A Sleepy Special Town Meeting In Belmont As All Articles Pass By Wide Margins

Photo A view of the new Belmont Public Library that will open in the fall of 2025

No controversy, no post-11 p.m. debates, and no problems.

In an efficient and timely manner, Belmont’s town legislative representatives approved five articles by a wide margin at the Fall Special Town Meeting held over two nights, November 29-30.

Not that there was any foreseen trouble from articles that included a compromised agreement on the future use of leaf blowers, three “housekeeping” financial items, and the reaffirmation of the will of the voters who passed a debt exclusion to build a new town library.

On night one of ”the special,” the body heard a proposed general bylaw to ban gasoline-powered leaf blowers. The impetus for the new regs came after residents stuck at home during the Covid pandemic began complaining to the Select Board about the noise from multiple blowers used by landscape businesses at all daytime hours, including early weekend mornings.

While initial public meetings and Select Board discussions on a bylaw pitted those residents who wanted to limit the noisy and polluting machines and small landscaping businesses who saw the ordinance hurting their bottom line, and residents who find the blowers are far more efficient than picking up a rack.

A first attempt to bring a proposed bylaw to the annual Town Meeting was scrapped as the June warrant was oversubscribed, and the wording was less than ideal. During the summer, Select Board member Roy Epstein and members of the Warrant and Energy committees brought representatives of both sides – including landscape owner Dante Muzzioli – to hammer out a compromise, allowing landscapers to continue to use the equipment until a certain date.

“If you’ve read the bylaw, you’ll see it has several provisions that seem complicated, but the overall intent is actually quite straightforward,” Epstein told the meeting.

With both sides aligned with the fact that gas-driven blowers “produce wall penetrating noise and pollution that is incredible,” according to the Energy Committee’s Claus Becker, under the bylaw, ”in a few years all the leaf blowers in town will be a lot quieter and won’t be stinking up the neighborhoods.” Becker pointed out that communities across the country have established bans on gas blowers and that California – a trendsetter for the country – is banning the sale of this equipment in the next two years.

The Warrant Committee’s Geoff Lubien detailed the provisions in the new bylaw:

  • A ban on gasoline-powered leaf blowers starts in January 2026. The three-year” runway” for the end of gas blowers will correspond with technological improvements to electric-powered blowers, thus building a cushion to give homeowners time to switch. ”We feel this is a reasonable time horizon to give everyone to adjust,” said Lubien.
  • The Select Board will appoint an enforcing person. The property owner or property manager – not the operator – will be the responsible party when considering violations of the bylaw. Belmont Police Chief James McIssac believes the police should not be asking for identification from landscaping employees, many of who are undocumented workers. “I don’t want to put my officers in that situation. I don’t think that is the type of community we are,” said McIsaac.
  • A first violation will be a written warning; subsequent violations will see a citation issued.
  • Commercial landscape businesses will prohibit gas blowers at residential properties – single-family homes and condos and two to eight-unit multi-family – from May 13 to Sept. 30. ”Most noise complaints were coming from the dense residential areas,” said Lubian. The dates were chosen because grass and leave debris are the lightest and can be cleaned up with electrical blowers.
  • Commercial properties – town and public school-owned land, cemeteries, state property (such as Beaverbrook), MBTA property, churches, private schools, golf courses, and large apartment complexes such as Royal Belmont – were to be allowed to use blowers until 2026. An amendment to the article by John Robotham (Precinct 2) would add commercial properties to be added to the residential restrictions. While the amendment was not backed by the group or the Select Board, it narrowly passed by 124 to 114 with nine abstentions.
  • There will now be a limit on the number of blowers of any type used simultaneously on residential property; the number will be determined by the size of the lot. This provision will continue after gas blowers have been banned.

The debate of the amended article was lively regarding how effective the enforcement of the new bylaw will be, with a few members demanding from Epstein just how beneficial eliminating gas blowers would be to the environment and to residents hearing.

With the debate completed, the article passed 205 yes, 44 nos, and four abstentions.

On night two, Town Meeting was asked to authorize the borrowing of $34.5 million to demolish the existing building, create architectural drawings, and construct the new 42,000-square-foot structure on the current site. The library debt exclusion was passed by Belmont voters in the state election on Nov. 8 by a 1,800 vote margin.

The reason Town Meeting is required to vote on the debt exclusion that was approved by the voters is because each are “two different things, said George Hall, Belmont’s town counsel. Town Meeting is the appropriating authority to allow the town to borrow the $34.5 million while the voters approved that the principal and interest on the debt could be assessed as additional taxes over and above the level limit imposed by Prop 2 1/2. So both need to be passed to allow for the project to move forward.

The article’s presentation by Kathy Kethane, vice-chair of the Board of Library Trustees, and Clair Colburn of the Belmont Library Foundation noted that $5 million of the project’s total cost of $39.5 million would be paid for from fundraising.

With the feasibility study and schematic designs completed, the project calendar for the project is:

  • Starts immediately the design development phase in which the schematics design is refined; there will be public forums during this phase.
  • Construction documentation phase will come after the design development is complete.
  • There will be a competitive bid process for a construction firm to be hired when construction docs are complete.
  • Breaking ground will occur in the first quarter of 2024 with an 18-20 month construction period.
  • The grand opening of the new library will occur in the fall of 2025.

While most of the town meeting members expressed enthusiastic support for the article, a handful of members sought to convince their fellow legislators to spurn the will of the voters and reject the appropriation. Chief among of those members was Paul Looney (Precinct 7), who launched an 11th-hour campaign to defeat the debt exclusion. Looney did not curry the favor of the members when he suggested that most were not as informed as he was on the library’s impact to the town’s finances. (Precinct 7 voted 885 to 544 in favor of the library debt exclusion)

“Based on my personal conversation with well over 100 residents, I can tell you that non of them has a clue about the Collins’ report or the $8 million structural deficit projected for fiscal year 2024. Many are confused by what a structural deficit means. It’s easy to vote for something when you don’t know what may be lurking behind the curtin. I believe most voters fell in that catagory,” said Looney, who said library supporters used a campaign of “fear” that the current structure is a fire hazard.

