings. With the help of the Board of Health, a special section in the auditorium’s balcony was set aside for those residents seeking a comfortable distance from their fellow members.
“Obviously, nothing is 100 percent perfect, but I’m confident that we’re making this step in a responsible way,” Widmer told the assembled body.
The night felt like a long-delayed family reunion, with members happily reintroducing themselves in the High School auditorium with hugs and pats on the back. Some expressed an almost nostalgic fondness for the battered original seats in the old High School “that poked you so you’d pay attention.”
The Boy Scouts from Troop 304 and Girl Scouts Troop 82109 presented the colors while Life Scout Karina Kinzinger led the meeting in the Pledge of Alliance. The Belmont High Chorus sang the national anthem, and Bishop Christopher Palmer of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints provided the invocation.
The Meeting has seen a historical change in its demographics since that last in-person get-together three-and-a-half years ago, noted Widmer. Since 2019, 100 new Town Meeting members have been elected, nearly a third of the legislative body, with 25 elected in April. Those include an 18-year-old and a growing number of People of Color joining the Meeting’s ranks.
Long-standing Town Meeting stalwart Fred Paulsen was honored with a proclamation from the Select Board. Paulsen served 62 years as a Member, starting in 1959 as a member of the School Committee, which is likely the longest tenure of any resident on the body.
“I think I’m safe to say it’s gonna be a long time before that record is broken,” said Widmer.
“Fred, you were always very incredibly thoughtful and respectful,” said Mark Paolillo, Select Board chair. “You always did your homework and were very analytical about the points that you made. I think you convinced a lot of people including myself, to vote your way when I felt differently about it.”
“Sixty-two years has passed in a flash,” said Paulsen as he received a standing ovation from the body. “I enjoyed every Town Meeting and always hoped I made a positive impact, even those times where my comments and ideas were cast aside.”
As is keeping with tradition, long-serving Town Meeting members who are no longer representing their precincts were recognized, with Katherine Lind (39 years), Linda Oates (36), Henry Kazarian (29), and Brett Sorenson (27) leaving with more than a quarter of a century of service.
The first night was dedicated to Article 11, the seven Community Preservation Committee projects presented by its chair and recently elected Select Board member Elizabeth Dionne.
“The good news is that after adding interest on funds, Belmont’s total CAC funds raised to date (since 2012) is $16,694,344,” Dionne told the meeting, with the annual CPA charge for each residential taxpayer at $245.
The fiscal ’24 projects – and their price tags – included:
- Conservation Fund, $200,000
- Support for the creation of new affordable housing, $250,000
- Grove Street basketball/baseball reconstruction, $941,935
- Library historic objects preservation plan, $86,787
- PQ Park basketball replacement in kind, $124,592
- Rejuvenation of Sherman Gardens, $400,000
- Homer House third-floor window restoration installation, $31,500
To take a deep dive into each project, a link to the Community Preservation Committee’s page is here.
The Grove Street project – the reconstruction of the basketball court and renovation and seeding of the baseball fields – was the only presentation in which an amendment was submitted. Presenting for a fellow Precinct 4 resident, Kate Bowen requested the article carve out the baseball field appropriation and leave $290,370 to replace the court.
Beyond the purview
While saying she values the three areas that the CPC funding targets – affordable housing, historic preservation, and open spaces that include recreation projects – Bowen said the amendment enables “Town Meeting to consider the proposal in greater detail than we would be allowed without the amendment.”
“Over these years, there is a growing concern that we are overbuilding for basic needs and basic maintenance oversights,” said Bowen. She pointed out the project is two proposals, one urgently needing repair while the baseball diamonds were deemed a want rather than a need.
Yet the CPC Committee said the amendment went beyond the purview of Town Meeting. Dionne noted earlier that while the legislative body can reduce the amount of funding or reject the project, “the stated rational for the amendment to eliminate reconstruction of the baseball fields changes the project as recommended by the CPC.” If the amendment had passed, the reduced funding amount would be insufficient to construct the CPC-approved project, both the Select Board and Committee would then exercise their prerogative to table the project.
But the meeting would have none of that as member after member spoke out to make the ball fields safe to play on.
“You’re right, we are supposed to be critical when things come before us,” said Kathleen “Fitzie” Cowing, Precinct 8. But Cowing said there had been ample opportunities to attend the months-long CPC vetting process and countless Recreation Commission meetings to debate separating the proposed work at Grove Street.
“Now is not the time for us to decide to pick it apart because we didn’t like how it panned out,” said Cowing.
Bowen’s amendment was pushed overboard, 10-224-3, and the project sailed through 219-3-0.
Each project was approved with little opposition, and the affordable housing appropriation passed by the “narrowest” margin of 215-13-1 with the PQ basketball court – all three public hoops courts are now under repair – being accepted unanimously, 221 yeas, zero nays.
With the goal of finishing before 10:30 p.m., the final four presentations were presented under the “brevity is your friend” maxim. The last Article 11 project, the third-floor windows reconstruction at the Homer House, took Belmont Woman’s Club’s presenter Wendy Murphy a quick two minutes to present and then one minute for the meeting to approve.
Town Meeting returns for the final two nights on Wednesday, May 3, and Monday, May 8.