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Brookline Town Meeting: Tuesday, May 23, 2006 (First Night)

The first session of Brookline Town Meeting began at around 7 PM last night. As was our custom, right around 7 PM, before we had a quorum, we had a voluntary recital of the Pledge of Allegiance. Our Moderator, Sandy Gadsby, noted the existence of a quorum and called us to order at 7:10 PM. Then our Town Clerk, Pat Ward, recited the names of Town Meeting Members and former Members who had died or been reported as deceased since last May. Finally, Pat also swore in the newly elected and newly re-elected Members, including yours truly. And then we were ready to begin.



We got through the first six articles on the warrant fairly quickly, within a span of about fifteen minutes. Article 1 is the traditional article establishing the Measurers of Wood and Bark for the town to be two. As usual, TMM Stanley Spiegel filled his report from the Advisory Committee with puns about wood and trees. The article passed by a vote of 165-1.

Articles 2-6 were mostly procedural, including the authorization of paying unpaid bills, the closing out of old appropriations, and the increase in the property tax exemption for elderly, blind, and/or disabled veterans and their surviving spouses. And then, at 7:31 PM, we got to Article 7, the Annual Appropriations Article, otherwise known as the budget.

That took the rest of the night. That shouldn't be a surprise, given that Brookline was approving an annual budget of approximately $181,000,000 for Fiscal Year 2007. In fact, I recall one year when we adjourned for the first night still in the middle of the appropriations article. Most people I spoke with were predicting that scenario for last night; in some ways, I'm surprised we made it through.

Sandy has a specific way he takes us through the budget. First we heard from Harry Bohrs, Chair of the Advisory Committee, about how they and the Selectmen put the budget together and some of the issues the town had to deal with in putting it all together. Next we heard from Robert Allen, the Chair of the Board of Selectmen, who noted that we are one of the best-run communities in the commonwealth. And then, departing from our usual process, we heard from Stanley Spiegel, who had asked Sandy for permission to address us at this time. Stanley pointed out, as we've heard before, that by the time the budget comes to Town Meeting there's often very little we do or can do with it. He wanted to tell us that he sometimes feels that the guidelines the Boards use to create the budget are interpreted too rigidly, and he plans to introduce an article at our fall Town Meeting to address that.

Probably the most amusing part of Stanley's comments was his repeated assertion that the town had $700 million dollars put aside which we could use but which had not been put into the budget. That resulted in a lot of murmuring from my colleagues until finally one of the Selectmen slipped Stanley a note pointing out what he had said. Stanley corrected himself -- he had meant to say $700 thousand, not $700 million. That sounded a lot more reasonable. If Brookline really had an extra $700 million to work with, I think we'd be the richest town in Massachusetts, if not the country.

Once the opening comments were done, it was time to look at the appropriations themselves. The way Sandy takes us through them is by starting with the special appropriations at the end of the budget spreadsheet. Only after we've gone through those do we go back to the departmental expenditures. A few amendments get voted on during this whole process, and a few votes are taken, as some budget items require a recorded two-thirds vote of Town Meeting. But most of the time, Members use the reading of the appropriations to ask questions or make motions on the various budget items.

Or to make speeches. But that's part of the democratic process.

During this process, people asked about all sorts of things. I'm not going to go through every single issue that we discussed, but I do want to mention the ones that I found most interesting. I'll try to take this in chronological order, with one exception, which I'll discuss under Schools.

A good example of the types of questions that get asked was presented when TMM Stephen Daisy approached a microphone. He wanted more detail on the parks and playground rehabilitation and upgrade, detail that was ably provided by Erin Chute-Gallentine, our Director of Parks and Open Space. Daisy also wanted to know if the high school roof was leaking, because we're spending money to repair it. The answer was that it is not leaking, but it is old; I'm guessing we want to repair it before it starts leaking. And finally, Daisy also wanted to know why we were spending $300,000 for wiring to network computers in the school; he wanted to know how many computers we had. The answer is that we're networking 500 computers.

Most of the special appropriations, such as money for traffic signals, street and sidewalk repair, and equipment for the police ad fire department, went through without comment. But due to other discussion, such as that mentioned in the above paragraph, we didn't start on the departmental appropriations until around 9 PM. Here are some highlights of what happened when those line items were read:

Information Technology: There was a brief presentation from our CIO, Kevin Stokes, about our plans to introduce a municipal Wi-Fi system with the help of Galaxy Internet Services.

Public Works: TMM Bruce Wolff introduced a motion to add $22,000 to their budget for the removal and treatment of invasive species. The point of this is would appear to be to take care of the turkeys and coyotes that have invaded the town. Sandy asked for a standing vote, and the motion failed 102-84, which makes me wonder if we should change the name of the town from Brookline to Brookline Wildlife Refuge. (By the way, I just want to say how cool it was that this motion was introduced by a TMM named Wolff.)