Chris Grande (Precinct 1) said with the town’s current fiscal” position is “subobtionial and a plethora of other critical financial needs he would vote no. (Precinct 1 voted 901 to 594 in favor of the library). While “respecting” the large margin the library won in his own precinct and in town, Grande said the voters seemed “a bit out of touch” as there are budgetary issues that voters did to consider which he believes they didn’t when casting their ballots. They included contracts for public safety employees, the expenses of using an out-of-town rink due to the current ice skating rink breaking down, and an expected Prop 2 1/2 override in the next few years, and funding the town’s pension contribution.

“Interest rates are high. Inflation is high. We really can’t afford this,” he said in conclusion.

Most meeting members found the arguments from both Looney and Grande to be wanting. Adriana Poole (Precinct 1) said the article being voted on was not if Belmont voters were educated enough about the issues related to the library when they submitted their ballots on Nov. 8. “It’s about respecting the wishes of the voters. The trust they pit in us as their representatives to carry on this issue and finalize the project.”

Heather Brenhouse (Precinct 7) said “it’s dangerous to present our voters as being uneducated on these issues” as her interaction with residents found them to be informed and engaged in the debate. “We’re either going to be throwing good money after bad if we delay this project or we’re going to invest in our future like the voters have already voted for.”

The vote to approve the article comfortably received more than the 2/3 needed for passage: 228-27-8

On Tuesday, the special meeting was suspended to allow a special town meeting within the special town meeting – ”Special Town Meeting 2” – to vote on three financial articles which were seen as housekeeping

  • Article 1: Raise and appropriate $284,000 to add to the Fiscal Year ’23 Recreation Department budget. This was an example of having to spend money to make money: Since the easing of the Covid-19 restrictions, enrollment in Rec Department programs and sports has grown exponentially. The funds will allow the department to hold the programs this fiscal year, resulting in a spike in fee revenue. Passes 235-5-8.
  • Article 2: Reduce the town’s fiscal ’23 budget’s principal debt and interest line item from $15,778,851 to $15,243,002. This is an oops article; the town miscalculated its original budget.This technical change will lower taxes, so it passed 248-0-1.
  • Article 3: An off-cycle Community Preservation Committee appropriation; the committee approved a total of $266,300 to repair Town Hall’s slate roof. This has been an ongoing issue for the CPC.

Select Board Withdraws Civil Service Article Due To ‘Technical Error’; Others See Folding A Losing Position

Photo: Roy Epstein, Chair of the Select Board

In a surprise that no one saw coming, the Belmont Select Board voted unanimously to withdraw its controversial article removing civil service for Belmont’s Police and Fire departments mere minutes before it was to be presented before a contentious Special Town Meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 23.

Roy Epstein, Select Board chair, told the members the reason for the removal of the article was due to a “technical error” involving rank and file members taking civil service tests for promotions in the coming months.

“I think this sort of last minute change is one that forces our hand in this case. And I would say a postponement at this stage is certainly the prudent approach,” said Tom Caputo of the Select Board.

Because the article was never read into the warrant, there would be no debate and discussion by the Town Meeting members so Town Moderator Mike Widmer quickly dissolved the assembly as the article was the final item on the warrant.

The withdrawal of Article 10 removed what many predicted to be a heated debate on the future of civil service in Belmont.

Supporters of ending civil service, which included town officials, Select Board and the leaders of both fire and police, contend the town would see significant cost savings by ending a 105-year-old arcane system for hiring and promotions, replacing it with an efficiently run locally-focused practice.

Opponents made up of the rank and file of Belmont Fire and Police and resident supporters ask why throw out the baby with the bathwater as changes to civil service – such as altering age limits and increasing diversity in the number of candidates – can be made by changes to the existing language of the agreement. Several Town Meeting Members also questioned the validity of the supposed financial savings with such a move.

Paul Roberts (Pct. 8), a vocal critic of the town’s and Select Board’s tactics said Wednesday night’s board vote had more to do with folding from a losing position.

“My belief is that [the Select Board] did some hasty vote counting  and decided to turn back and live to fight another day. Overall, I think it reflects a haphazard effort all around on Article 10,” he said.

During a meeting of the Select Board that occurred during a break after the Special Town Meeting approved Article 9, Epstein said the board was informed late in the afternoon that Article 10 included a “drafting error” which involved setting the effect date of March 1, 2021 to end civil service protection. It was also assumed this date would protect the interests of police and fire department personnel who were taking civil service promotional exams this fall.

“And we wanted them to have full civil service protection in their new position. And that was always our intent,” said Epstein.

But when the article was reviewed, it was determined that March 1 “was not sufficient,” said Epstein. Because the results of the civil service exams could take longer than previously thought, the board was advised that July 1, 2021 was a more appropriate date to protect any future promotions.

“The idea was not to cause a problem for anyone or to be unfair to anyone who was studying for an exam and then pull the rug from under them by yanking civil service before they had a chance to actually take the test and get the results,” said the Select Board’s Adam Dash.

With the new effective date for leaving civil service being pushed back well passed the scheduled date for the annual Town Meeting in early May 2021, the board decided to allow the members to vote on the article in the coming year.

“Patrice [Garvin, the town administrator] and I recognized if it’s going to be as late as July 1, 2021, we may as well withdraw this article tonight and then we’ll see where we’re at in the spring regarding civil service,” said Epstein.

