Lack of Debate at Annual Town Meeting Led to ‘Disquieting Experience’

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The motion to dismiss a contentious article at annual Town Meeting in March stymied a simmering debate that was guaranteed to eat up time, but would have allowed voices to be heard.

In the aftermath, some are questioning what happened to the art of debate in Westford.

“I’m really concerned about annual Town Meeting — a somewhat disquieting experience this time,” said John Cunningham at the March 26 selectmen’s meeting, “particularly regarding motions to dismiss and they were used to limit debate, limit information. They kind of stifled debate, and I think we need to clarify the use of that motion.”

John Cunningham. WESTFORDCAT PHOTO

Unlike some nearby towns who elect Town Meeting representatives, Westford’s annual Town Meeting is a study in Democracy, giving every voter a vote and a voice to express opinions. But there’s no Westford bylaw that addresses the dismissal of an article.

Cunningham said he investigated other towns’ bylaws but found no guidance.

Article 16

Traditionally, the meeting opens on the third Saturday in March. This year’s meeting had 25 articles on the warrant, with six citizens petitions, including Article 16. The motion asked voters to authorize selectmen to amend one of three Agricultural Preservation Restrictions on 9 acres at 66-68 Boston Road. The amendment would open a door for the landowner to build a 13,696-square-foot restaurant on the parcel along with a parking area and septic system.

The town’s land conservationists fought it.

In 2016, annual Town Meeting voters denied it by a slim margin. In 2017, they denied it by a sizable margin. Some asked why it had come before this year’s Town Meeting for a third time. This was underscored by Bob Carter as he stood at the Town Meeting microphone on March 23.

Bob Carter. PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

“I’d like to make a motion to dismiss Articles 16 and 17,” Carter said. “…This motion has repeatedly come before Town Meeting. Town Meeting has made its determination in the past. If the selectmen want to come forward with a plan outside of Town Meeting, I would favor that, but I think Articles 16 and 17 need to be thrown back and solved at the selectmen’s level.”

And with that, all the research, planned presentations, and arguments for or against the article — logical or not — evaporated.

Article 17

Bill Taffel then asked to dismiss Article 17, a related petition he had filed to protect the town’s pocketbook. Taffel’s petition would have required town officials to follow Massachusetts General Law 184, Section 32 and MGL Chapter 30B, section 16, to ensure the town received market value, should officials sell, give away, transfer, release amend or modify any of the three APRs on the Boston Road property.

Bill Taffel. PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

With the dismissal of both articles, a  bitter battle was diverted, but the opportunity to air ideas was was also lost.

Cunningham, who has served on the Conservation Commission, the Capital Planning Committee, the Public Works Initiative Committee, and the Stormwater Master Plan, said a motion to dismiss traditionally was used to introduce new information or to do away with a request that might lead to an illegal action.

But on March 23, the action was used differently.

“This was an obvious attempt to stop debate or not allow debate,” Cunningham said.

Carter not only called for a dismissal of the motion, but he also claimed it was not debatable. His information came from the Westford League of Women Voters’ “A Guide to Town Meeting in Westford.”

But Town Counsel John Giorgio said Westford goes by “Town Meeting Time, A Handbook of Parliamentary Law.”

Attorney John Giorgio. PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

According to Town Meeting Time, a motion to dismiss requires someone to second the request, needs a majority vote, and is debatable.

Peter Senopoulos, a member of the New England Association of Parliamentarians, said that “most Towns now adopt ‘Town Meeting Time’ as their parliamentary authority.”

That suits Cunningham.

“Let them make the motion and get discussion started,” he said. “Let the citizens who proposed it, speak their piece.” [Continue below].

Article 24

James Antonelli. PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

That’s what James Antonelli would have preferred for Article 24, which he initiated as chairman of the Naming Committee. The low key committee has made its mark on the town, naming, among other things, the Katie Enos Auditorium in memoriam to a rising 9th-grader who was struck and killed by a vehicle in 2010. The Edward Scollan Basketball Court at Westford Academy, in honor of a long-time teacher and basketball coach, and the WA Trustees Field in return for funding a turf field. With Article 24, the Naming Committee sought Town Meeting approval to rename the Stony Brook School, the Everett V. Olsen Jr. Middle School at Stony Brook. But a faction in town voiced opposition to renaming the school while Olsen is still serving as superintendent of the School Department. The opponents said they would prefer to rename the school in his honor when Olsen retires.

Superintendent Everett V. Olsen. PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

Debate barely got off the ground when resident Ilene Tatroe made a motion to dismiss Article 24.

Related to Article 24 was Article 25, filed by resident Kristi Bates. Bates’ petition called for naming the Millennium Building — a modular, impermanent building — at 25 Depot St. in honor of Olsen.

Kristi Bates. PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

But when Article 24 was dismissed, Bates then moved to dismiss Article 25, leaving Antonelli with no options to express himself or hear what others had to say.

“To not have the opportunity to debate was disconcerting to me,” said Antonelli, who had arrived at Town Meeting ready to give a presentation about Olsen’s contributions to the town.

“It would have been nice to have the opportunity to listen,” he said. “I thought there should have been an opportunity for discussion.”

Article 18

Article 18, another citizen’s petition introduced by Kacy Caviston, chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission, fared no better. The article sought to establish a policy that would “limit the use of artificial lights from dusk to 10 p.m. at all town-owned locations where they are used to illuminate outdoor recreation spaces for organized group sports…”

Kacy Caviston. PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

Debate began with the denial of an amendment. A motion to dismiss the article was then requested and passed by majority, 238 to 228. Then a motion to reconsider was denied. The process got so complicated that former Town Moderator Ellen Harde stepped up to the microphone.

“Madam Moderator, I’m lost,” she said to Town Moderator Susan Spuhler.

Giorgio took the podium. “What we have right now is a motion to dismiss,” he said, “and a motion to move the question on reconsideration.”

The motion to reconsider failed, meaning the article was dismissed. There was no opportunity for debate.

Ellen Harde. PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

Later, Harde would say, “we were all at sea. We just didn’t know what we were voting on….”

Spuhler said she recognizes the value of debate.

“I love that people debate and I want to have debate,” she said, but noted that once a voter says point of order or motion to dismiss, she has to recognize it.

 

Town Moderator Susan McNeill Spuhler with Attorney John Giorgio. PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

Cunningham plans to look into the matter more deeply.

“I just think there’s a better way,” he said. “People have a right to be heard.”

UPDATE — On April 12, the paragraph referencing “A Guide to Town Meeting in Westford” by the League of Women Voters, was edited to remove misinformation from the booklet regarding a motion to dismiss. An error in the book’s “Parliamentary Motion Guide,” (pages 14 and 15) stated that a motion to dismiss cannot be debated. The next paragraph was edited to remove the words “Town Meeting Time does not use the phrase “’motion to dismiss.’” There is a mention in the book under the heading, “Negative Main Motions.”