Wellesley Annual Town Meeting night #4: Spending priorities; Fired up about fire chief reporting structure

Night #4 of Wellesleys Annual Town Meeting started off with a bi5 more tech talk, shifted to an article about Wellesley Square renovations that veered into discussion of school air conditioning and capital project priorities, and that featured the first motion at this meeting to get voted down. We’ve plowed through the meeting so that you don’t have to, but don’t let us stop you from reviewing the Wellesley Media recording.

Voice votes, butt calls & keeping tabs on Town Meeting members

 

As we reported during week #1 of Town Meeting, technical issues led to moderator Mark Kaplan opting for quicker old-fashioned voice votes on motions where there seemed to be little opposition. Though a Town Meeting member did raise the issue that doing so makes it impossible to keep track of how Town Meeting members vote, something that the Sustainable Wellesley group found useful in tracking votes in recent years related to climate and sustainability issues.

Kaplan also cautioned Town Meeting members against accidentally doing the equivalent of “butt call” on their electronic voting devices by accidentally hitting “yes” or “no” after their real vote due to the green light still being on.

Setting priorities beyond a Wellesley Square refresh

 

Under Article 23, Town Meeting was asked to authorize a budget of $600,000 to hire a consultant to design and develop plans for the future of Wellesley Square’s streetscape, including fixing the roads, crosswalks, and sidewalks. The area, from Weston Road to Wellesley Avenue, was last reconstructed in 1997, and is overdue for an upgrade, said Department of Public Works Director David Cohen. With the coming MBTA Communities plan designed to boost multifamily housing in town, the plan would be conceived with that in mind, as parking and more is considered. Oh, and the construction estimate is $6M (that wasn’t part of this article).

Town Meeting generally supported the motion for a plan that would improve the Square’s safety, accessibility and aesthetics, as indicated by the 187-20 vote in favor of it (yes, the number of Town Meeting members in attendance was up over the first week). But consideration of this project also got Town Meeting members raising concerns about Wellesley’s priorities, including the health of students in school buildings that lack air conditioning.

Town Meeting member John Lanza called it “appalling” that elementary and middle school kids are without AC in schools, and said given the town’s strong cash reserves position it should be able to do both the Wellesley Square project and address school air conditioning issues, issues that were raised during Town Meeting last week by others. “I’m voting against all further transfers of free cash until we say ‘We’re going to do this and we’re going to take care of our children, because they’re the future’,” he said.

This led to discussion of how the town prioritizes its doling out of free cash, with Executive Director Meghan Jop pointing to the Select Board’s financial reserves policy, which involves measuring requests from each department in town and evaluating the capacity of departments like  the Facilities Management Department (FMD) to handle them (see page 64 in the Advisory Committee book for more details).

Later in the discussion, Town Meeting member David Himmelberger rose in support of the motion though said: “I think the discussion tonight is such that it is clear that Town Meeting has a view of priorities that may not be currently being matched by the School Committee and/or Select Board,” and wondered whether this could be a case where FMD might need to step in to move things forward on school AC more quickly than starting design in 2028 (School Committee Chair Craig Mack chimed in that a study finding AC improvements would cost $17M-plus has been completed but that funding would still need to be approved.)

When discussion returned to the matter at hand, questions were raised about how the town would communicate with neighbors and merchants about the Wellesley Square redo. Pledges were made that there would be lots of opportunities for input. Cohen said he expects a more robust outreach process than for the recently completed Walnut Street reconstruction given the greater complexities of Wellesley Square. Preliminary outreach happened as far back as 18 months ago, and information posters were displayed in the Square on storefront windows.

Several members stated support for doing this project sooner than later given that the town has the money and that as we’ve seen with other big projects, they only tend to get more expensive the more they get pushed out. Asked if there might be safety risks in not working on Wellesley Square near term, Cohen said he had no data to support this but that his instincts would suggest that yes, failing roads and sidewalks would create risk.

Town Meeting member Paul Criswell reminded fellow members that this project would involve much more than fixing roads, but also rethinking the Square as a more pedestrian- and user-friendly space.

Play time

Following the sometimes impassioned discussion on Article 23 came the simpler Article 25 on playground reconstruction and a $2M request for funds. The town has put in place an accelerated schedule for redoing playgrounds, making them accessible and safer, whereas it used to be on the one-a-year plan. Wellesley has 18 playgrounds between school and Natural Resource Commission properties.

Up next for renovation are the front playground at Bates, the Warren Building playground and . While Upham Elementary School soon closes, Cohen assured that the playground will be maintained and improved given its importance to the neighborhood.

Municipal playgrounds

This motion easily passed by voice vote, as did the motion under Article 26 for funding to support new Recycling & Disposal Facility compactors and design work on a new baler, none of which should ever be confused with playgrounds.


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Fired up about fire chief reporting structure

 

Under Article 31 the Select Board asked Town Meeting to authorize the Board to petition the General Court for Special Legislation to modify the reporting structure of the Fire Chief from the Select Board to the Executive Director.

The Select Board’s Lise Olney said the Board made a change to oversight of the fire chief in late 2022 in recognition that “the world of public safety has become a lot more complex,” and that fire chiefs now have more financial and management compliance responsibilities than in the past. The timing of this change was prompted by the retirement of longtime Chief Rick DeLorie, and the thinking by the majority of the Board was that this change would set up the new chief for success by providing a more regular reporting structure than the Board could provide. Olney said the change put in place while acting and interim chief have led the department has resulted in numerous improvements, including to the budgetary analysis and for addressing a personnel shortage.

“The success of the policy has made clear that the change should be made permanent,” Olney said. The Advisory Committee unanimously backed this recommendation, noting that it mirrors the structure of comparable communities.

During Select Board discussions on this matter in late 2022, the Board voted 3-2 in favor of the policy change, with Beth Sullivan Woods and Ann-Mara Lanza opposed. Then in February of 2024, the Board as then constituted, voted 3-2 in favor of Article 31, with Sullivan Woods and Lanza again in the minority. A March 26 Select Board vote, with the new Board line-up, went 4-1 in favor of the article.

Lanza, no longer on the Board, rose as a Town Meeting member to let the rest of the body know why she opposed Article 31, and invited Sullivan Woods to do the same. Lanza said she felt like the Board was piling too much responsibility onto the executive director without enough support, while Sullivan Woods said she felt the town’s bylaws allow for enough flexibility that the Board can shift responsibility as needed, as it did in this case during a transition period at the Fire Department.

A Town Meeting member inquired about whether changing oversight of the fire chief would be a precursor to other such changes (the police chief retires mid-year), and Olney said there is no intention to extend this to the police chief. Another Town Meeting member stressed that public safety is the top priority of the Select Board, and that handing oversight of the fire chief to the executive director could result in possible conflicts of interest.

And another member opposed the motion, suggesting that this might be seen as another step toward creating an “ad hoc town manager position,” an approach to local government voted down by the town in 2016.

Town Meeting handed the Select Board a stunning defeat on this motion, voting against it by a 48/155/1 count. Though as the town counsel pointed out, the current policy can remain in place without state ratification. The Select Board is allowed to delegate this oversight authority as it wishes, and can rescind it at any time.

Clarification (4/4/24): We updated the section on Article 31 to clarify information about the Select Board votes on the article.

 

More: Wellesley Town Meeting Week #1: Loving the balanced budget; Technical difficulties; Stormwater fee coming; Delayed projects get their day