Natick finished its Fall Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 7 in large part by putting off discussion of a bunch of topics related to the town’s charter, aka, constitution, and bylaws. As we saw during night #5 the previous week, even a few of such important issues can chew up an entire 2-hour-plus meeting.
Article 25 on the Town Meeting Warrant contained nearly an alphabet’s worth of amendments (labeled A through P and R through U), and the town’s legislative body only got from C into I at the last meeting. The prospect of getting through the rest on night #6 appeared unlikely.
The 2 items under Articles 25 and 26 we most looked forward to hearing discussion on were amendment “S” under town charter-changing Article 25 (“The definition of local newspaper is expanded to allow for additional means of communication with the public”) and town bylaw-changing Article 26’s motion “A,” which would allow the town to use communications vehicles other than old-fashioned newspapers to announce Special Town Meeting. The town under current law is required to fritter away tax dollars on legal notices about meetings, etc., in print newspapers that most no longer read, rather than running them in places where people might actually see them.
Alas, these possible changes got referred back to the sponsor, the town’s Charter & By-Law Review Committee as part of broader referrals for consideration at a Special Town Meeting or Spring Annual Town Meeting.
At the outset of the meeting, and actually even earlier in an email from Moderator Frank Foss to Town Meeting members, proposals were floated to finish business that night. This would be done in part to let the town get on with other important activities, such as setting tax rates and getting year-end financial documents into the state. “We kind of have this conversation every fall…” when Town Meeting runs 4 or more nights, Foss said, noting that he’d discussed possible alternatives with the Select Board ahead of time.
One option proposed was wrapping things up and pushing Articles 25 and 26, both from the Charter & By-Law Review Committee, to a subsequent Special Town Meeting or Spring Annual Town Meeting for continued “robust discussion,” as Select Board Chair Bruce Evans put it. Due to regulatory and logistical issues, a Special Town Meeting likely couldn’t happen until early in the new year. Evans described the charter and bylaws as “the backbone of how we govern our community” and said they warrant discussion at a more “thoughtful pace” than can be done at this time.
Town Meeting Member Michael Linehan raised the possibility of voting on the chunk of Article 25 already discussed by the body, then carving off the rest for later discussion. Paul DeRensis, special counsel for the Charter & By-Law Review Committee, said such an approach could help move things more efficiently through the state approval process, though some Town Meeting members questioned whether expediency should really be the emphasis—that Natick should take whatever time it needs to discuss such an important matter.
Town Meeting member Jonathan Freedman, citing earlier comments from the head of the Charter & By-Law Review Committee, urged against dividing the article: “If we divide this, my concern is that that holistic view of Natick’s charter will be lost” when proposed changes go to the state legislature.
There was some debate over just how urgently the changes already reviewed under Article 25 need to be made, though Charter & By-Law Review Committee’s Paul Griesmer was among those in favor of dividing the article and getting changes approved sooner than later. The vote on the motion to divide was a close one, with 53 “Yes,” 52 “No,” and 2 “Abstain” votes.
Town Meeting member Julian Munnich, after that vote, had these words to share with his peers: “For those who are somewhat uncomfortable that not a complete package is going to the legislature all at once, I can only remind this body that the United State Constitution was in two parts: The initial foot in the door was the initial part and there were a lot of people who had a lot of concerns about what was missing, and then we had the Bill of Rights. If the single most important document in our nation could happen in two parts, I think our humble yet utilitarian town charter can follow that example.”
The next twist came when Town Meeting member Elise Gorseth made a motion to refer Article 25 A-H back to the sponsor. Dan Sullivan, supporting this motion, spoke to the irony of bundling the amendments under Article 25 in an effort to save time, only to wind up discussing the article over 3 nights. While acknowledging good work on the issues, Sullivan said the article wasn’t ready for prime time and that Town Meeting should take a fresh shot at it in the spring.
An equally close vote on referral took place, with the motion failing by 1 vote (53 “Yes,” 54 “No,” 1 “Abstain”). Later, the rest of the amendments were referred to the Review Committee.
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Why no ‘Q’?
Natick Fall Annual Town Meeting’s version of “What’s the meaning of life?” was asked about an hour from the meeting’s finish. Town Meeting member Judith Kuhn, referring to the missing letter in the Article 25 amendments, posed this: “I wonder if I’m the only one who wonders why there’s no ‘Q’?”
The Charter & By-Law Review Committee’s Griesmer said that “once upon a time there was a ‘Q’,” but town counsel recommended removing it. “To clarify, town counsel has no problem with the alphabet, it was [that counsel] particularly didn’t think the subject matter under ‘Q’ would be a good idea.”
Article 26: Bylaw changes
Now, back to our regularly scheduled program…
Like with Article 25, a motion was made to refer 26 back to the sponsor, with some suggesting it would make sense to sync up changes in the charter and bylaw at the same time.
Though others argued that having just 4 motions under this article might make getting through it on Tuesday doable. The Review Committee’s Griesmer was among those looking for Town Meeting to deal with Article 26 that night, explaining that all the changes are designed to make Town Meeting more efficient—perhaps a strong selling point for those attending night #6 of this one.
Town Meeting member Dan Sullivan, who cited research he’d done a few years ago illustrating Natick Town Meeting’s inefficiencies, spoke up for referral, suggesting such a delay can’t possibly make Natick Town Meeting any less efficient.
Motion A was referred back to the sponsor, and an effort was made to refer B through D, but then discussion broke out about Motion B, which had to do with moving motions at Town Meeting. So a vote took place and it was referred back to the sponsor. Motions C and D were separately referred back as well.
The grand finale was Article 33, a citizen petition seeking to give long-time homeowners a property tax break by freezing their rate where it was at the 25th year of ownership. The Finance Committee recommended indefinite postponement, and after no one chose to ask questions or enter into debate, Town Meeting voted 76-18-6 in favor of indefinite postponement.
If everything could have been that easy…