On Town Meeting’s final night, voters endorse remote access, transparency

After three nights of sometimes raucous discussion, Town Meeting wrapped up on May 3 with votes to form a Traffic Safety Committee, urge town committees and boards to make meetings more accessible and transparent, and to create standard operating procedures manuals for the Select Board and regulatory boards and commissions.

“Let’s write it down, let’s follow it to the best of our knowledge,” said School Committee Chair Sarah Fox who spoke in favor of Article 54, sponsored by the Marblehead group PowerUp, to create manuals. “It will help volunteerism in this town. The more people know what a board does, the more likely they will get involved.”

A much smaller crowd at Town Meeting’s third night. CURRENT PHOTOS / LEIGH BLANDER

It took an extra 30 minutes to get the 300-resident quorum required to start the meeting. Resident Dan Albert spoke first for his proposed Traffic Safety Committee, Article 49, which was approved.

“It’s not the end of the fight for safer streets, it’s the beginning,” Albert said. “But it’s a critical first step.”

According to Town Planner Becky Cutting, this comes on top of an already existing traffic advisory committee overseen by the public safety departments and a Complete Streets Committee.

Dan Albert spoke about the need for a Traffic Safety Committee.

But in the lead-up to Town Meeting, Albert expressed his vision that the committee created by Article 49 would consolidate and replace those other committees, which he said had become defunct.

Later in the session, after the meeting had moved on to other articles, Select Board Chair Moses Grader tried to move to reconsider the vote on Article 49. But because he had voted “no” on the proposal initially, his motion was rejected by Town Moderator Jack Attridge.

Attridge appeared to be adhering to a “Practical Guide to Town Meeting” published last year by his predecessor, Gary Spiess. In that document, Spiess addressed issues that had come up periodically during his years in the role and outlined how he planned to exercise the broad discretion given to the moderator under the town bylaws.

Lynn Nadeau presented two articles, Articles 51 and 52, urging town boards to record and post meeting minutes and to hold hybrid meetings so more people at home can participate. They both passed easily.

“Unfortunately, there are some chairs — and you know who you are — who won’t make meetings available even for members who can’t get to the meetings,” Nadeau said. “That’s not right.”

Lynn Nadeau emphasized the importance of access and transparency at board meetings.

Resident Judith Black spoke in favor of the articles, dismissing concerns that volunteers may not have the technological know-how to run hybrid or remote meetings.

“This is not neuro-science. Now, I’m technologically-challenged — and even I know how to set up an Owl,” said Black, referring to a plug-and-play video conferencing camera. “This is not rocket science.”

Before Nadeau gave her pitch for her proposals, Amy Drinker, who co-chaired a moderator’s committee created by Article 44 of the 2022 Town Meeting to study the issue of remote participation, provided a short summary of the committee’s findings, the full details of which are available on the town website.

That report outlined some of the logistical challenges currently standing in the way of expanding hybrid or remote meeting access. For example, the meeting room at the Judy and Gene Jacobi Community Center would need approximately $6,000 worth of technological upgrades, and the lack of Recreation and Parks staff consistently on duty in the evening hours to operate the equipment would be another potential impediment, Drinker explained. 

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On the second night of Marblehead Town Meeting, boos erupted when Town Moderator Jack Attridge tried to adjourn twice, as attendees wanted to stay and debate about leaf blowers.

In all, attendees cleared 18 articles, including sending a $2.5 million override to the ballot box and giving the town’s leaf blower ban more teeth, leaving just a half-dozen citizen petitions left. Here are a few other highlights from the night:

Three-year terms for Select Board 

Voters passed Article 44, which proposed amending the bylaw to change the current term of the Select Board from a one-year term to a three-year staggered term. This new structure is similar to the School Committee and most other local Select Boards.

Sponsor Jim Zisson said of the three-year term, “It improves governance and builds commitment.”

“We want our Select Board to focus on running the town, not running for re-election,” he said.

‘We want our Select Board to focus on running the town, not running for re-election.’ Jim Zisson made his case for three-year terms for the Select Board.

Two former members of the Select Board rose to speak against the proposal, however.

Harry Christensen, a 20-year Select Board member, said he had gathered signatures and put signs on lawns throughout that time, and “never once did it interfere with my duties as a Marblehead selectman, including the 10 years that I was the chairman.”

Every once in a while, there is a major problem with a board member, he noted. He had “labored” through one of those times, but fortunately only for a year, he said.

“I shudder to think what would have happened if that person were a member of the board for three years,” Christensen said.

John Whipple, who served on the board for 16 years, said, “What other cities and towns do doesn’t matter, as far as I am concerned. We do what we want in the town of Marblehead.”

While Christensen and Whipple argued that one-year terms promote accountability, Zisson had earlier noted, “The smaller field allows voters the chance to focus on individual candidates.”

The Select Board’s staggered terms will now align with the School Committee and other town board, with one or two three-year seats up for election annually.

“This allows for experienced people to remain as new people come on,” Zisson said.

In order to implement this transition to three-year terms, terms will be assigned to the winning candidates based on their vote totals in the town election the year after the enactment of the bylaw amendment. The recipients of the first and second highest vote totals will each receive three-year terms, the third and fourth highest will each receive two-year terms, and the fifth highest recipient will receive a one-year term. 

The state Legislature will still need to approve a home rule petition for this change to take effect.

COLA base increased 

Town Meeting adopted Article 33, paving the way for the base upon which Marblehead’s cost-of-living adjustments are made to the Marblehead pension system to increase from 12,000 to $14,000. 

At present, the COLA adjustment of 3% is applied to the first $12,000 of a person’s total pension, known as the “COLA base.”

Before the May 2 vote,  Marblehead’s COLA base had remained stagnant at $12,000 for many years. 

Town Meeting’s adoption means 325 retirees and beneficiaries will now be eligible for the $14,000 base, effective July 1, 2023. A Marblehead Retirement Board analysis determined that the change would raise the average annual pension by $460.92 to $29,530.54, or $38.41 per month.

Public shade trees 

Article 42’s adoption created a public shade tree bylaw that permits the town to plant trees on private property “within 20 feet of the public right of way, provided that written permission from the adjoining property owner is obtained first.” Its passage comes as Marblehead invests millions of dollars into creating and improving sidewalks around town. Officials do not want tree-root growth to damage them.

Property tax abatement

Cheers erupted when Town Meeting passed Article 43, providing for local property tax exemptions for the surviving parents or guardians of soldiers and sailors, members of the National Guard and veterans whose proximate cause of death was related to their service. Its passage means these Gold Star families would not have to pay property taxes on their Marblehead homes, but they will need to petition the Board of Assessors for the abatement annually.

“Marblehead has always been a very strong supporter of the veteran community, and adoption of this article would demonstrate that continuous support,” Town Assessor Karen D. Bertolino. She noted one family in town qualifies for the abatement at present. 

Electronic counting devices

The Town Meeting approved Article 36, which updates the General Bylaws to allow the use of electronic counting devices during town meetings. With this change, the moderator can choose to utilize these devices for more efficient voting. If electronic devices are used, the traditional methods of counting votes, such as manually or through written ballots, will be bypassed. 

Date of elections changed

Article 38 was approved, changing the date of the Annual Town Election due to the recognition of Juneteenth. Back in 2019, when the town voted to change the election date, voters didn’t know that Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the emancipation of African Americans who were enslaved, would soon gain widespread recognition, including by the federal government. Now, the town clerk will stage elections on the second Tuesday after the first Monday in June, instead of the third. 

For the results of every vote, go to the Current‘s Town Meeting Guide.

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Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter. She also works as a PR specialist.

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