While Public Works was still the item in question, TMM Don Weitzman asked about the status of the Muddy River during the recent rains. The river swelled from 8 feet to 14.6 feet, and when it gets to 13 feet is when we start to worry. Fortunately, we kept the river under control. Kudos to our Director of Water and Sewer, Andrew Pappastergion.

Library: Since I'm a Trustee of the library, I wasn't expecting any questions to come up. But my friend TMM Joe Ross asked our library director, Chuck Flaherty, how he would deal with a request for information under the Patriot Act. Chuck's answer was that he would consult with Town Counsel about the legality of any such hypothetical request.

Schools: The big controversy here seems to be the cutting of the world language program, which introduced foreign language at the elementary school level. TMM Christopher Koch, who was on the committee about this program, made it very clear throughout the night that he wants to see this program reinstated. The program apparently would cost $250,000 per year to run. Back when we had been discussing special appropriations, Koch had made a motion to cut the $250,000 special appropriation for the parks and playground rehabilitation and upgrade, and to redirect the money to the world language program. The motion was defeated by a voice vote.

Now that the Schools line item was up, Koch brought up the world language program again, and made a motion to add the $250,000 to the schools budget. Now, Brookline has what is called a town-school partnership. In essence, Town Meeting votes on the amount of money to give the school, but it's the School Committee that decides how the money is apportioned, and not Town Meeting. Dr. William Lupini, our Superintendent, said that honestly, if he had the extra money he'd prefer to use it to help reduce Kindergarten class sizes, which prompted an addition to Koch's motion to request that the money be used for world language. That motion failed, as did a later motion from TMM Gladstone to give $250,000 to the schools to be spent as they wished.

One oddity of these motions was that Sandy would not allow a motion to move the money from one line item to another. Instead, he advised us that if Town Meeting got through the process with an unbalanced budget, we'd then deal with where to get the extra money from at the end of the discussion. That prompted TMM Stanley Spiegel to remind everyone that the Selectmen could easily raise the money by raising the refuse fee.

(For reasons I will explain tomorrow, this was a very funny idea. I'll just drop this extra clue: it might lead to a fight of Stanley vs. Stanley.)

Now, when it comes to the world language program, I agree with its supporters that it's a valuable program and it's a shame it was dropped. But I also agree with Dr. Lupini and with Judy Meyers, the chair of the School Committee, who both pointed out that if we fund it again for one more year, it would put us right back where we started at the end of the 2006-7 school year. That is, the program would disappear again, because it's not yet built into the infrastructure. Meyers and Lupini would both like to see the program exist, but they don't want to create one just to have it get yanked away again.

In the end, as I noted before, the motions didn't pass and we moved on. We got through the rest of the items very quickly. I myself went to the microphone to ask about the Out-of-State Travel budget item of $3000 for last year and this year, because I was curious to know who we were sending out of state and why. It turns out we're sending our department heads to conferences. I also jokingly asked if Town Meeting might be allowed to vote on who we'd like to send out of state, which Sandy took in his dignified way as a rhetorical question.



At 10:34 PM Town Meeting voted unanimously to approve the $180,860,443 budget for FY 2007. And then we adjourned. Tonight we'll resume with articles on the CPA and the refuse fee as well as many others. For those of you waiting to hear about the vote on the impeachment of Bush, be advised that we probably won't get to it until Thursday night at the earliest.

Comments

before we had a quorum, we had a voluntary recital of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Are their people who choose not to say the pledge? If so, why?
My understanding is that during the 1960s, there was a whole controversy because people who were against the government's policies in Vietnam did not want to say the pledge. Hence, the recital is for those who want to do it, and its done before BAT begins broadcasting.

Some people say it; some don't; some say it but omit "under God."

Post on Blue Mass Group

Thanks for writing that up! I don't live in Brookline but my parents do, and I grew up there. I also just worked on a Cambridge city council campaign last year, and like to follow how municipal governments work.

This would be a great report to post on Blue Mass Group. Anyone can post there, you just need an account (which is free, and very easy to create). The three head bloggers (David, Charley, and Bob) decide which posts get promoted to the front page, but I have no doubt if you posted this report, they'd promote it. They love citizen journalism and local politics.

Re: Post on Blue Mass Group

I'm glad you found the report of interest!

If anyone over at Blue Mass Group wants to link to my reports from Town Meeting, they should feel free. But I don't plan to repost them elsewhere, nor would I want them reposted elsewhere.

Re: Post on Blue Mass Group

If you were to post this report, they'd frontpage it. If I just post a link, that won't be considered a substantial post worthy of promoting, so they'll probably just leave it in the user posts section. I could write a real post, about your post, with excerpts and commentary, and then they'd probably promote that to the front page, but I don't have time, and I have a queue of other things I need to write.

So... why don't you want to post it there? It sounds like more than just "I don't want to bother", it sounds like you actually are opposed to the idea.

Re: Post on Blue Mass Group

If people want to read my posts, I'd rather they come to my LiveJournal and then take a look around and see what else I'm writing about. Maybe they'd stick around.

I'm also not sure what "frontpage" means in this case. It looks as if their front page simply consists of their later posts.

