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Moderator offers new rules aimed at meeting June deadline

UPDATED May 14: Rule No. 1: Show up. The elected representatives from more than half the town’s 21 precincts -- or 132 members -- were 100-percent present for the Special Town Meeting, held Wednesday, May 11, in session six. The citizen-powered legislative branch of Arlington is made up of 252 representatives, and meets annually each spring.

 The three-hour meeting, which is embedded within the annual town meeting, tabled one and moved five articles for consideration in the first two hours, leaving enough time to reopen the annual meeting for initial consideration of the extensive Article 50 (appropriation/town budgets).

The quicker turnaround was driven by Moderator Greg Christiana, who said, “We’re behind the pace that we’re going to need to finish by June 20, which is the deadline for us to have a budget in time for the new fiscal year.”

Using 'straw poll'

His suggestion for more efficiently managing debate included a 15-minute article debate period, followed by a “straw poll” of raised hands in Zoom as to interest in terminating debate. “If those number of hands from the straw poll is 75 percent or more, then I’ll invite one of the members who raised their hand to move to terminate debate, and we’ll proceed to take an official vote,” Christiana said.

Christiana, who is a senior software engineer for Google, built a metric-driven Google Sheets dashboard, which shows the status and projected completion of the remaining 39 articles.

The dashboard shows that after a fast start on opening night back on April 25, in which 25 articles were voted on, the pace turned glacial with on average only three articles each covered in the following four town meetings. Of the 83 approved warrant articles, 44 are now complete for a 53-percent progress rate in six sessions.

Town Meeting is entirely virtual this year because of ongoing Covid-19 precautions.

Reports received

Charlie Foskett, Finance Committee (Fincom) chair and Precinct 10 meeting member, moved that the report of the Finance Committee be received. Rachel Zsembery, Arlington Redevelopment Board (ARB) chair, moved that thereport for the ARB be received. Article 1, Reports of Committees, was “laid upon the table” - which means its consideration is postponed -- with no objections.

Articles 2, 3 and 4 were zoning bylaws unanimously recommended out by the ARB, and articles 5 and 6 were budget items favorably recommended out by Fincom.

Article 2, In-home Child Care

In a prerecorded video Zsembery described the article as consistent with “policies in neighboring municipalities.”

The article amends a 2019 zoning bylaw, which is in conflict with the current state law (the Dover Amendment), and allows child-care facilities by right. It also “allows administrative review [by the Department of Planning and Community Development rather than the ARB] of in-home, family child-care facilities.”

Benjamin Rudick (5), who said it was his first time speaking at Town Meeting, said he supported the article. “I have two small children in day care right now, and I have a third on the way in a few weeks. Anything that can be done to make the opening of new day-care centers easier in Arlington is going to be tremendous. We have a desperate need for child care in the area.”

Mark Rosenthal (14) communicated an email objection submitted by a constituent who cited “noise early, all day and into the evening; loud outdoor play; and [traffic from] early drop offs and late pickups.”

 The motion passed, 192-26, with three abstentions, an 88-percent approval. The entire process took 16 minutes.

Watch the ACMi video of the ARB's May 11 sign presentation:

Article 3, Zoning Bylaw / Signs

Zsembery introduced this article with another brief video that described the need for “new signage types for shared mobility stations such as Blue Bikes and electric-vehicle charging stations (EVC),” subject to Select Board review and approval.

 In response to a member's question about illumination, Director of Planning and Community Development Jennifer Raitt, said, “Right now we have five [bike] stations. These would not be illuminated at night.” She indicated that the seven public EVC stations also would not be illuminated at night.

Mark Kaepplein (9) claimed that Arlington had spent “many years working to eradicate roadside advertising” and allowing illuminated advertising “isn’t progress” describing the signage at the bike and EVC docking/charging stations as “special treatment” for for-profit companies. Raitt pushed back, saying that those concerns were “beyond the scope of this particular warrant article. We’re just creating a sign option” to existing signage.

Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine backed Raitt’s explanation saying that this is “strictly a zoning article proposing to amend the zoning bylaw. This is simply enabling the possibility of [advertising] in the future with no proposals or immediate plan to begin soliciting such signage.”

 Christiana noted that the debate had exceeded the 15-minute mark, and called for a straw poll to terminate debate, which failed the informal two-thirds show of hands.

After hearing from several more speakers, debate was terminated, and the motion passed, 172-51, with three abstentions, or 77 percent. The entire process took 45 minutes.

 Article 4, Nonconforming single family or two-family dwellings

The final unanimously recommended ARB article was also presented via video by Zsembery.

 Gordon Jamieson (12) said that, “like in Article 2, this just brings us in line with state law. We don’t have a choice about this.”

A motion to terminate debate was immediately proposed and passed. The article passed, 213-9, with two abstentions. The entire process took less than 15 minutes.

Watch the ACMi video of the May 11 school-budget presentation:

Article 5, FY 2022 budget

Foskett (10), explained that last year’s town meeting appropriated more than $1 million to the Finance Committee reserve fund in the event that the School Department student population growth recovered to prior [pre-Covid] numbers.

“It did not, and Fincom did not need to use the funds. This article transfers the money [from the reserve fund] to the override stabilization fund so that it is available for revenue in the next fiscal year.”

The article passed, 215-2, with two abstentions. The entire process took 15 minutes.