“We don’t want to do something that did not reflect our true intention. And at this late date there was no cure that other than to withdraw the article,” he said.

Roberts provided his own advice to the those supporting the end of Civil Service in Belmont.

“It is my hope that the Select Board use this extra time to properly study the issue, learn from the experience of other communities and – if they intend to bring this forward again – do so with a plan that addresses the issues raised by our public safety professionals and Town Meeting members. A Town Meeting vote should be the last step in the process, not the first,” said Roberts.

Belmont Special Town Meeting; Session 1, Sept. 21

Photo:

The first session of Belmont’s 2021 Special Town Meeting resembled halcyon days of the legislative assembly as each article presented to the 290 members easily passed muster while only a few comments turned any heads.

Monday’s remote Zoom gathering may well seem like a floating nest in the Aegean as the body prepares to reassembles in two days time when the storm clouds gather to announce the pending clash over the future of civil service where the debate could make civil hands made unclean.

But on Monday, the eight articles and 11 votes were allowed to meander like a later summer walk with a good friend; taking their time with easy conversation with points made in polite chatter.

Under the expert hand of Town Moderator Mike Widmer, the meeting included a video tour featuring “Mayor” Stephen Rosales (Pct. 8) of the newly renovated DPW facilities – on budget and on time – a view forward of budgets to come as well as remembering two members who recently passed in Penny Schafer (38 years) and Henry Kazarian (29 years) and honoring Fred Paulsen for serving 62 years on Town Meeting, “obviously an all-time record probably never to be broken,” said Widmer.

“Serving as a town meeting member has been a rewarding part of my life in the Belmont community,” said Paulsen in a letter to the members. “I hope that I have helped to make Belmont the wonderful community that it is.”

The night would see four/fifths of the meeting done in little more than four hours.

Article 2: Carleton Circle adoption: It’s been 37 years since the last time the town accepted a private way – that being Middlecot Street in the Winn Brook neighborhood. So it’s not that common when a street is “adopted” as a public way.

The residents who are along Carleton Circle requested in 2018 that their road be accepted as a public way. And it was only when National Grid made upgrades to the street as well as each homeowner abutting the road pitched in $1,400 did the road meet the town’s standards of a public way.

The only question – from Jeanne Mooney (Pct. 6) – was if the adoption of the street will increase the property values – and it will, likely over time.

The vote: 237 yea and two opposed.

Article 3: Authorization for Temporary Easement – Wellington Elementary School Safe Route to School Project
This article authorizes the Select Board to grant eight temporary easements and one permanent easement for a transportation improvement for several approaches to the Wellington Elementary School as part of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s “Safe Routes to School” program. The project, worth $1.4 million, includes sidewalk reconstruction, traffic signal reconstruction at the intersection of Common Street at Waverley and School streets, ADA compliant wheelchair ramps, pavement milling and overlay, pavement markings, signs, and minor drainage improvements.

All questions from the body were supportive. Lucia Gates of the Shade Tree Committee did ask if there could be funds to plant replacement trees for the ones which will need to be cut down.

The vote: 237 yes, 2 no and 2 abstained

Article 4: The five Community Preservation Committee Projects approved in the spring by the CPC. Each Special Town Meeting vote is next to the project.

  • $680,624 Town Field Playground and Court Restoration. (241-5-4)
  • $100,000 Homer House Window Restoration Project. (237-11-3)
  • $173,000 Feasibility study for the redevelopment and creation of new affordable housing units at Belmont Village. (228-17-1)
  • $100,000 Belmont Police Station Front Steps Historic Preservation (228-13-3)
  • $100,000 Supplement to Emergency Rental Assistance Community Housing (221-20-2)

The most debate was directed to the $100,000 the Housing Trust would add to the $250,000 the CPC previously allocated in rental assistance to residents impacted by the COVID-19. Betsy Lipson (Pct. 6), co-chair of the Housing Trust said the money request is due to “the unprecedent need the pandemic presents.” This amount will assist between 25-30 additional residents – the assistance program already has qualified 37 applicants – seeking help to pay their rent and maintain housing stability.

While voting for the measure, Jack Weis, Pct. 2, didn’t question the use of the funds but questioned the Community Preservation Committee backing a short-term measure that didn’t support the larger goal of creating affordable housing.

“I find it very frustrating that the [Community Preservation Committee] does not act as stewards of the CPA money on behalf of the town” and “they’re the only committee that does not recommend, advise, or guide Town Meeting as to whether or not they think that the proposed action is prudent and warranted.”

Elizabeth Dionne (Pct. 2), CPC chair, said it was important for the CPC to be challenged at Town Meeting. She would vote against a permanent rental assistance program because long term housing is the much higher priority.

“We’re considering this a one-time emergency event,” said Dionne.

Article 5: Purchase Police Station Modular Units (Trailers) Using Water Retained Earnings
This article seeks to use Water Retained Earnings to purchase for up to $320,000 the modular units currently being leased for the Police Station Project located on DPW land off Woodland Street. Purchasing the units will alleviate severe space constraints for the Public Works Department and other town departments.

Ariane Goodman-Belkadi (Pct. 3) who lives on Woodland Street, expressed concern that the Select Board would have carte blanche on future uses of the modulars at the site located between the Light Department on Prince Street and the Water Department at the end of Woodland. She was worried about the possible overuse by town vehicles – many heavy trucks – of the private way and dead end.

Goodman-Belkadi said she and her neighbors want a commitment from all town departments that only Water Department vehicles and those owned by Water Department employees will use the roadway.

While the town is supportive of meeting with residents to address concerns, it’s unknown if the town can make those commitments.

