Democracy in Action: Town Meeting Begins Tonight
In the rough and tumble world of modern politics, it is rare for hundreds of members of one community – from every background and political persuasion – to come together to discuss their varying perspectives and vote on their priorities.
But Marblehead’s Town Meeting – scheduled to begin this evening, May 1, at 7:00 p.m. in the Veterans Middle School Auditorium – is just such an opportunity.
The structure of the evening is guided by the Town Warrant, which includes 54 articles that approve various aspects of town government and propose changes that can either be implemented directly as a result of a vote of Town Meeting or can be approved for placement on the ballot during the upcoming town election scheduled for June 20, 2023.
A significant percentage of the warrant articles are annual housekeeping measures that are usually approved quickly on a unanimous hand vote. Others have the potential to stimulate more significant discussion. The latter will be our focus here.
Budget and Tax Increases: Articles 29, 30, and 31
The town budget and a proposed tax increase for the coming fiscal year are likely to bring forward a number of conflicting perspectives. Article 29 asks the town to allocate so-called free cash – money that remains after covering the previous year’s operating expenses – to this year’s budget. The Finance Committee Report indicates that $8.3 million will be addressed in Article 29, including $8 million directly from free cash and an additional $330,000 from the Electric Light Department surplus.
Article 30 asks the town to approve a budget totaling approximately $12.5 million, referenced in the Finance Committee Report as a “reduced services” budget, with cuts slated for the School Department and other town services.
Article 31 proposes an override of Proposition 2 ½, a measure that limits tax increases to 2.5 percent annually over the prior year. An override of Proposition 2 ½ would, according to Article 31, allow the town to raise the additional funds necessary to cover a “level services” budget, which includes all previously provided services. This proposed permanent tax increase – totaling $2.5 million – covers both town and school expenses, with approximately $2 million of the total allotted to the school side of the ledger. Last year, a proposed tax override for the schools failed by more than a two-to-one margin.
Consideration of this tax increase comes on the heels of Marblehead Beacon’s recent multi-part investigation into Marblehead’s financial management. In late January 2023, we reported that Marblehead had potentially forfeited hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest on town funds. A follow-up article soon thereafter outlined the failure of public officials to respond to our public records requests and the conflicts of interest potentially interfering with transparent and fiscally responsible money management. Finally, in March, we published an article outlining the distribution of Marblehead funds among various bank accounts and the relevant interest rates, confirming that Marblehead monies were largely being held at substantially lower interest rates than those available from other readily available accounts with similar service options. As we reported in late March, Marblehead had not at that time moved any monies into accounts with higher interest rates. We have requested a current report of money distribution as of late April 2023 but have not yet received a response from the town.
Article 31, the proposed Proposition 2 ½ override, must receive an affirmative vote of two-thirds of those present at Town Meeting in order to appear on the June 20 town ballot, at which point it would need to receive the approval of a majority of voters to go into effect.
Accessory Dwelling Units: Article 39
The Marblehead Planning Board has been discussing issues surrounding Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) since at least last summer. An ADU – often called an in-law apartment – is a second, smaller, independent residential dwelling unit located within or on the same lot as a single-family home. Sometimes contentious board meetings and public forums have involved discussions of multiple applicable issues, ranging from limitations on the size of an ADU to whether ADUs should only be allowed for caretakers and family members to the relative merits of allowing ADUs to be rented at prevailing market rates versus imposing a price limit to enhance Marblehead’s supply of affordable housing. The specific provisions brought forward in Article 39 are available in detail in the Warrant.
Select Board Terms: Article 44
Article 44 on the Town Warrant seeks to change the current term of Marblehead’s Select Board members from one-year to staggered three-year terms similar to those served by the School Committee and almost all other local Select Boards. Proponents argue that this change will allow for continuity on the Select Board and enable town officials to focus on longer-term governing needs rather than constantly focusing on reelection campaigns. The transition would be implemented next year, in 2024, with the two highest vote recipients each receiving three-year terms, the next two highest vote recipients each receiving two-year terms, and the lowest vote recipient receiving a one year term. All future terms would be for three years.
Leaf Blowers Redux: Article 47 and 48
At last year’s Town Meeting, a proposed summer leaf blower ban was the subject of significant discussion from both the pro and con perspectives. It passed, but was soon thereafter discovered to have limited effect because it did not include an enforcement mechanism. Article 47 on this year’s Warrant seeks to overturn the ban passed last year. Article 48, in contrast, seeks to enhance the ban by adding escalating enforcement consequences beginning with a verbal warning and increasing to a $100 fine for a second offense and a $200 fine for all further offenses. The Marblehead Health Department and Police Department would be tasked with ensuring enforcement of these provisions.
Meeting Management: Articles 51, 52, and 54
These three articles all involve modifications to the management of various Town boards. Article 51 would require these boards to record their meetings and post meeting minutes online. Article 52 would institute a requirement for hybrid meetings. And Article 54 would ask a number of boards that do not already do so to implement and publish their Standard Operating Procedures.
Once again, Town Meeting takes place on Monday, May 1, 2023 at 7:00 p.m. in the Marblehead Veterans Middle School auditorium. Seasoned observers predict that this year’s Town Meeting will not conclude in only one night but will instead need to be extended at least until Tuesday evening, same time, same place. All registered voters in Marblehead are invited to participate. Residents must be present in person in order to vote.
Editor's Note: Please see Marblehead Beacon's announcement about recent staff changes.