The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Town Meeting 2023 Part One
Marbleheaders came out in force for Town Meeting last night, filling the Marblehead Veterans Middle School auditorium, where newly elected Moderator Jack Attridge presided, and overflowing into the gym, where Assistant Moderator Cindy Schieffer used an audio link to communicate with the main room.
The evening started on a somber note, with Attridge paying tribute to his predecessor, long-serving Town Moderator Gary Spiess, who passed away shortly after stepping down following last year’s Town Meeting.
Things proceeded smoothly at first, with Articles 1 through 7, largely addressing regular town business and updates, dealt with in an expeditious manner. Article 4 was indefinitely postponed and the remaining articles passed.
The calm, however, didn’t last long.
Article 8 was the first to generate some fireworks and not a small amount of confusion, largely related to an apparent mistake in the Finance Committee Report that allotted $500,000 to a newly created School Transportation Revolving Fund rather than the $20,000 that was actually intended. Unaware of the error, Attridge called for the vote, but he was interrupted when new Finance Director Aleesha Nunley Benjamin sought to amend the article to change the word “transportation” to “tuition,” only to then correct herself and note that the original wording was correct, but the amount was wrong.
A good deal of discussion and eventually an official amendment were needed to resolve the issue. In the end, it became clear that the $20,000 is for the school’s pay-to-ride program, which is funded by voluntary parental fees and covers the cost of transporting approximately 30 Marblehead elementary school students who live fewer than two miles away from their assigned school. All of the sound and fury on this topic did not end up amounting to much in the end.
The same cannot be said of the revolving fund for commercial waste collection, which launched a variety of accusations about the Transfer Station that would recur throughout the evening. Questions surrounded the increase of approximately $900,000 in the revolving fund for commercial waste collection, the lack of an actual Transfer Station building despite many millions of dollars in past financial allocations, the fact that local contractors are having to travel to Peabody and Georgetown to dispose of contracting waste since they (and their fees) are being turned away in Marblehead, and the failure to install a sorting floor that may cause the town to lose commercial revenue that previously offset residential disposal fees. The details surrounding this contentious issue require more space to unravel and will be the topic of a separate article.
Also receiving a lot of attention throughout the evening was the issue of adding two new staff positions – in an ostensibly reduced-services budget – to the roster of Marblehead’s town employees: a Director of Human Resources and a Sustainability Coordinator. Proposed by Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer, the funds for these two positions were included in Article 30, the overall town budget, but the authorization for creating a new Human Resources department was addressed separately, under Article 24. This generated some confusion, as did Kezer’s contention that the salaries for these two positions were being offset by reductions in the cost of benefits and energy expenditures, with a number of residents questioning the need for these positions and the likelihood of the predicted savings.
Attridge, in his first public appearance as Town Moderator, kept things moving along relatively smoothly, though the evening was punctuated by a number of interruptions. At the beginning of the evening, Attridge explained that votes requiring a two-thirds or four-fifths majority to pass would have to go to a hand count by tellers unless there was unanimous approval. On two occasions, participants appeared to take this as an invitation to disrupt the proceedings, with a small number of people voting in opposition and causing a fifteen minute delay while the tellers moved through the auditorium. In both cases, the affirmative vote passed overwhelmingly.
There were also several instances in which a Call for the Question was issued despite multiple individuals waiting to speak, and in some cases while a participant asking a question was actually mid-sentence. As Attridge explained, according to Robert’s Rule of Order, which governs Town Meeting, a Call for the Question always takes precedence, and an affirmative vote stops conversation immediately. Interestingly, in one instance, it was a member of the Finance Committee who Called for the Question prior to the end of the departmental budget discussions.
There also were some issues involving the sound system, which at times offered screeching feedback and buzzing, and at other times appeared to shut down completely, making it difficult to hear for those sitting in the audience and impossible for those watching from home. Reports from the overflow room suggested it was even more difficult to hear in the gymnasium, which had no live video feed. Hopefully these issues will be resolved in advance of Town Meeting Part II, which takes place this evening, Tuesday, May 2, once again at Veterans Middle School beginning at 7:00 p.m.
The agenda begins with Article 31, the override of Proposition 2 ½, which requires a two-thirds vote at Town Meeting to appear on the ballot on June 20. Other articles likely to generate interest this evening include the potential approval of Accessory Dwelling Units (Article 39), the modification of the Select Board terms from one-year to staggered three-year terms (Article 44), and the always contentious Leaf Blower issue (Articles 47 and 48). Let the fun begin….
Notable Quotes from Town Meeting
Jay Michaud, after much discussion of financial issues related to the town’s revolving funds: “Can the finance committee chairman please straighten us out so I can vote?”
Helaine Hazlett, member of the Board of Health, beginning her commendation of fellow Board member Todd Belf-Becker: “Members of the Town Meeting – I used to say Ladies and Gentlemen, but this is another era – so it’s members of the Town Meeting.”
Terri Tauro, President of the Marblehead Municipal Employees Union, in discussing ongoing issues with the Transfer Station: “We’ve already paid for this non-existent building twice!”
Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer: “Our intent is to get off the free cash bandwagon.”
Town Moderator Jack Attridge, after the second time he called upon the tellers to count hands because a very small number of attendees voted in opposition: “This is democracy folks. Sometimes it’s the sausage making of democracy, but it’s democracy. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Linda Leroy, while questioning Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer about funding for new staffing positions being added: “Please clarify what we are giving you an okay for.” And, on the same topic, Albert Jordan said: “The little people do a lot of work in this town and don’t get any acknowledgement for it…let’s not just throw away money like the MBTA.”
Moses Grader, Chair of the Select Board: "I want to share with you the reasons for the great optimism I think is justified."
Walter Casey, with regard to the claim that the pay for two new administrators (HR director and Sustainability Coordinator) would be offset by reductions in cost of benefits and energy, respectively: “This is just sleight of hand. It’s obvious.”
Mark Pelletier, in questioning the need for a new Sustainability Coordinator position: “Do we really need to fund a good-idea fairy?”