Other questions included the durability of the structures. When asked the life span of the trailers, Belmont’s Director of Facilities Steve Dorrance said it would last for “decades” if the buildings are properly maintained over that time.

The vote: 212 yea, 19 nay and 5 absent

Article 6: Transfer Remaining Water Capital Balances
This article transfers the remaining funds from prior year(s) capital in the Water enterprise fund will be re- appropriated to be used for the FY21 Water Main Replacement. The total is $137,641.09.

This is an annual accounting clean-up.

Vote: 221 yup, 2 nope

Article 7: Transfer Remaining Sewer Capital Balances
This article transfers the remaining funds from prior year(s) capital in the Sewer enterprise fund will be re-appropriated to Community Developments Sewer & Drain fund $25,581.20 that is used for maintenance repairs and replacements to the Town’s sewer and storm water system.

Just like Article 6 but replacing water for sewers.

Vote: The first unanimous vote of the night: 228 oui, 0 non

Article 8: Amend Zoning By-law: Grammar in Zoning
Town Meeting adopted a revised nonconforming Zoning By-law for the Single Residence B Zoning District in 2019. It later came to the attention of the Planning Board that certain language in the by-law was ambiguous. The article makes the necessary revisions to state the intent of the bylaw more clearly.

Who needs Grammerly when you have Bob McGaw, who initiated this amendment?

Vote: 228 yes, no opposition and three abstained.

Special Town Meeting Likely To Take Up Ending Civil Service For Police, Fire; Trailers Staying On Woodland

Photo: The civil service in Massachusetts

Those hoping Belmont’s Special Town Meeting to be held on the last full day of summer (Sept. 21) would “be so easy” with a few procedural articles that would get passed without much trouble can put those dreams away as it appears there’s likely to be a “knockout drag out” over the future of a long-standing labor hiring practice in town.

Among the draft proposals for the Town Meeting, Town Administrator Patrice Garvin announced that Article 10 would put an end to civil service in the Belmont Police and Fire departments. (The warrant will be finalized on Aug. 31.)

“This has been talked about for some time since I’ve been here, and we felt this was a good time to bring this forward given the financial climate and some of the social climate that’s going around town,” said Garvin, at the end of another marathon Select Board meeting on Monday, Aug. 24.

A public meeting on the article will be held on Sept. 9, said Garvin, whose office will manage the meeting.

Garvin has sent notices out to all union presidents that the town will bargain “in good faith” under the state’s collective bargaining law.

But in a twist to the bargaining process, the board and Garvin will go first to Town Meeting “to see if [it] is interested in removing it and then go to the bargaining table” as opposed to a more traditional negotiating away civil service first and then seek Town Meeting’s approval.

The civil service system in Massachusetts was created in an attempt to end the corruption, patronage, and cronyism that dominated all types of government in the late 1800s when it was who you knew not your qualifications that determined who was hired for a government position. Critics say the civil service laws represent a significant barrier to efficient government operation while its defenders contend it has taken the politics out of municipal jobs especially for the police and fire departments.

While the overwhelming number of Massachusetts cities and towns adhere to civil service rules, Burlington, Lexington, Reading, Wayland, Wellesley and Westwood are some of the nearly 30 municipalities which are not covered by civil service.

While there haven’t been any recent attempts to revoke civil service in town, the topic has been raised periodically by previous town administrations and Select Boards. It resurfaced in the past year specifically during the hiring process of the new police chief and during the current search for a fire chief.

During his public interview for the job, James MacIsaac, Belmont’s current police head, was emphatic that civil service should be taken off the table, saying it would prevent him from hiring qualified residents from a larger pool of candidates and limit placing people of color onto the force as he is required to take the first name off a list of test-takers presented to him by the civil service board.

The members of the current Select Board have in the past expressed qualified support to bring a measure before the town’s legislative body for a vote and did so on Monday.

“A lot of people have been telling us to do more structural change so there you go,” said Adam Dash, a member of the board.

“The people most directly involved with it, namely the police and fire chiefs think this is a very desirable thing to do,” said Roy Epstein, chair of the Select Board.

But the defenders of civil service are beginning to rally their supporters. At nearly the same time Garvin presented the article at 10:40 p.m., firefighter’s local union 1637 was on social media with a notice whose headline screamed: “Protect The Public From Politics!”

“The rank and file members of the Police and Fire departments feel this is not something that would benefit the town in any manner,” read the email pamphlet.

And the town certainly realize they will have a fight on its hands.

“I definitely think we’ll get some push back [from the unions],” said Garvin. But it is worth exploring especially if the outcome of a yes vote are departments with greater diversity and in future years a larger pool of employees of color in senior positions, she noted.

While this Special Town Meeting warrant is filled with articles that were not taken up during the annual Town Meeting in June, there is one which could prove to be just as contentious. The board will likely approve an article to purchase the two trailers the police department has been using as its temporary headquarters for the past year on Woodland Street.

With its single floor open-design plan, the 5,000 square-foot modular trailers have been a hit with the police – early in the year one senior officer said the department would have been happy to have them set up as its permanent headquarters – the town is viewing the modulars as a solution for the threadbare condition of the nearby Water Department.

“The trailer are in really good condition, we can utilize some offices down there,” said Garvin. “It’s an opportunity for the town to acquire an asset and for the Water Department to use it.”

With potential savings by not making payments and eliminating the moving and disassemble fee, “there’s a high upside for keeping those buildings knowing that there’s a space crunch [in town departments],” said Jon Marshall, assistant town administrator. “There are some departments in town that are actually renting space … so there’s certainly an opportunity to put people in spaces that makes sense.”

But board members noted that several neighbors along Woodland Road were told the trailers would be temporary as they worried about police traffic at the site.

“I’m not saying I’m opposed to it but I think there will be a lot of push,” said Dash.

