Session 6 picks up pace, addresses 6 articles, budgets

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Moderator updates new rules aimed at meeting June deadline

UPDATED May 15: 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.


Update from moderator about June 20 deadline

 

Posted May 15: Dear Town Meeting Members,  

As we head into week 4 of Town Meeting, I want to give an update on which articles we'll cover in the coming days, the options I've considered for ensuring that Town Meeting finishes by June 20, and clarify the 15-minute straw poll that I introduced on Wednesday.  

On Monday, May 16, we'll resume financial articles from Article 50 to 71. (We're leaving Article 72 for last since it's required for balancing the budget.) Note that you can find which articles we've already covered on the Town Meeting Progress Dashboard (that now displays tabled articles in yellow; these are articles that we need to resume and complete before Town Meeting ends). I anticipate that Article 50, Town Budgets, will take a significant portion of Monday night's meeting. From there we will continue through the financial articles through Article 71, after which we'll jump back to Article 17 or 19, depending on the availability of the proponent for the former.  

Next I want to outline some of the options I've considered to ensure that we finish by June 20 to meet our fiscal year deadline. First, it's important to note that we cannot fund the Town with any budgets or appropriations for the next fiscal year until the Annual Town Meeting dissolves, which can happen only after we've voted on (or otherwise disposed of) all the articles in the warrant. Also, I'm continually looking for ways to minimize the time spent on routine, perfunctory tasks during the meeting. The remaining options I've considered include: 

  1. Wait to see if the pace picks up on its own, given that anecdotally the pace of Town Meeting historically starts slow and picks up as we make progress through the articles. (I've been tracking pacing information this year and published it on the chart at http://arlingtonma.gov/TownMeetingProgress. If anyone is interested in volunteering their time to produce similar charts for pacing of past years' Town Meetings, that would be helpful for validating the extent to which that trend is consistent. That said, if there's a tendency toward lengthier debate on earlier articles and shorter debate on later articles, that's not necessarily a trend we should embrace.)
  2. Give more opportunities for members to call a vote on whether to terminate debate when an overwhelming majority of Town Meeting Members, e.g. 75% or more, express a desire to proceed to voting. (This is the option I'm currently pursuing.)
  3. Identify several articles that are lower priority and/or less urgent, and defer them to a future Town Meeting, e.g. a Special Town Meeting in the Fall. (Procedurally this means voting down those lower priority / less urgent articles, potentially on a new consent agenda, with assurance from the reporting board or committee that they will bring those articles back at a future Town Meeting. There are additional procedural steps required to do this for articles that seek to change Zoning Bylaws.)
  4. Convene Town Meeting for an additional day each week. (It would be difficult to find an additional day and time that works for enough participants, including the staff who make virtual Town Meeting possible. Also, if attendance is significantly lower on the additional day, the articles that fall on that day would be deprived of speakers and voters compared to the articles that fall on Mondays or Wednesdays.) 

Reducing the maximum speaking time per speaker is not an option at this Town Meeting because it would require a change to the town bylaws, and there's no article on the current warrant that covers this. For what it's worth, there was a failed attempt in recent years at Town Meeting to reduce the maximum speaking time from seven minutes to five.  

All things considered, I've decided that option 2 allows for the best combination of greater flexibility and minimal disruption as we proceed through sessions of Town Meeting based on how our pace lines up with the June 20 deadline. For example, if the pace picks up naturally on its own, I can take straw polls less often if it becomes clear that we have plenty of time to hit the June 20 deadline.  

Prior to Wednesday night's meeting, some members pointed out that 15 minutes is barely enough time for two speakers who max out 7 minutes each of speaking time, and that can be unfair if those few speakers voiced only one side of the debate. In response to this concern, I explained at the opening of Wednesday night's meeting that if one side of the debate has not been voiced by the time a straw poll reaches the 75% threshold, I'll give the unvoiced side of the debate an opportunity to speak before I select someone who expressed their desire via raised hand in Zoom to terminate debate.

This raised questions about how I would know which side of the debate a member is on. The answer is that I would use the same technique that I used during debate on Article 13 (the resolution regarding the use of face surveillance), asking for raised hands in Zoom from anyone on the speaker list who wished to voice opposition to the main motion (as all the prior speakers spoke in favor or asked questions).

Additionally, for articles where significant debate is anticipated, or there are motions to amend or substitute, I will use discretion to wait further into debate before calling for a straw poll. My intention going forward is that 15 minutes is simply the minimum amount of debate time before I might call for a straw poll on non-resolution articles. Ultimately, the decision to terminate debate or continue debate remains with Town Meeting members.  

Apologies for not sharing this background and context prior to instituting this new approach using straw polls during debate. I hope this letter helps clarify and explain the rationale and considerations behind my decision.  

As always, I'm open to any thoughts, feedback, or questions you might have. 


 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. Homan 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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