Article 6, Private Way Repairs

When the town makes improvements to private ways, which are not public roads maintained by the town, “the abutters,” Foskett said, “are liable to pay for these improvements through either immediate [payment], installment or a surcharge on their taxes.”

The town provides working capital via the revolving fund for these improvements while waiting for receipt of the abutters’ payments, but Foskett said that larger, more expensive projects for these vendor projects performed under the direction of the Department of Public Works require more “working capital.”

In response to Steve Revilak’s (1) question about what public ways were being repaired, Deputy Town Manager Sandy Pooler said Mount Gilboa was a $150,000 repair. “Most of the private ways we repair are a fraction of that, usually $25,000 or $30,000.”

The article passed, 219-5, with no abstentions. The entire process took 18 minutes.

Special Town Meeting was dissolved, and the discussion of the annual town meeting was reopened with Article 50.

Town meeting reconvenes

Articles 19-45 were tabled so that the final hour of the evening could be devoted to finance articles 48-50.

 Article 49, Collective bargaining

Foskett (10) moved to table this article explaining that the town “has settled with two unions, and negotiations with a third may soon be resolved.” The motion to table or postpone discussion had no objections.

Article 50, Appropriation / Town Budgets  

The town budget encompasses 27 department budgets and five enterprise funds, which Christiana described as “an oddly shaped warrant article that has a lot in it as far as budgets.” He read the categories found in Appendix B (pages 33-52) of the Finance Committee report, and asked members to raise their hands if they were interested in further discussion.

Hands were raised on the budgets for finance, town manager, town clerk, planning and community development, zoning board of appeals, public works, police services, inspections, education (several hands) and for the enterprise fund of the Arlington Youth Counseling Center.

School presents budget

The moderator agreed to take the education discussion out of order to present first given that Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Homan and Chief Financial Officer Michael Mason were available to speak.

School Committee Chair Liz Exton (13) shared a prerecorded education video. Holman articulated the fiscal 2023 budget priorities as enrollments (increasing at secondary level, leveling off at the elementary level) and meeting the needs of students “as we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic” by supporting their “academic needs, as well as their social, emotional and mental health.”

Mason said the enrollment metrics show that Arlington Public Schools from fiscal 2016 through '20 trailed the Town Manager 12 (other towns with which Arlington is compared) average, as well as the state per-pupil average. “The gap seems to continue to grow year to year, but [while] we are still able to provide an excellent education for the students of Arlington it also leads us to trailing in salaries.” More than 75 percent of the more than $84 million school budget is toward direct instruction, Mason said -- $4 million higher than fiscal 2022.

Watch the ACMi video of the May 11 Town Meeting:

Program outreach, Q&A

Homan said in an effort to give funds directly back to taxpayers, other priorities include eliminating instrumental music and athletic fees. The district is also adding librarians and digital learning teachers, special education and English language learner teachers, in an effort to ensure that “our students continue to receive an excellent and equitable education.”

Adam Auster (3) asked about the district’s role in the town’s sustainable-transportation and net-zero action plan, which concerns climate change goals. Homan cited the new electric school buses, as well as bike-safety routes and racks for students.

With the night inching toward the 11 p.m. deadline, the moderator asked Homan if she would be able to return to field more questions at the next scheduled town meeting. “I will make what needs to work work, Mr Moderator,” Homan said.

The motion to terminate debate on the education budget passed, ending Wednesday's meeting.

See all recorded votes here >>

 Next meeting

The meeting adjourned until Monday May 16, which will continue discussion on the budget items in Article 50. Town meeting will meet every Monday and every Wednesday from 8 to 11 p.m. until all 77 articles in the warrant have been heard and voted on. 

For details, read session six notes by Christian Klein (10) >>

Here is the annotated warrant for tonight's Special Town Meeting >> 

Moderator Greg Christiana on May 11 issued this letter about hastening debate:

"As I mentioned at the opening of Monday's meeting, we're behind the pace that we're going to need to finish by June 20, which is the deadline for us to have a budget in time for the new fiscal year.

"To help us pick up the pace, I'm going to try something new tonight. When we get 15 minutes into debate on an article, once the current speaker has finished, I'll call for a straw poll using raised hands in Zoom to poll how many members are interested in terminating debate. I'd like these straw polls to finish in about 30 seconds, which is a lot faster than official votes which take about 4 minutes.

"If the number of hands from the straw poll is 75% or more, then I'll invite one of the members who raised their hand to move to terminate debate, and we'll proceed to take an official vote to terminate debate which requires a two-thirds vote.

"If the number from the straw poll in Zoom is less than 75%, then we'll resume debate. Speakers in the speaker queue are still free to move to terminate debate at any time; you don't need to wait for my straw polls to trigger termination of debate. I'll continue with these straw polls no more than once every 15 minutes during debate. After tonight's meeting and before we reconvene on Monday, I will consider whether to keep, adjust, or abandon this practice." 

For the 2022 Town Meeting, the public may also read notes on session 5 by Christian Klein (10) >>

Town Meeting information at town website | YourArlington Town Meeting information

This news announcement was published Thursday, May 12, 2022. It was updated May 13 with a full summary by freelance writer Melanie Gilbert, as well as May 14, to add ACMi video window and correct the spelling of Superintendent Homan's name.

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