Other articles coming before the Special Town Meeting will include:

  • Adopting private street Carleton Circle as a public way.
  • Authorize the Select Board to grant temporary easements for the Wellington Elementary’s “Safe Routes to School” plan.
  • Vote on several Community Preservation Committee projects including $680,000 for Town Field Playground renovation and $100,000 to repair the front steps at the Police Headquarters.
  • Reallocating water and sewer capital balances towards other capital projects.
  • Vote to approve changes to the zoning bylaw to allow for the construction of residential housing in a portion of the McLean Hospital property.

Goodbye Minuteman Again As Town Meeting Re-Rejects Membership In Regional Voke

Photo: Bob McLaughlin, Pct. 2. speaking against the town rescinding leaving Minuteman.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Wednesday night, Belmont Town Meeting affirmed that saying when it rejected the opportunity to again become a member of the Minuteman High School district.

The article to rescind the 2016 Town Meeting decision to decamp from the vocational school failed, 140-95, as a majority of members are hoping there will be plenty of space in the foreseeable future for students from non-member towns to attend the Lexington school.

“It’s a lot to do with how strongly you believe your own projection of the enrollment numbers,” said Jim Gammill, whose argument for rescinding the earlier decision was voted down by the town’s legislative body.

Members who sought to have the school readmitted to the nine-town district – a position supported by the school committee and Belmont Superintendent John Phelan – are worried that a recent enrollment boom at the school could forecast in an increasing number of Belmont students without a desk waiting for them.

Gammill (Pct. 2) who headed the task force to find an alternative to Minuteman, told members that facts have changed over the past three years from the time when Belmont decided to leave to save a significant amount by not taking on the debt of a new building’s while being able to still send students to Minuteman.

“What changed … is the new building,” said Gammill referring to the 257,000 sq.-ft. structure that opened in September, a year early and under budget. With 20 different vocational and technical shop concentrations, Gammill said interest by middle-schoolers has skyrocketed, a trend he believes is sustainable.

“At this rate, three years from now there will be a full school,” said Gammill, with the real prospect of Belmont students looking from the outside in as member school students are expected to take the available slots. If that occurs, “we won’t have the $100s of thousands of savings” as was predicted in 2016.

In addition, “There is no Plan B,” Gammill protested, saying other vocational schools or programs in eastern Massachusetts are unable to accept Belmont’s students as they are filled or the cost in tuition and transportation would make them “cost prohibitive.”

Like Henry V at Harfleur, Bob McLaughlin (Pct. 2) led the Minuteman skeptics “once more into the breach” having been one of the most vocal proponents three years ago for a BelExit.

“This is a bad deal,” said McLaughlin.

While calling the school “the best vocational training for our kids,” McLaughlin reminded the members that the town left the district in 2016 (by a 72 percent to 28 percent margin) after the other members approved building a new school that was “too large and forced us to take on all that debt.”

‘Belmont was trapped in an agreement that it couldn’t get out of and every year they would hand us a bill that was non-negotiable” for a school that spends nearly $36,000 per student.

McLaughlin said Minuteman has seen student population free fall from 1,254 when it opened in 1977 to 383 in 2016 “and it’s going to continue to drop along with the need for vocational education.” Even if the pro-return enrollment numbers are correct, Belmont would see, at most, two to three students being denied a seat at the table.

”We’re going to spend $472,000 (as a re-entry fee), $200,000 a year (in tuition costs) and assume [a portion of the] $144 million in debt” to assure three students will have an education at Minuteman, said McLaughlin.

And with Belmont ready to undertake a $6 million Prop 2 1/2 override on the ballot in one year’s time, “we’re giving sound bites to the opposition [to the override],” said McLaughlin.

Proponents for taking a second walk down the aisle with Minuteman attempted to show the growing need for a quality school by a growing number of students in Belmont.

Caitlin Corrieri

Chenery eighth grade teacher Caitlin Corrieri said that while many students succeed in the current learning environment, “I also have students for whom sitting in a 50 minute traditional class is torture, who learned better using their hands to make and create, whose brains think outside the box.”

“There is no ‘one size fits all‘ school for everyone,” said Corrieri, an 11 year veteran in Belmont. The alternative provided by Minuteman would be a better fit for some students. And that message is being heard at the Chenery; currently 54 eighth graders signed up to tour the school and 10 have submitted applications.

“I’m here tonight on behalf of our eighth grade teachers to implore you to allow our student to have those options in the future,” said Corrieri, noting that higher education and the workforce are evolving “and Minuteman is responsive to these changes.”

“I hate to see students turned away for Minuteman on a long waitlist because we didn’t speak out on this,” she said.

Jack Weis (Pct. 1), who was Belmont’s representative to the Minuteman School Board in 2016, voiced the opinion of many stating “that there is no right or wrong decision on this question as there are risks associated with either vote. Town Meeting members are going to have to decide … which version of the future they think is more likely.”

“And if they are wrong, which set of downside risky they are more comfortable leaving the town exposed to,” he said.

Mike Crowley (Pct. 8) who is a member of the school committee said “continued membership assures access for our kids for years to come … a no vote tonight put the future in jeopardy.” Once students are “squeezed out” of attending Minutemen, “the quality and breadth of programming isn’t there in the other schools that we may be able to offer us a spot or two.”

Warrant Committee member Elizabeth Dionne (Pct. 2) wasn’t convinced there will be an “enrollment crisis” to require Belmont to spend a significant amount of money annually when the town is preparing for a $6 million override in a year’s time.

With the needs of the general student population and special needs pupils to be considered, Belmont should find a way to “provide vocational education in a more cost-effective fashion,” she said.

“We don’t need to buy 40 years of insurance to make sure this happens,” said Dionne.

