Voters Soundly Defeat Proposed Charter Changes
Changes would have replaced Open Town Meeting with a Town Council forma of government.
The drama of Tuesday night's Special Town Meeting disappeared the moment the first person to speak against the proposed changes to the Town Charter received thunderous applause.
That enthusiastic ovation for former Chief Assessor Jay Kelley to start the debate was repeated multiple times throughout the evening, as several residents spoke out against the one article on the warrant.
Less than an hour later, voters made their feelings official by approving a motion to indefinitely postpone the article by an eye-popping 561-51 margin. With that vote, residents sent a strong message that they were not ready to replace Open Town Meeting with a nine-member Town Council form of government.
The motion was made by Finance Committee Chairman Thomas Cooke, who said his committee had voted, 5-1, to recommend indefinitely postponing the article. Cooke said the Special Act Charter Committee had never provided sufficient information on how much a Town Council government would cost the town each year.
"I visited Barnstable, whose charter this was based on, and the budget for their Town Council is $354,000. Our budget for our (Board of Selectmen) right now is under $100,000," said Cooke. "When it comes to a financial component for a Town Council government, we were lacking information."
Cooke said Barnstable's additional expenses were mostly in the area of legal services and additional administrative support staff.
While Cooke and his committee were focused on the finances, most of the residents who spoke against the charter change focused on the abolition of Open Town Meeting and the loss of decision-making power for residents goes with it.
Jay Kelley said eliminating Town Meeting would remove one layer of protection residents now enjoy when it comes to government decisions that impact their lives such as tax hikes and zoning changes.
Brian Lelos alluded to the vote (initiated by a resident's motion) at Monday's Annual Town Meeting to transfer $302,000 in free cash in the hope of keeping the South Fire Station open on a full-time basis, as an example of the decision-making ability residents don't want to give up.
"I couldn't have been any prouder last night," he said. "If there had been a town council, that could have gone the other way."
Charlie Lucier drew one of the loudest ovations of the night when he spoke of the men and women in armed services fighting to preserve rights such as the freedom of speech and said he was not willing to give up that right.
By the time Rick O'Neil, vice chairman of the Special Act Charter Committee, rose to speak in favor of the article, it was clear which way residents were leaning. O'Neil admitted the article would likely be defeated but said he was hopeful the work of the committee had started a conversation about the Town Charter that would continue.
Selectman Scott Wilson, chairman of the Special Act Charter Committee, said he was disappointed by the vote but hoped that the document that the committee had worked on for more than two years would not be filed away permanently. He said he was hopeful changes to the Town Charter would be discussed and debated moving forward, though he indicated that he would not be the person to lead the effort.
"I hope so. I don't know who the person is whose going to take that torch and run with it," said Wilson. "I still think it's right for this community to move in the direction of the council (government)."
Wilson also talked about low voter participation at town meetings, one of the reasons his committee had supported the change to a Town Council form of government. Wilson said he was gratified to see more than 600 residents show up for the Special Town Meeting Tuesday night, he noted that barely more than 100 had participated in Monday's Annual Town Meeting, when decisions were made on more than $80 million in spending.
"How many are going to show up Wednesday? Probably only about 150," he said.
Selectwoman Ann-Marie Stronach said she was pleased with the vote and believed that the Town Council form of government simply wasn't right for Tewksbury at this time.
"I'm happy that residents had their voice tonight," she said.
Stronach and several other residents and town officials made the point of thanking the Special Act Charter Committee for near three years of hard work they had invested in researching and crafting the document presented.