Natick Annual Fall Town Meeting, all 15 or so hours spread over 4 nights at Natick High School, is done after dealing with a wide range of topics from budgets to biolabs and from cluster development to dam repairs spread across nearly 30 articles and their respective motions.
Thanks to all Town Meeting members, town officials, Natick Pegasus (recordings embedded below), and others involved in the process (see the Finance Committee Recommendation Book for more details on articles). I’m a glutton for punishment, and watched or listened to all of the meetings, some I’ll acknowledge, in speed-up mode.
Here’s what stuck:
- State Rep, State Senator have their say
- Longtime employees Tom Hladick and Dan Keefe are honored
- Moderator Frank Foss started in a suit. His attire became less formal as the nights wore on. We fear to think what he might have been wearing if this stretched another week
- The first test question, just to make sure the voting system worked, was: Zappe or Jones for Patriots quarterback? Zappe 49, Jones 35, 28 Abstained. This was before the Patriots-Bears debacle the following Monday.
- Article 2: Fiscal 2023 Omnibus budget (2 motions passed easily). Discussion largely focused on the town’s use of $10.65M in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds allocated to it to offset revenue loss during the pandemic—Natick determined it lost $6.6M in revenue from big drops in meal taxes, hotel taxes, and more. Funds could also be used to cover other expenses, including for deadbeat contractors that don’t pay the town for fire and police detail as they should, as well as new fire and facilities positions, and assorted collective bargaining costs described in Article 11. The town needs to designate how to use the funds by December of 2024 or lose it. As for how the ARPA funds are used, Town Meeting Member Julian Munnich said “My concern here is that as we go forward and the much talked about override and the rest those are all premised on ratios and definitions under proposition 2 1/2 that define the nature of funds that municipalities receive. My concern is that we muddy the basis on any of those projections going forward with any of the discussions when we talk about operational or other overrides. So my caution here is…that we collectively remember how this was used… We’re doing what we have to do, but we may be tangling ourselves up…” Another member raised concerns that using the ARPA funds would artificially increase the budget and set the bar higher down the road, to which another member countered that these truly are replacement funds, and that with town revenue projected to bounce back, things should return to normal.
- Sound was an issue throughout Night One. People had a hard time hearing others especially that first night, and then there were also issues with people in the auditorium having side conversations that made it hard for others to hear. There was periodic scolding of offenders by the moderator.
- Article 12, a home rule petition to exempt patrol officers from civil service (passed easily, 85-6-5, the next step would be for the town to seek changes through the state legislature). This is a step toward giving the Natick Police Department more flexibility in its hiring process and access to a larger pool of candidates (Natick Police Chief James Hicks spoke with us last year about the hiring challenges presented by civil service). Town Administrator Jamie Errickson noted that the town also seeks to exempt superior officers from civil service, and bundle that effort with the one regarding patrol officers in presenting to the legislature. When asked why the town seeks to remove the patrol officers from civil service, Errickson said that “Civil service in practice at current time has actually made it more challenging for the department to make critical hires in certain positions. We’re currently down several staff people in that department not because of lack of positions but because of lack of ability to fill those positions…”
- Town Meeting member Josh Ostroff moved to adjourn the meeting.
- Town Administrator Jamie Errickson introduced new town employees, including Fire Chief Jason Ferschke and Communications Director Jay Poropatich (Errickson indicated excitement in pulling Poropatich from the private sector. “Usually people getting pulled away from us to the private sector…” Lots of transition in town, between the pandemic and volatile job market.
- The sound system was improved thanks to the efforts of Pegasus’s Randy Brewer and others.
- Article 10, Personnel Board classification and pay plan (passed in a landslide). The Board’s Steve Levinsky ticked off a handful of general government non-union jobs with new titles to meet market trends. Everyone seems to have more responsibilities.
- Article 15, Capital Equipment & Improvements (Motion A, 111-0-2, Motion B, 103-4, Motion C, leftovers from prior projects, 107-3, Motion D, 110-0-1, Motion E, PFAS filters to protect water, 108-1-1, Motion F, stabilization, 108-0, Motion G, golf course duel tank improvement, 105-5, Motion H, cable access hybrid meeting upgrades, 104-6). The town is playing some catchup after local receipts plummeted during the height of the pandemic and capital funding was about halved in fiscal year 2021. In presenting on the article, Deputy Town Administrator Jon Marshall highlighted “Minimize deferrals” on one slide, emphasizing the problems that not doing so can cause down the road. Supply chains remain an issue for acquiring items, including vehicles and parts, with delays up to a couple of years, Marshall said. The town has had to rent instead of buy in some cases. New items being funded include firefighting foam, which in the past had PFAS in it, high school lab replacement, and voting machines (nope, they won’t be connected to the internet, as Town Clerk Diane Packer says the state doesn’t allow that).
- Article 16, amend the Natick Home Rule Charter and the Natick General Bylaws to change Town Clerk job from elected to appointed. A cliffhanger here, as discussion started, but was delayed until Night 3. Numerous questions were raised about this proposed change, including whether the clerk would need to be from Natick, as is now the case (nope, since not elected). Other questions pertained to the role the clerk might have if the moderator couldn’t conduct their duties, and how the clerk would interact with higher-ups in town government. The change would up the education and skills requirements for the position, which is becoming more complicated in light of technical and other changes.
- Town Meeting and Select Board member Richard Sidney moved to adjourn the meeting.
