The third night of Natick Fall Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 24 (see Pegasus recording) largely dealt with a few citizen petitions, the first of which prompted an hour-plus of of questions and debate regarding local protection of access to reproductive and/or gender-affirming care and information about such services. Town Meeting also approved articles to shift responsibility for appointing fire and police chiefs from the Select Board to the town administrator, and updating roles and responsibilities of Personnel Board members.
Not a wizard
Not to be overlooked near the start of the night’s session was Moderator Frank Foss’s confirmation, while reminding people to stand up to be recognized, that “I’m not a wizard…I really can’t make voices out.”
We confirmed that Hogwarts is not anywhere on his resume.
Article 31 (Safe & Fair Reproductive & Gender Affirming Care Access By-Law)
This citizen petition led by Cody Jacobs sought the adoption of “by-laws protecting access to reproductive care and/or gender affirming care in Natick and/or ensuring transparent access to information about the availability of these services.”
As laid out during his introductory presentation, this article emerged in the aftermath of the Supreme Court last year overturning Roe vs. Wade and numerous states since making or seeking to make abortions illegal within their confines and for residents going elsewhere for such procedures, and further, limiting or banning gender-affirming care.
While Massachusetts has instituted protections, including prohibiting certain state employees from sharing information with those involved in criminalizing out-of-state care, Article 31 was proposed specifically to shield Natick residents, visitors, and employees from legal trouble. Examples of situations that could get legally complicated, including those involving divorced parents in different states, were shared.
“What it does is fill in a gap with the state law,” Jacobs said. Later, he added that one thing Article 31 would offer is protection from “weaponization” of laws in other states by parents involved in custody battles.
While the Finance Committee made no recommendation on the article, Town Meeting approved it by a vote of 69-36-5. The article withstood a proposed amendment related to parents’ rights, as well as motions to refer back to the sponsor and for indefinite postponement. Town Counsel Karis North, who was called on numerous times throughout discussion of the article for her opinion, also shared a lengthy memo in the Finance Committee Recommendation Book regarding concerns raised by this article’s possible approval. When called on to share an opinion or shed light on facts, North was careful throughout the night to answer questions directly and offer little to no elaboration unless pressed. She did her part to keep Town Meeting moving along, though did require a recess at one point to get clarification on a question related to the impact that the article might have on Natick police officers’ duties.
It became clear during discussion that Natick was early on in considering such additional protections, though not the first community in Massachusetts to do so. Some argued that Natick might be better off waiting to see how the state’s attorney general handles a couple of previously submitted proposals, including from Brookline and Amherst, and then crafting its proposal similarly to any that might gain approval. Town Meeting Member David Coffey recommended referral of the article back to the sponsor, in part due to legal murkiness around it: “I’d be a lot happier if I saw what the attorney general did with the other towns’ bylaws.”
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Article 29 (Eligibility of Finance Committee Members to Serve on Charter Commission)
The wind sort of got knocked out of the sails on this article from the start when Town Counsel North basically said that Finance Committee members would be allowed to serve on an elected Charter Commission. Article sponsor Josh Ostroff sought to determine, before starting his presentation, whether passing the article would even be necessary. “I’m not sure necessary is a legal question,” North briefly replied.
Ostroff then went on with his presentation, arguing that approving the article would make it unambiguous that Finance Committee members could also run for election to a Charter Commission. He acknowledged anyone wanting to take on such responsibilities would certainly be signing on for “an extraordinary commitment of time.” A campaign has launched to form a Charter Commission that would review and make recommendations about the town’s form of government.
Town Meeting approved the motion on this article by a vote of 58-42-4.
Article 30 (Replace SATM 2023 Town Seal with 1876 Town Seal)
Proponent Jeffrey Alderson spoke respectfully of the efforts of the Town Seal Review Committee, whose work resulted in Spring Annual Town Meeting approving a new town seal to be used for official business (not to be confused with a current effort to create a town brand or logo). Though he did say the process for bringing forth the eventual design to Spring Annual Town Meeting was flawed.
Alderson argued for Fall Annual Town Meeting to nix that seal, which features the bridge and river in it, for a super basic design approved all the way back in 1876 but not considered during the recent review process. The 1876 seal that reads “Natick Incorporated Feb. 19, 1781,” he said, is historic, meets legal requirements, and like the recently approved seal, is non-controversial (i.e., no racist imagery, like the outdated one depicting the Rev. John Eliot preaching to three Indigenous people). The 1876 seal is consistent with those from some other communities as well, Alderson said.
Why go to the extent of bringing this article to Town Meeting? “I do believe that there was a chilling effect put on this body in terms of speech and debate, that to criticize the aesthetics, or for any other reason to criticize the design, the process, or the committee, that you would be seen as racist. And I suffered that myself and I took that very personally,” Alderson said, adding that going with the original seal would give an option to those who felt their voice wasn’t heard in the spring.
Simon Poliandri, who was a member of the Town Seal Review Committee, made a motion for indefinite postponement of the article, arguing that the idea of using the original seal was never brought up by anyone during that committee’s two-plus year process. He described the article as a “respectable and valid point of view” from a Natick resident, but more of an opinion than the result of a public process.
The main motion was not approved, with the vote totaling 45-53-4. So a relatively close call. A motion for indefinite postponement failed to pass, so it is possible this topic could rise again at a future Town Meeting. Though the proponent in this case, Mr. Alderson, vowed not to do that himself.