, Newburyport, MA

October 24, 2013

New guidelines cause confusion at Town Meeting


---- — NEWBURY — Voters dealt with a Special Town Meeting warrant in an hour and a half Tuesday but not before questions were raised by a few in attendance about the overall transparency of the process.

Held at 7 p.m. in the Newbury Elementary School, the meeting began with voters selecting Bud Kelly as temporary town moderator because Joan Weyburn was not present. Kelly informed voters that under advice of town counsel he would be following new guidelines for the meeting. Specifically voters would be asked to weigh in on motions made by selectmen, which could be different than the articles as written in the warrant.

The annual and special warrants consist of articles that make up the agenda for town meetings. Warrants are posted publicly in advance of a meeting and are often included on a town’s website. During the meeting the moderator announces the articles and then voters take action on motions made about the article after that. Frequently selectmen or department heads rise to make the motions and sometimes voters offer amendments that then have to be voted on.

This is standard Town Meeting procedure that, according to Kelly, was apparently not being followed in Newbury prior to Tuesday night.

As the meeting progressed, the change in procedure appeared to cause confusion for some voters who were unclear about what they were voting and felt they hadn’t been sufficiently warned of the business before the town. But town counsel Ginny Kremer assured voters that the warrant had been legally posted and the new format was actually the proper one.

The most in-depth debate came when voters took up Article 2, seeking $75,900 in additional budgetary spending in light of an unexpected revenue increase of $84,000.

Bruce Webster of Cottage Road questioned why town leaders hadn’t asked for this funding at the Annual Town Meeting. Since the requests are not based on emergency needs, why not wait until next year’s annual meeting to propose them, he said.

Webster wondered why the town couldn’t work within the budget voters had already approved. He felt the need for the overages wasn’t sufficiently explained and objected to funding such a substantial expense at the fall Special Town Meeting, which he said generally has a lower voter turnout than the annual meeting.

That wasn’t the case this year, however. Tuesday night’s meeting had 62 registered voters, with just 69 of the town’s 5,200 registered voters attending the annual meeting last May. A quorum of 40 is needed.

Finance Committee chairman Frank Remley said the request was being made now “because we’re not perfect forecasters of what our revenues will be.” He described it as “a mid-year correction,” noting that due to higher receipts in excise taxes and vigorous collection of back taxes, revenues came in slightly more than anticipated, while actual operating costs fell well below projections. Remley credited this savings to “good management and belt tightening along the way.”

The proposed adjustment included a $5,000 increase in salary for town administrator Tracy Blais; $9,000 for IT services, $30,000 for Professional and Technical Services; $1,500 for Finance Department Salary and Wages; $5,000 for Greenhead Control; $12,000 for Public Building Utilities; $9,400 for Public Buildings Property Related Services; and $4,000 for street lighting.

After a couple people questioned why voters were being asked to give Blais a mid-year salary bump, Bob Connors of the finance board explained that it was a contractual obligation inadvertently overlooked when the budget was approved last spring.

“What was presented at Annual Town Meeting was inaccurate,” he said.

Noting the “record levels” of cash reserves the town has realized since hiring the town administrator in 2011, Remley called Blais “our most valuable asset in town right now.” There is currently $1.73 million in cash reserves, $848,266 in Free Cash, $391,328 in Stabilization and $488,475 in Sale of Land account.

Although some voters appeared to question certain expenses with the article, eventually a motion was approved for the entire amount with no amendments offered. The action will have no effect on the annual tax rate.

Voters also approved $20,000 for roofing repairs to the Byfield Town Hall, less than the $57,200 requested on the warrant for more comprehensive exterior work on the building. Motions or amendments to spend less money than stipulated within a warrant article are acceptable, but any amount approved can’t exceed what the public has been warned of within the posted warrant prior to Town Meeting.

The Finance Committee objected to spending the higher amount, preferring to wait for a more comprehensive needs and costs analysis.

No action was taken on a $77,800 request to buy a new alarm receiving system for the town’s dispatch centers, but voters approved $27,000 for a new document management system, $7,950 to repair the fire alarm system, $8,000 for a commercial plotter and $4,988.11 in outstanding bills for fiscal year 2013.

A temporary moratorium on medical marijuana treatment centers and dispensaries was adopted with an amendment that extended the moratorium until Dec. 31, 2014.

Voters also OK’d correcting an inadvertent mistake in wording in the Ground Mounted Solar Photovoltaic Installations bylaw approved at the annual meeting and authorized selectmen to execute release of a deed to clear the way for a private sale on land abutting a small town park on Sunset Boulevard.