Fear and loathing at Town Meeting


Long before it became part of my job, I would attend practically every Town Meeting. It wasn’t out of any sense of civic duty. I’ve always found Town Meeting to be great entertainment. That has led some to suggest that I seek professional help.

Last week’s two-part episode did not disappoint. If you’re one of the 18,000 or so voters who missed it, there’s always next November. Mark your calendars.

I arrived early for Monday night’s episode, knowing there would be a huge West Side crowd on hand to vote through the $6 million Walton School improvements in Article 12, By 7 p.m., 358 citizens had already taken their seats.

But I was also getting a strange vibe. Now, as compelling as I find Wakefield Town Meeting, it doesn’t generally attract a lot of groupies from out of town.

But there seemed to be an unusual number of “visitors” in attendance Monday night – beyond the usual sprinkling of non-resident town officials who are required to be there. I figured maybe the Claratin-D I had popped before the meeting was triggering my latent xenophobia, so I dismissed the feeling.

But apparently I wasn’t the only one whose antenna had picked up on something.

Shortly after gaveling the meeting open, Town Moderator Bill Carroll asked all non-resident visitors to raise their hands so he would know who they were. Only a handful raised their hands.

“Wait – I have about 25 of these,” he said holding up a stack of slips that non-voters are required to fill out when checking in.

He asked again for a show of hands. This time more people complied. He then issued an unprecedented admonition.

“You do not vote,” he boomed. “If I catch one of you voting, there will be a small little visitors’ internment camp down here. Trust me, it would make my day.”

The highlight under Article 1 was the $38 million School Department budget, which made up 49 percent the entire town budget. The School Department came in with a budget request that was 4.84 percent higher than the previous year. Apparently it had slipped their minds that an 11.4 percent increase in their FY 2016 budget had come with the condition that they limit budget increases to 4 percent for the next three years.

Someone must have reminded the public though, because one citizen proposed an amendment to reduce the budget down to 4 percent. Luckily “for the children,” the crowd in attendance for the Walton School wasn’t about to let anything unpleasant happen to the schools. The School budget passed intact.

By the time Article 1 was finished it was 9:15 p.m. and, judging by the periodic audible groans during the previous lengthy budget discussion, the Walton crowd was growing restless. So one of them proposed taking up Article 12, the Walton matter, out of order.

I’ll let you guess which way that vote went. Despite the large crowd of supporters, there wasn’t even a perfunctory word of discussion from the floor on the merits of the project. They knew they had the bodies and they just wanted to get it done and get out of there.

Immediately after the 340-7 vote in favor, about half of those in the auditorium noisily headed for the exits, leaving the rest of Town Meeting business to the 150 or so people who presumably didn’t have babysitters at home or jobs they had to go to in the morning.

“Let’s be quiet on the way out all you happy Waltoners,” Carroll pleaded. “Folks, we’ve still got a meeting here. Let’s show some respect. They’ll be quiet,” he added as an aside. “They got what they wanted.”

After dealing with a few more articles, the remaining attendees called it a night at about 10:15 p.m., adjourning until Thursday night.

What a difference three days make. At 7 p.m. on Thursday, only 76 seats in the auditorium were filled. Apparently, some folks had had quite enough civic engagement for one week.

Town Meeting breezed through the next dozen or so articles on the warrant with little or no discussion.

Then they got to first of the night’s main events: the marijuana articles. Articles 25 and 26 were bylaw amendments to prevent any commercial or retail marijuana business from opening in Wakefield. Article 27 was a safety measure in case the other two failed. It called for a moratorium on pot businesses until July 1, 2018.

Vancouver Global Marijuana March 2015 - by Danny KresnyakOver the last several months, various members of the local Cannabis Community have been on social media angrily vowing to storm Town Meeting and defeat this “prohibition.” Sadly, short-term memory and motivation are the first things to go. They never got off their couches Thursday night, and all three articles banning pot businesses passed by overwhelming margins.

Bummer, dudes.

Finally, there was Article 28, the proposal to remake Wakefield in the image of Cambridge, Concord and Brookline by banning plastic shopping bags at grocery and retail stores.

After a presentation by the 15-year-old girl sponsoring the bag ban succeeded in tugging at everyone’s heartstrings, it was time for some adult discussion.

The Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce pointed out that the business community had never been consulted on this measure, which would impact them directly. The owner of a downtown boutique said that if the plastic bag ban passed, she would have to shell out big bucks upgrading to paper bags with handles or to thicker, more expensive plastic bags, which would be exempt from the proposed bylaw. (Apparently sea turtles can tell the difference and don’t eat the thicker bags.)

After a lengthy discussion, it appeared to me that the bag ban proposal was going to fail. But ultimately, Town Meeting voted by a narrow margin to “refer the matter to the Board of Selectmen for further study,” which means they’ll likely appoint a committee with all “stakeholders” represented and we’ll end up with some sort of plastic bag ban.

The sea turtles could not be reached for comment.

[This column originally appeared in the May 11, 2017 Wakefield Daily Item.]

One Response to “Fear and loathing at Town Meeting”

  1. 1 Rada

    In order for me to comply I would have to stop ordering my paper bags as I do now . Because I have 3 sizes 1000 each size with my logo. If I go for thicker bags I will either not have my logo which is totally wrong, or order thick plastic bags with my logo 3 sizeds each size minimum 3000 bags plus 3 plate settings for the logo a huge expanse 9000 bags total aprox $ 3000 to comply Shipping will be a killer.
    Now I cannot have paper as well that would make additional 3000 bags shipping alone as hundreds of $.
    This is why many towns exempt small businesses plain and simple. I do not think that one person in the audience actually knows why small business will be burdened by this. Large companies have BUYing power and can order bags in a very large q to save money. I barely can do min required.

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