Re: Post on Blue Mass Group

If you post this on Blue Mass Group, you'd get a number of people following whatever links you include, who would then see the other things you post on LiveJournal. If you don't post there, those readers will never see you. So you can only gain readership that way, not lose it.

It looks as if their front page simply consists of their later posts.

They're a blog, so all front page posts are presented in reverse chronological order, yes. If you post and they promote your post to the front page, your post will appear there for a while, until newer posts push it off the bottom.

User posts don't go right to the front page. Only the three people who run Blue Mass Group (David, Charley, and Bob) have the ability to post directly to the main page. They also have the ability to promote any post made by a user to the main page as well. That's what "frontpage" means. It means people who go to bluemassgroup.com will see it on the front page.

Re: Post on Blue Mass Group

I've posted them.

Re: Post on Blue Mass Group

"If you were to post this report, they'd frontpage it."

It would appear that you were incorrect. At least, it's been up there for half a day and it hasn't appeared on the frontpage yet.

Re: Post on Blue Mass Group

Lame of them, IMO. It did get on the recommended list for a while.

invasive species

that's an interesting interpretation of 'invasive species.' i've always heard the term refer to plants or animals that have been introduced by man into an ecosystem that has no means to keep them in check (disease, predators), so that they flourish beyond reason and threaten local species. japanese knotweed is the main one in massachusetts now, especially in the franklin park and fens areas. coyotes and turkeys, having been in brookline since before it was brookline, don't fit the definition.

Re: invasive species

I have to admit that I was guessing as to the point of the article. I haven't heard of any other species in town threatening our residents other than the turkeys and coyotes...
Daisy also wanted to know if the high school roof was leaking, because we're spending money to repair it. The answer was that it is not leaking, but it is old; I'm guessing we want to repair it before it starts leaking.

Wow. Can we have Brookline TM run our shul?
Be careful what you ask for...
I was intrigued by this sentence of your post: "Then our Town Clerk, Pat Ward, recited the names of Town Meeting Members and former Members who had died or been reported as deceased since last May."

Were there any Members who died and were not reported deceased, or who were reported deceased but didn't die?

Very entertaining post...good luck with the impeachment process!
Every May Town Meeting, the Town Clerk reads the honor roll and we have a moment of silence. He reads the names of all current and former Town Meeting Members whom he knows have died in the past year, since the last meeting.

But sometimes news travels slowly. Town Meeting has 240 precinct members, and a handful of at-large members. Over the years, many people get elected into Town Meeting, and many leave. Pat scans obituaries and does what he can to hear the news, but if, for example, a former Brookline TMM moved to Alaska and died there, Pat might have no way of knowing. So if a TMM died a few years ago, and he only hears the news this year, he still reads this name.

I know of no case where Pat reported erroneously that a TMM had died but I suppose it could happen.
That makes sense. :)
This makes fascinating reading for those of us who don't have this particular form of democracy: thanks for posting in such detail!
I'm delighted that you find it of interest.
A fellow Town Meeting Member noted that I had gotten my statement on the town/school partnership wrong, and wrote to me with the following information and references:

1) The Town/School Partnership is an agreement between the Selectmen and
the School Committee (not a bylaw) and is unique to Brookline.

2) Town Meeting can approve only the bottom line of the School
Budget, not line items within it, due to Massachusetts state law re the
authority of School Committees.

References:
1. Description of the Town/School Partnership from the Selectmen's minutes, pg 9:
http://www.townofbrooklinemass.com/selectmen/PDFs/MinutesArchive/SMM12.13.2005.PDF
"Town/School Partnership Agreement ...
In effect, the Partnership Agreement allocates 50% of new revenue to the
Schools, less allocated and shared fixed costs, with the balance then
dedicated to other Town priorities."

2. The Partnership is also described pg 7-11, 2006 Combined Reports budget
writeup:
http://www.townofbrooklinemass.com/TMM/PDFs/052306TM/A07-052306COMBINEDREPORTS.pdf

MGL Chapter 71 Section 37 gives School Committees the sole
power to approve the line items in the School Budget. Town Meeting has
authority only over the bottom line. The Budget Table presented in the
Combined Reports shows that we vote only on the School Dept bottom line:
http://www.townofbrooklinemass.com/TMM/PDFs/052306TM/A07-052306COMBINEDREPORTS-TMTables.pdf

3. For MGL Chapter 71 Section 37 on the authority of the School Community to
approve the School Budget see reference below.

http://www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/71-37.htm
PART I. ADMINISTRATION OF THE GOVERNMENT
TITLE XII. EDUCATION
CHAPTER 71. PUBLIC SCHOOLS
SCHOOL COMMITTEES
Chapter 71: Section 37. Powers and duties
Section 37. The school committee in each city and town and each regional school
district shall have the power to select and to terminate the superintendent,
shall review and approve budgets for public education in the district, and
shall establish educational goals and policies for the schools in the district
consistent with the requirements of law and statewide goals and standards
established by the board of education.
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