- Test question: Have you bought your Halloween candy yet? 48-58-5. Foss said he’d heard there was a rumored shortage of candy.
- Article 16, Town Clerk job change from elected to appointed, continued (passes 106-13-1). Town Meeting member Paul Griesmer, who noted he is married to Natick’s town clerk, proposed an amendment (which passed 65-51-2) to allow Town Meeting in future, if it wants to, define broader qualifications for the town clerk position, and included the possibility of having a screening committee for town clerk appointments. One big challenge in hiring for this position, he said, was that unlike other town jobs, say like a librarian, there’s specific education that can qualify a person for the job. “There’s no school for municipal clerking…,” he said. There also hasn’t been much demand from residents to become town clerk: Diane Packer was voted in 12 years ago and has never run a contested race since for the position, which has a 3-year term. Town Meeting member Cody Jacobs, among those in favor of the main motion on this article, said it’s unlikely that we’re going to see more people running for town clerk in the near future. “While in theory it sounds like great, we would have democracy and accountability that way, the real accountability is putting this person in an appointed position where they can be subject to a formal review process just like every other department head is and actually have accountability for these very important functions that they provide.”
- Article 28, The Brave Act (passes 115-3-1). The purpose of this article is to adopt four provisions of Mass General Laws to benefit veterans and their families, including paying state employees for their first 40 days of service while on military leave (something that has become more common in recent years for those in the National Guard, for example).
- Article 29, Charles River Dam (motion for postponement prevails 84-31-3). The intent of this citizen petition was to get the town to spend $2.6M to fix the dam, with its sponsor arguing that the town had already appropriated more than $1.7M in recent years for that purpose, but had never spent the money. The Finance Committee recommended indefinite postponement of the article in light of the current process underway by the Select Board to decide on the fate of the dam, following an advisory committee recommendation process. Town Meeting devoted about an hour and a half to the topic.
- Article 27, a citizen petition for the town to pay for a $22.7K survey of unaccepted Pinewood and Hillcrest Avenue (referred back to the sponsor). Despite 5 utterances of “sympathetic,” 3 of “empathetic,” and 2 of “empathize,” Town Meeting voted to refer the subject matter of the article back to the sponsor and Select Board, which many in the crowd indicated really needs to come up with a plan for how to address the condition of miles of unaccepted streets that are in poor condition. As Select Board and Town Meeting member Bruce Evans said about the condition of so many roadways in town, “This is unacceptable, pardon the pun.”
- Richard Sidney moved to adjourn the meeting, taking a 2-1 lead over Josh Ostroff for doing so.
- The night started as a real cluster… discussion, as Town Meeting approved the main motion for Article 20 (94-5-1, a sort of a do-over regarding a moratorium to allow time to review the Residential Cluster Development Zoning Bylaw (Section III.F) and make any modifications needed to ensure that the bylaw works for the town (there had been a public meeting posting error that led to the do-over). Planning Board Chair Andy Meyer explained that cluster developments, where units are built relatively close together, can have benefits, including preservation of open space and availability of affordable housing. But the way the zoning bylaw was written proved to be difficult for the town the manage. “It became clear that the bylaw that was passed and that we were working with was really in need of a fix,” he said, adding that the plan is to bring back a better bylaw either next spring or fall to Town Meeting.
- Another posting error led to a deja vu situation with Article 21, which as the Finance Committee describes the Planning Board-sponsored article, “would allow administrative and clerical offices, statistical offices, and research and development uses throughout the RC Overlay District in the Golden Triangle.” This led to a motion from a Town Meeting member to amend the main motion to define a 300-foot setback for any building including a biological lab rated at BSL-2 or higher. The proposed amendment sparked discussion, such as that we’ve heard in past Board of Health and Planning Board meetings, related to residents’ safety concerns regarding the prospect of biolabs setting up next to their homes, such as the Natick Mall in the former Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor spaces. One Town Meeting member said, “As we expand biolabs in Natick we can take a crawl, walk, run approach so that abutters aren’t at risk while the town is learning and accumulating more expertise in biolab operations.” The specification of any science behind a 300-foot setback was questioned, and town counsel said such an “arbitrary” could be legally challenged. Demonstrations of support—cheering— were quickly shot down by Moderator Foss. Select Board Chair and Town Meeting member Paul Joseph, who tested the moderator’s patience with expansive comments, argued that he trusts the people and processes the town has in place to ensure unsafe businesses won’t be allowed to operate here. An hour after it was introduced, the amendment failed 25-75-2. The main motion passed easily.
- Article 18 allows for the Select Board to petition the state to get rid of minimum seating requirements for on-premises licenses for alcohol consumption at restaurants and other such establishments. Joseph on behalf of the article sponsor, the Select Board, made the case for changing this rule to allow for Natick to become more competitive in attracting new businesses and allowing existing ones more flexibility. Natick has been reviewing and revising its alcohol policies in the name of economic development, but with attention paid to health and safety. “We’re basically looking at ways to consider new ideas and to avail ourselves of a surplus of liquor licenses that are available but that have not been used because our rules are restrictive and inconsistent with the real estate that’s available to restauranteurs at this point,” Joseph said. The main motion passed 91-2-1. Cheers.
- Josh Ostroff moved to dissolve the meeting (in honor of the late Brett Conaway), securing a 2-2 tie with Richard Sidney for ending the meetings. But the tie goes to Ostroff for dissolving it.
If you just can’t get enough of Town Meeting recaps, there’s one during the Oct. 31 Coffee with a Purpose, too.