, Newburyport, MA

April 8, 2014

Town Meeting to vote on date change, park


---- — WEST NEWBURY — Two grassroots petitions — one to change when Town Meeting is held and the other to designate a permanent town park at the nexus of Church and Bridge streets — are on the warrant for Town Meeting later this month.

A quorum of 90 voters is needed to take up the town’s annual business at the Town Annex, 379 Main St., at 7 p.m. on April 28.

Petition organizer Jacquine Johnston said changing the day that Annual Town Meetings are held — from Mondays evenings to Saturday afternoons — is actually not a new idea.

“Historically, the meeting was always held on a Saturday in April because after a long winter the residents met for a day when the roads were in good shape and the field work on the farms hadn’t begun yet,” she said. It was a chance to deal with the town’s business while meeting with others in town socially, said Johnston, who serves as chairwoman of the Council on Aging.

In 1979 town bylaws were changed in order to hold Town Meetings on Monday nights.

“It seemed like a better time for residents because of lifestyle changes, but we think it is time to look at it again,” Johnston said.

Currently the annual meeting must take place “the Monday preceding the first Monday in May and that the election of officers be held on the first Monday in May,” the bylaw states.

Johnston and 28 fellow petitioners seek mandate that the meeting take place “on two Saturdays preceding the First Monday in May.”

They argue holding Town Meetings on Saturdays has several benefits, including increased voter participation.

West Newbury has 3,251 registered voters, but most of them never show up for Town Meeting, where participation is frequently around 5 to 10 percent of that number.

“It would also be easier getting a baby sitter on a Saturday than on a school night,” Johnston added.

Selectmen and the Finance Committee were not averse to the concept during a recent discussion on annual town warrant articles last week. However, the way the petition is worded was problematic for them because those specific Saturdays coincide with the April school vacation week, which could mean many voters are out of town.

Chairman Bert Knowles suggested a better plan would be moving it to the first Saturday in May that precedes the first Monday in May.

Voters could then consider pushing back the day of the annual election so it would not fall before Town Meeting. That way, any ballot questions could still be discussed prior to voters going to the polls.

Because legally a citizen’s petition must appear on the warrant exactly as it is presented, a motion would have to be made on Town Meeting floor to adopt Knowles’ version.

A second petition would designate as a town park “in perpetuity” the triangle of land located between Church and Bridge streets known as Ferry Lane Park. Knowles supported this idea, but his colleagues Glenn Kemper and Joe Anderson and the entire Finance Committee were generally opposed to any attempts to permanently limit the use of town property for one purpose only.

However, in a related warrant article, selectmen seek to rescind a Town Meeting vote taken in 1967 that essentially granted them the authority to approve a project for the Ferry Park area without first obtaining approval for the plan at Town Meeting.

A gateway into the town, Ferry Park is a unique property, so any proposed alterations to it should require approval from the town, not just the three individual selectmen, Kemper argued.

In January, a plan put forth by Steve Greason of the Open Space Committee to tap state funds to improve access to the Merrimack River by installing an upgraded boat ramp near Ferry Park met with strong pushback from residents living in that area. They were very concerned that selectmen had the legal authority to approve the plan without input from voters.

But Greason told selectmen last week that a petition from 1976 recently located in state files urging selectmen to follow through on a prior plan to install a boat ramp in that spot was signed by 100 residents, including many people who are now pushing selectmen to reject a similar plan.

“Everyone wanted selectmen to do it. They were the heroes of the day,” he said. Greason says the state, which was poised to contribute half a million dollars to his proposed project, is “very, very concerned” about the two articles related to Ferry Park appearing West Newbury’s warrant this spring.

But Kemper said that any project was worth doing should be able to get support at Town Meeting.