Jessie Bennett (Pct. 1) agreed with Weis that the financial difference in staying in or leaving Minuteman is relatively small (a cost-benefit of $100,000 being a non-member using the average number of Belmont students and the current student population) considering the $130 million-plus town budget. “If these numbers are so close, than we should vote our values and our values are to support students and provide them with the best possible education they can get.”

“If we don’t have this available for all kids, we are introducing instability into the decision making process for eighth grade families, we are introducing instability into the decision making process for every family … and in our future as a town that provides the best education for all students.”

The final vote – after which the Town Meeting showed its appreciation of Gammill’s work with a standing ovation – revealed the majority of members voted on the belief that interest in Belmont and surrounding towns in attending Minuteman will abate.

“That’s a lot to hope for because we really don’t have a Plan B,” said Crowley.

Special Town Meeting Starts Wednesday At The Chenery With Minuteman Redux

Photo: The new Minuteman High School in Lexington.

It’s the return of the Minuteman to Town Meeting as Belmont’s legislative body will convene in a special session on Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. at the Chenery Middle School as the high school auditorium will be filled with student/athletes on Awards Night.

Minuteman Returns As Members Ponder A … Return

The majority of the first night will be a debate and vote on Article 4 will be whether the town should reconsider its 2016 BelExit decision to bolt from its four-decade-long membership (by a 141-81 Town Meeting margin) in the Minuteman Career and Technical High School in Lexington and ask nicely to re-join the school district again.

The Minuteman redux is that since rejecting paying $144 million of its share of funding the new school, two major facts have come to the fore: first, after three years, the town has discovered there is no practical alternative for the two to three dozen Belmont students seeking a vocational education. Second, the new school which opened this year has been extremely popular and it’s forecasted there will not be the necessary classroom seats for all the students who want to attend from non-member towns.

Complicating matters is that the town will be required to hand over a one-time buy-back fee of $472,000 on top of paying the annual tuition assessment of approximately $255,000 in the 2020 school year.

It will be a debate with Minuteman supporters pointing to the corner the town has been painted into and their critics basing its “stay the course” plan on the Groucho Marx quote: I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.

Other Articles Set For Wednesday

Article 1 will allow for reports, proclamations and recognitions. Expect the late Lydia Ogilby to be acknowledged.

Article 2 is a capital appropriation for $347,700 to pay for the second half of the funding (the first at $347,100 was approved at May’s Meeting) to purchase a new fire department pumper truck. Expect easy passage as to why would members only want half a pumper truck?

Article 3 – which will follow the Minuteman article – will seek the approval of transferring an undetermined amount of money from Free Cash, which is at $8.1 million, into the General Stabilization Fund. The amount will be around $2.5 million to forego until November 2020 the all but inevitable Prop 2 1/2 override vote. Some questions on this and the odd “no” vote.

A Word From Mike For The Members: Limits Will Be Enforced

Town Moderator Mike Widmer has asked that Town Meeting Members be reminded of the following:

  • All meetings will start promptly at 7 p.m.; please plan to arrive in time to secure parking, sign in and obtain your electronic voting device.
  • The Moderator will strictly enforce the five-minute rule as well as the Moderator’s rules for speaking on any motion, rules that have already been distributed to Town Meeting Members.
  • Presenters will be held to the 10-minute limit and reminded at the nine minutes mark that there is one minute remaining.
  • Town Meeting Members will be required to sit in the designated sections of the auditorium – for the Chenery, the center section and the left section as seen from the rear of the auditorium and for the High School, the front section of the auditorium. We anticipate that there may be a number of non-Town Meeting Members who will attend these sessions of Town Meeting and by law, we must keep them separate from the Town Meeting Members.

Winter Town Meeting Likely Put On Ice As Skating Rink Pushed Up Against Party Primaries

Photo: Jack Weiss speaking to the Select Board on slowing down the process of approving a new skating rink.

The prospects of Town Meeting Members putting on their heavy coats and boots early in 2020 to attend a rare winter Special Town Meeting to approve two important requirements for a new town skating rink appears to have been put in the deep freeze.

The “special” scheduled for Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 to approve a public land sale for the rink as well as the approval of a new zoning bylaw to allow for a recreational building to be constructed will likely be shelved at the Select Board’s meeting this Monday, Oct. 7, due to the town needing to prepare for the 2020 Massachusetts Presidential Primary set for Tuesday, March 3.

According to town officials, the dates are too close to allow proper preparation for either events in such a short time frame.

It now looks likely the issue of the public/private agreement and the new bylaw will be taken up during the annual Town Meeting which will convene in late April 2020.

The date change to next spring for the new skating rink proposal [see what the new rink will be comprised of here] to come before Town Meet is in stark contrast to the lightning speed town and school officials had initially hoped the proposal to have taken place. The first version called for the bid to be accepted, a lease created, the Town Meeting vote and a contract awarded by December 2019.

Town and school officials pushed for the fast track approval process as the town’s existing ice surface, the nearly 50 year old ‘Skip’ Viglirolo Skating Rink adjacent Harris Field off Concord Avenue, is on the verge of failing. Without a replacement, the town would need to secure ice time for the high school hockey programs at a considerable hit to the school department budget.

But after listening to residents – such as Jack Weis and Bob McGaw – who warned at a public meeting last month that a project done in haste could result in costly mistakes, the Select Board in September extended the procurement of a public/private partnership by an additional 15 weeks. Rather than a mid-December date for the school committee signing a final lease with the winning bidder, the new date for the lease signing will be in late March 2020.

But this latest delay will now push the final lease signing into May 2020.

The additional two months will also allow residents who questioned the rink’s location, traffic generation and hours of operation to campaign for restrictions to be placed in the lease to mitigate those concerns.

