The warrant for Wellesley’s Annual Town Meeting is regularly packed with Board of Selectmen-approved articles on appropriations, authorizations, and stabilizations that can be as cryptic and tedious as they are important. Looking back through Town Meeting warrants of years past, a lot of that stuff blends together.
And then there is the citizen petition (also referred to as citizen’s and citizens’ petitions). These are proposed Town Meeting warrant articles any town resident can file with the town clerk upon getting 10 certified Wellesley voter signatures and providing a fair description of the subject matter to put before the meeting.
There are usually only a handful a year, but many have been memorable, and in some cases real signs of the times. They’ve led to everything from the piloting of electronic voting at Town Meeting to restrictions on leaf blowers (David Himmelberger, take a bow). They’ve moved conversations forward on issues such as allowing booze sales in grocery stores and creating bike lanes in the wake of a Wellesley cyclist being struck and killed on Weston Road.
Everything from burying ashes at a church to pushing for a bandstand next to the main Wellesley library branch has been raised via citizen petitions. A 2000 petition sought to ban cellphones from use at Town Meeting: That didn’t pass and it’s hard to envision a successor doing so these days.
This year’s Town Meeting boasts 6 citizen petitions, with topics ranging from a proposed ban on fur sales to a call for more efficient town government to dueling articles related to October celebrations. The Wellesley Advisory Committee on Feb. 27 will be holding a public hearing on the warrant’s articles in advance of Town Meeting, which kicks off on March 30.
A Town Meeting citizen petition, by the way, is distinct from other citizen petitions that are not designed to become Town Meeting articles. Rather, those bringing these petitions forward see to create ballot questions, and these are regulated by different state rules. An example is the petition recently aired at a Board of Selectmen meeting on the future of Wellesley’s elementary schools. The board rejected it, but proponents subsequently collected enough voters’ signatures to get it on the March 17 Town Election ballot.
Citizens have their say
Wellesley has had Representative Town Meeting since 1937. This means 240 residents are elected each year to study up on the warrant articles and represent those who voted them in. The articles they vote on, at Annual or Special Town Meetings, largely are submitted by town boards and committees, and compiled by the Board of Selectmen.
But even that system doesn’t assure that all voices will be heard. So citizens have the option of introducing petitions in the December/January timeframe in hopes of having Town Meeting weigh in on them.
Some petitioners are one and done: They have a hot button issue that they want to bring to Town Meeting, and then they’re never heard from again. That’s been the routine in recent years.
Though back in the 1970s and 1980s Town Meeting members could almost be guaranteed they’d hear from regulars like John Prybyla regarding the operations or rates of the Municipal Light Plant or other town utilities, or attorney Ed Donlon on bylaws around meeting minutes or other subjects involving government transparency. While not many of their petitions passed, they did force public discussions of departmental policies and practices. Town Meeting made resolutions in 1996 and 2000 to the men’s passing.
2004 Annual Town Meeting. The topic was long-range planning and capital projects.
“While our long-term planning process still needs improvement, before Article 31 passed there basically was no long-term financial or capital planning,” Morgan says. “Without the vision and tenacity of the proponents, notably Arthur McMurrich, I doubt we could have achieved the strong financial reserves and reasonably clear financial and strategic plans the Town currently enjoy.”
Royall Switzler, an active participant in state and local politics over the years, says he feels “very strongly about both local and state citizen’s petitions, as they give the individual voter the opportunity to have a direct vote on laws or issues that elected officials many times will not face or act upon.” Switzler says he was involved as an original sponsor of the Proposition 2 1/2 Initiative petition and several others, particularly, when was serving in the Legislature, along with many other citizen petitions that reached the state ballot.
The new era of citizen petitions
Whereas citizen petitions in Wellesley traditionally have focused purely on town issues, a new breed is more broadly intentioned.
At the very least, Morgan says, he wishes first-time filers of citizen petitions would seek counsel from those with significant Town Meeting experience before locking in their language and approaches.
If you’re thinking about getting in on the action next time around, know that a victory at Town Meeting isn’t cause to go overboard in celebrating since articles might require the Attorney General’s approval, too.
“Topics need to be legal from a Town and State perspective,” says Town Clerk KC Kato, who shared the sampling of recent Citizen Petitions in the embedded spreadsheet below. “New and revised bylaws are required to be reviewed and approved by the Attorney General’s Office before going into effect.”