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Contentious Town Meeting & Other Issues

May 6, 2010

Town Meeting, after getting off to a slow start on both Monday and Wednesday evening, will continue into a third night next Monday after a highly contentious vote on appropriating the funding for a Proposition 2.5 override for a new police station and a controversial decision to raise the local meals tax. Ultimately, the vote for a new police station went down in defeat, but the new meals tax was approved.

This week’s Town Meeting was a good example of why I believe the town charter should be modified to allow Town Meetings to be held on a Saturday. Holding a Town Meeting so late at night that only some can attend and many have to leave before it is over is not the correct way of having a town meeting form of government. Holding a session well into the evening when the taxpayers have gone to sleep and many of their own RTMs have too is irresponsible. Furthermore, because the meeting was so late into the evening, the microphone runners from the National Honor Society actually had to leave because it was beyond a reasonable time for those students to be up. As a result, their absence inconvenienced everybody else who had to find out where the nearest microphone was and have a fellow RTM hand it to them. Holding Town Meeting on a Saturday would make a significant amount of sense in that all RTMs would undoubtedly be able to attend along with a number of concerned citizens. It would allow the meeting to start and end all in one day – rather than start one day, continue another, and end a few days later. It would allow the NHS runners to be available for the entire meeting. It is the responsibility of our RTMs to attend Town Meeting – that is what they are elected expressly to do. If they can not attend Town Meeting, they should be voted out of office.  But to expect all of them to be able to show up late on a school/work night is irresponsible of our town charter. Citizens want to be able to see decisions being made live and in the open – not via videotape from their VCR a few days after the fact. Citizens can not be expected to stay up until 11:30 in the evening to watch the vote for a police station or a meals tax increase.

A number of RTMs drifted out of the meeting immediately before and during the roll call vote on the police station, and many left before the vote was even taken. Frankly, I don’t blame them. True town decision-making simply can not occur at 11:30 at night when most of Walpole isn’t paying attention anymore.

Not surprisingly, the biotech articles fell apart just before Town Meeting. The articles were sent back for review in a move that was widely rumored about well before Town Meeting even began. A lot of people at Town Hall were whispering about the articles being pulled, but even many RTMs were surprised about the sudden occurrence when Town Meeting actually began.

The biotech articles were destined for failure from the beginning. For a long time, our town officials thought they could conduct secretive meetings and deliberately withhold information from the public. From the start, it was all about the money. Instead of asking the question, “How will this impact our community?,” town officials tried for quite a while to ignore the residents who had legitimate existing concerns about Siemens and instead decided to make this all about the economic development opportunities that would be presented.

Alas, the revenue potential DID NOT trump all other issues, and as a result, the biotech articles ultimately went up in flames a few minutes before Town Meeting even began. Let this be a lesson to our town officials: this town is fed up with the back-door meetings that brought us to the brink of having a power plant a few years ago; please start conducting all of your work in the open, and bring the residents into the mix from the very beginning. This is precisely the reason why people like Patrick Shield and Mike Berry, who have promised openness if elected to the Board of Selectmen this year, have such a good shot of winning. A number of residents just learned about the Siemens issue a few weeks ago, even though the issue has apparently been boiling down at Town Hall for many months. Where is the openness? Shield and Berry are on target to give a good wake up call to our existing town officials when they get elected in June. Good luck to them.

I am in favor of allowing Siemens to upgrade to Level 3, but I feel the process was arrogant, disrespectful to residents, poorly-managed, discombobulated, and above all destined to fail from the outset. Citizens were NOT EDUCATED about biotech, rather they were LECTURED about how they were apparently misunderstanding the issue and therefore needed to shut up. Our town officials can not shove and ram a proposal of this magnitude through while stepping on the concerns of residents and even other town committees. Throughout the whole process, transparency was not maintained. I challenge any town official who says it was and would welcome any attempt by town officials to set the record straight by publicly releasing all emails and other communications between Town Hall and Siemens representatives dating back to 2009. These communications should be provided to the citizens by government for free as a service to the people of Walpole – not begrudgingly wrenched out of their hands by a concerned citizen at a cost.

I understand that the biotech articles were sent back to committee because of aquifer issues. This is the result of these articles not being properly reviewed from the outset, with all town committees NOT having a say in the process. It’s embarrassing to Selectmen that the aquifer issue was the issue that derailed the whole thing – and at the last minute.