It is reported that residents led by Anne Paulsen are seeking town wide support to locate five tennis courts on the new Middle and High School property in the general area of the proposed rink.

Will A ‘Poison Pill’ Amendment Doom Opt-Out Supporters’ Hopes For Town-Wide Election?

Photo: Marijuana on the agenda at Belmont Town Meeting.

One usually hears the term “poison pill” when a business is under attack from some Gordon Gekko-type and uses tactics like let shareholders purchase stock at a discount to keep the corporate raiders at bay.

Lately, the poison pill has creeped into politics – enter Ted Cruz – where amendments are made to bills that would make the proposed legislation mute or unattractive to even its supporters. Here’s an example curtesy of the junior senator from Texas.

And it now appears the tactic is being introduced to Belmont Town Meeting as supporters of the proposed Opt-Out Article to be debated tonight during a Special Town Meeting within the annual Town Meeting – which resumes at 7 p.m., Wednesday, May 2 – view amendments to their citizens’ petition as toxic to its chances of passing.

“Oh, yes. It’s a poison pill,” said Julie Crockett, one of the campaigners said of the amendments being presented by Precinct 1’s Emma Thurston.

“The amendments prevent either of these votes from occurring and allow a retail establishment without an in-depth study and public input on the issue,” she said later in an email.

The title of the citizens’ petition clearly explains its mission; allowing the town to opt-out of the retail sale of marijuana to adults that is allowed under the state law passed by voters in 2016. Supporters contend while Belmont voters approved Ballot Question Number 453 to 47 percent, the law also provides municipalities the opportunity to vote on whether they want a pot shop(s) in their communities. It’s that election opt-out supporters are seeking.

“All were asking is that it go to a vote of Town Meeting (and the amendments fail) and so we know how Town Meeting feels, and then if it goes to a townwide vote, we find out the will of the people,” said Crockett in an email.

But already the campaigners for the opt-out article are behind the eight-ball as the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously against the citizens’ petition. Two members – Adam Dash and Mark Paolillo – have publically stated they would not call an election even if the article passes members muster. And now they face an immediate challenge from a supporter of marijuana sales in Belmont. Read Thurston’s view on her amendments and the reasoning behind them.

The amendments Thurston is presenting to Town Meeting – she started with seven but that has been pared down to three – allows members to both support the town opting out of all forms of marijuana sales and manufactoring while allowing it to be sold. The most significant amendment is number 1 allowing the town to “prohibit establishment of Marijuana establishments” as prescribed in the citizens’ petition, with one huge “but”: with “the exception for Marijuana Retailer, as defined” under state law, effectively gutting the amendment of its purpose. Amendment 2 is the same language as number 1 but with a sunset clause to terminate the amendment on April 30, 2021.

Crockett believe the amendment’s purpose is to force the issue of retail sales before members have the opportunity to vote on the citizens’ petition.

“Why do you need an exception to our [article]? If you are opposed to it, just vote no on the article. It’s only to confuse members,” she said Monday.

If the amendment passes, opt-out supporters are left with few options. While the option of tabling the article to a latter date is possible, it is unlikely as campaigner will need a two/thirds vote to move the vote to the future which Crockett deems a stretch.

Nor is it only Crockett’s opinion Thurston is attempting to kill the petition before it reaches a full Town Meeting vote.

“It sure sounds like one,” said Town Moderator Michael Widmer of the poison pill comparison, who said he wouldn’t be surprised if the opt-out supporters would themselves urge a “no” vote on the citizens’ petition to wipe the slate clean.

Thurston’s maneuvering has also changed how Widmer is going to “referee” the night’s debate. Earlier Monday, he expressed a desire to limit the scope of the discussion to the technical question of whether members desired to have a town-wide vote to decide the issue. But after reading the amendments, “what is really before Town Meeting is what contents members wants to send to the voters,” he said.

Due to the still evolving nature of the public’s understanding of the article, amendments and the state law and how they all will impact the town, Widmer said he and Town Counsel George Hall will present “a long preamble” before the presentations on the article and amendments to provide both an overview of the state law and the significance on how the members vote.

At a Monday meeting before the opening night that included bursts of amused laughter, the Board of Selectmen were advised by Hall that many of the board’s and town’s assumptions made about the state marijuana law “is just fiction” including limiting the number of storefronts selling pot which is currently more than one. Thurston’s third amendment, number 7, address that question by restricting the number to a single store.

With so many pot in Belmont questions still being juggled, Widmer said he is likely to quickly turn to Hall “more than once” to help to talk us through this all.”

Going Up? Lack Of Temp Elevator Could Fast Forward New Police Station Decision

Photo: An exterior elevator in Italy.

Two months ago, the Major Capital Projects Working Group revealed a long-term plan for a new Belmont Police Headquarters located adjacent to the Water Division facility at the end of Woodland Street. Best guess for its opening? Approximately 2026-ish.  

But there’s a chance the working group could recommend bringing the proposed project before town residents for a funding vote in the next year or two.

What could fast forward the project is whether an emergency “fix” to the existing police station can include a temporary elevator fitted to the exterior of the building. That was the latest update provided by Working Group member Anne Marie Mahoney to the Belmont Board of Selectmen on Monday, Nov. 6 during a board’s review of the warrant articles before Monday’s Special Town Meeting.

“If that elevator can’t be added to the building, then it’s extremely likely in the Spring [the Working Group] will have another plan ready with a new funding source,” said Mahoney.

The Working Group is requesting from Town Meeting $383,000 be spent to create schematic plans for short-term repairs to the Police Station and the main building at the Department of Public Works, both which are in severe states of disrepair. The funds for the designs – which will outline the “emergency solutions” needed to “create … humane conditions for our employees,” according to Mahoney – will come from a portion of the insurance money the town received after an April 1999 fire destroyed the former Kendall School on Beech Street.

