Town Meeting and the sounds of spring
© by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, May 14, 2015


I cannot imagine a more beautiful town in the spring than Marblehead. I am surrounded by forsythia, cherry trees, pear trees, lilacs about to bloom.

I must write a poem about something springtime.

Ode to the Town Meeting activist:

Oh “nay” speak he, on “tax and spend”
See town officials’ rage
How dare the common citizen
Question those more sage!

OK, so I was watching Marblehead Town Meeting from my living room recliner last week, instead of being there to support Jack Buba, “the last of the annoying common citizens,” a group to which I once belonged.

After some 30 years, I’d stopped attending, except when something caught my attention, like a recent vote to tear down someone’s house because of a neighborhood dispute. As I waited to vote not to tear down the house, I noticed the last annoying citizen Jack Buba rise to demand accountability from the School Committee for $3 million unaccounted for during the repairs to the Village School. I was taken by the defensive outrage from various town officials at his question, which they couldn’t answer.

So after looking into it (turns out it was $5 million, not $3 million), and arguing against the next school override (and losing), I was asked to serve on the new Glover School Building Committee to try to prevent more lost funds. Jack Buba drafted some oversight reforms that I presented to the Glover Committee; with the support of Chairman Dick Nohelty, they were unanimously accepted and so far have kept the project on budget and the money totally accounted for.

However, this has been a long commitment of my time, so has become another reason I avoid Town Meeting, where I get caught up in things that need reform.

Still, I might have been tempted to answer the call of the town moderator, who struggled to get a quorum (300 voters) for over an hour, but I had a foot injury that made walking difficult and I was working all evening on an income tax reduction memo for the State House Revenue Committee meeting the next morning.

Still I was sorry not to be present for discussion of the three debt exclusion overrides on the Town Meeting agenda that, if passed by voters, will increase our property taxes another $8 million on top of the millions that voters had earlier agreed to pay to cap the town dump.

This is an ongoing town project that began in 2010, when a $22 million dump override was soundly defeated, partly because town officials had added a new transfer station that was quickly dubbed the Dump Majal by annoyed/annoying taxpayers.

A year later, override proponents scaled it back to $15.2 million by significantly reducing the transfer station costs, and town voters approved it.

Fast forward to today. After another override for $1.1 million to remove unexpected toxic waste in 2013, they are back again asking for another $8 million, bringing the grand total to $23.7 million — almost $2 million more than the originally rejected override — and who knows if this is the final bill?

So, there on my television screen was Jack Buba, with an amendment asking Town Meeting to approve an oversight committee of unpaid citizens to let us taxpayers know if/as costs continue to rise.

Such indignation! Citizen Jay Michaud argued that “it doesn’t make sense to add another layer of oversight,” and prevailed. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to argue, how can it hurt to have more oversight, especially when it costs nothing, has no authority to delay the project, but simply adds some citizens who could have more expertise about dumps than the Board of Selectmen?

But the Board of Health had the standard charge to citizens who say there hasn’t been enough transparency about something: Why didn’t you, annoying citizen, attend all the town department meetings over the past few years?

This was funnier than usual when one knows that Jack Buba would have been privy to all spending information from his post on the town Finance Committee if he hadn’t been removed from it years ago for being too annoying.

Must include in my ode the late great Jim Hourihan, who, in his long-ago role as chairman of the Finance Committee, won several major reforms at Town Meeting. He eventually was not reappointed by the Board of Selectmen because he annoyed the School Committee.

Marblehead citizens are very active with good works and support for the arts and local sports, but it’s often been hard to get 300 of the town’s almost 15,000 voters to make a quorum at Town Meeting. This used to seem strange to me but I’ve come to understand that many people just don’t relate to politics even at the town level.

I think it’s gotten harder as those citizens willing to stand up, question, and debate are disrespected then vanish from the scene. It’s probably easier to just let the elected/appointed town officials make all the decisions instead of pretending that ordinary citizens have a voice, except of course for override elections.

I recall a few years ago when there were 10 overrides on the ballot. At Town Meeting Jack Buba asked this question of the selectmen: “What would you say to the town resident who cannot afford all 10 overrides; which of the 10 items would the selectmen consider the most important to the town?” Asking for priorities: so annoying. He received no answer.

Voters will probably support the three overrides this year. The dump must be properly closed, no matter how much it costs in the end, or the state Department of Environmental Protection will fine us. The only alternative is to fit the project into the existing town budget with its existing bonding authority, which would be very difficult; though this might make another oversight committee a lot more attractive to town officials!

Barbara Anderson of Marblehead is president of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a Salem News columnist.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

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Citizens for Limited Taxation    PO Box 1147    Marblehead, MA 01945    508-915-3665