Police Station
Once again, a plan destined to fail from the outset did indeed fail. Selectman Cliff Snuffer has put in a tremendous amount of volunteer time examining the idea of building a new police station on Robbins Road. He put together an admirable initiative – one that included a video and a thorough and detailed presentation to Town Meeting on Wednesday night. But many in town still believe that a combined police and fire facility IS the way to go – not standalone stations. Mr. Snuffer deserves a lot of credit and should now get behind the idea of putting a combined facility downtown. While the Town Meeting vote has no impact on whether or not the police station override will appear on the ballot in June (as of right now, it will still be on the ballot), it means that the money can still not be appropriated for the new station unless the voters approve it and then Town Meeting approves it in the fall. Like the 2006 proposal, it is likely to die anyhow at the ballot box.

It’s too bad that months of hard work and selflessness on the part of the real “people’s selectman”, Cliff Snuffer, and so many other town officials, was all in vain.  The town needs new public safety facilities – but they need one combined facility downtown that will go along with what hundreds of residents have asked for in the past on multiple occasions.

Meals Tax
Unfortunately, rather than cutting costs throughout the school system and doing what needs to be done in terms of actually reeling in the out-of-control teachers union, Town Meeting decided to take the advice of the well-meaning School Committee and raise the local meals tax. Meanwhile, our teachers continue to pocket extravagant raises each year, teachers will be eliminated based on seniority and not on quality, and at the same time class sizes continue to soar, and have been for years.

I predict that, like its advocates have said, the decision to raise the meals tax will have little to no impact on the business situation in Walpole. But it will send a strong message to our school system that costs can continue to spiral out of control and our union can continue to dictate which way the town should go. Education is intended as an investment in our children, not a bonanza for our teachers. Teachers are not working in a sweatshop in the Northern Mariana Islands or on the floor of a factory – they are earning decent wages with reasonable hours, break times during the day, and very long vacations throughout the year. I am not saying our teachers are paid too much – but perhaps we can pay them more if we start analyzing the real need for a teachers union in the first place. Please take a look at an excellently written article by a Walpole High School classmate about the way in which the union has implemented a layoff policy based on seniority and not on quality.

The union commanded us to raise taxes because they made concessions on tuition reimbursement and healthcare, so we did. The School Committee deserves credit for having a real interest in preserving our school system at heart, but they needed to be firmer with the teachers in demanding we start reeling in the yearly raises that total to $6,000 and higher.

Selectmen/Trash Limit

Meanwhile, in unrelated but similar news, our Board of Selectmen appears to be backing out of what was initially a courageous decision to limit household trash output.  In the wake of extensive criticism for their vote, two selectmen voted to undo the limit.  Luckily, Christopher Timson, who I personally am not a huge fan of, had the courage to stand by his vote while David Sullivan and Nancy Mackenzie apparently didn’t have the spine to stand by what was actually a smart well-thought-out vote.

The long story begins a few weeks ago, when selectmen voted to limit the amount of trash households could put out throughout town to save costs.  Then on Tuesday, Ms. Mackenzie and Mr. Sullivan voted to rescind their votes, while Mr. Timson opposed the reversal.  Selectman Cliff Snuffer abstained because he hadn’t voted the first time.  Albert Denapoli, for some reason, was absent for both votes.  The explanation given for the stunning about-face was that Mackenzie and Sullivan felt, in the words of Ms. Mackenzie, they “jumped to the decision too quick”, and according to The Walpole Times, “Mackenzie and Sullivan both admitted they didn’t give the limitation enough consideration and research prior to their vote in favor of the cap.”  As one can probably see, this explanation is little more than a poor excuse for not being able to take the heat from concerned citizens.

Mackenzie said she got calls from people who made legitimate arguments about why there should be no trash limit. Ms. Mackenzie should remember that the nature of her job is to get those types of calls.  Of course a lot of people would be upset about the trash limit, as I personally am upset about nearly every other decision made by the Board of Selectmen this year. Ms. Mackenzie and Mr. Sullivan need to be a bit more courageous. Mr. Sullivan does not deserve re-election if he can’t take a few phone calls from people upset about the decision. The town NEEDS a trash limitation, and one can just drive down my street on trash day to find out why.  People throw away things that should not be thrown away.  The limit is more than acceptable and was a smart move. I would urge our selectmen to once again reconsider their vote, this time in favor of keeping the limit. Thank you to Mr. Timson for having the nerve to maintain his vote in light of this ridiculous situation.

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