Once the designs are finalized, the Working Group will return to the annual Town Meeting in May seeking a bond authorization of between $4 million to $5 million to make the repairs at both buildings.

The big question mark on the future of a new headquarters is a proposed fill-in elevator. The police station doesn’t have a functioning lift in the two-story building which is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While the headquarters is allowed to operate under a grandfather clause, once “penny one” of the renovations is spent, the town is required to bring the building up to code.

Back in October, it was assumed a temporary elevator connected to the outside of the building would be sufficient. But since then, other experts are not so sure an elevator is “doable” at the site, said Mahoney.

If the elevator cannot be incorporated in the emergency repairs, Mahoney told the board the working group would develop a secondary plan that would call for the construct a new police headquarters “sooner than later.”

“If we can’t do the emergency repairs now, we have really no choice but to move quickly on a new building,” said Mahoney.

Mahoney said it would take less than a month for schematic designs to be completed by the first of the year, “so we’ll have six to seven months to figure it out” before Town Meeting.

Mahoney said it would be a challenge to develop a funding plan – past estimates pegged a new police station in the $20 million range – which will primarily be competing with a debt exclusion vote for a new/renovated Belmont High School which could reach $200 million.

Letter to the Editor: Planning Board Chaos Underscores Need for Accountability

Photo: The Planning Board

To the editor:

And then there were three. With the unexpected resignations this week of former Planning Board Chairwoman Liz Allison and Board member Barbara Fiacco, Belmont’s Planning Board has been reduced to just three members, having lost half its members to resignation in the past month – all three under clouds of controversy. 

The unraveling of this critical body as major projects, like Cushing Village, demand attention and others like Belmont High School loom poses a serious challenge to the Town’s leadership. It also offers a powerful argument in favor of a motion I have put before Town Meeting on Nov. 13 that will bring accountability and order to Planning Board by letting the town’s voters choose its members, as 35 of 39 other towns in Middlesex county already do.

For those readers who are hearing about this for the first time, I’ve taken the opportunity to answer some “frequently asked questions”. I hope this help inform you about this important, citizen-driven initiative. 

Why are you doing this? 

Amending our bylaws to have voters elect our Planning Board will bring transparency, accountability, and professionalism to a critical body whose jurisdiction extends to every private home and commercial property in town. Popular election of Planning Board will give voters the opportunity to evaluate all candidates for open positions on the Planning Board and to choose those who are best qualified and suited to represent the community’s interests. 

This critical change to our bylaws will also bring Planning Board in line with our Town’s other administrative boards and committees, namely: Selectmen, School Committee, Board of Assessors, Board of Library Trustees and the Board of Health, members of which are all elected by voters.

Do other communities elect their Planning Boards? 

Yes. If we consider Middlesex County of which we are a part, 35 of 39 (or 90 percent) of communities with Belmont’s form of government like Newton, Cambridge, Lowell, Somerville have opted for popularly elected Planning Boards. This list includes Winchester, Lexington, Lincoln, Sudbury, Weston, Natick, Sherborn, Stoneham, Wakefield, Westford, Holliston, Hopkinton, and on and on. Belmont is one of just four that still have Planning Boards that are appointed by the Board of Selectmen.  

Why Planning Board? Why now? 

Planning Board is one of the most critical public bodies in our town. It helps shape the town through its decisions concerning both residential and commercial development and has the power to shape public and private spaces within a town.  As it stands, however, there is no mechanism in Belmont’s bylaws to ensure that Planning Board is accountable to voters and the public in any way. This is a critical omission in Belmont’s bylaws that has directly contributed to the erratic and damaging behavior of our Planning Board in recent months. 

If elected, won’t Planning Board start kowtowing to voters instead of being independent?

Of course not. Elected Planning Board members, like other elected officials, will be expected to think independently and to use their best judgment and make decisions that they feel are in the best interest of the whole community. That’s no different than what we expect of appointed officials. 

Let’s face it: Planning Board is an unpaid, volunteer position. Election to Planning Board is no more likely to engender self-serving, short-term decision making by members than an election to other unpaid positions like Town Meeting or School Committee. Consider: the punishment for losing re-election to Planning Board for a decision that voters disagree with is that the individual is forced to volunteer less. That’s hardly the kind of punishment that will have members betraying their values and common sense.  

What’s wrong with an appointed Board? 

It is critical that voters in Belmont have a means to express their preferences for Planning Board as they do for other administrative bodies like School Committee or the Selectmen themselves.  Under our current bylaws, they do not. 

Consider: it is the Selectmen, not the public, who receive and review applications from community members who are interested in a seat on the Planning Board. Voters in Belmont are not privy to who has applied for open seats or their qualifications, nor are they given the benefit of the Board of Selectmen’s reasons for eliminating any particular candidate or ultimately appointing one over another. Yes, voters may appeal to the Board to choose a specific candidate, assuming they even know who has applied, but the Selectmen are under no obligation to heed the voters. 

Don’t we affect Planning Board with our choice of Selectman?  

It might be argued that voters can express their Planning Board preferences in their vote for a Selectman. As a practical matter, however, this never happens. Planning Board appointments are not an issue in Board of Selectman races nor have promised appointments been deciding factors – or even talking points – in selectman races. Our bylaws left unchanged will continue to shield the selection, decisions, and actions of the Planning Board from voters and any accountability. 

I hope you will support this citizen-driven effort to make an important change to Belmont’s bylaws and inject democratic accountability to this critical body. I urge you to contact Town Meeting members from your precinct and ask them to support the Planning Board article. 

Paul Roberts

Town Meeting Member, Precinct 8