Town Meeting: Victory for Sustainability Advocates, Treasurer and Collector Are No Longer Elected Positions
At Westwood’s Annual Town Meeting on Monday, May 1st, residents gathered in Westwood High School’s auditorium and voted in favor of Article 17 and sustainability, thereby shifting the balance of power from developers to elected Planning Board officials who can now require developers to adhere to higher sustainability standards.
Many of the 20 articles up for consideration by resident voters sailed through, on momentum of the evening created under Moderator Jim O'Sullivan's gavel and the Finance and Warrant Commission's (FinCom's) recommendations for approval of 19 of those articles. Voters approved Article 3, the FY24 Operating Budget, without much debate. Article 3 results in an average tax bill increase of 7.25 percent.
However, there was a hiccup in the smooth sailing, as voters voiced surprisingly robust opposition to Select Board-sponsored Article 15, which proposed converting the elected positions of Town Treasurer and Tax Collector to appointed positions.
Then there was a detour from FinCom’s recommended path for Planning Board's Article 17, regarding new sustainability bylaws. Voters bucked their trend of approving each of FinCom's recommendations. A majority of voters approved the only article that failed to find support from a majority on FinCom.
Article 15: Surprisingly Robust Opposition to Converting Elected Treasurer and Collector to Appointed Positions
No resident voiced opposition to Article 15 in the offered discussion period, so it was surprising when Article 15, of all articles subject to a voice vote where electronic voting was not used, received the strongest opposition (as measured by volume).
Chairs of Select Board and Westwood Charter Review Committee, Robert Gotti and Peter Cahill, gave presentations and residents were encouraged to join the 85 percent of Massachusetts municipalities that have converted elected positions of Town Treasurer and Town Collector to appointed positions. Reasons given included reducing the risk of liability for Westwood where those jobs have evolved from administrative tasks to specialized, complicated ones requiring financial expertise.
Following the remarks of the chairs, Moderator O’Sullivan offered a few seconds of contemplation before moving to a vote when no discussion ensued. However, those few seconds may have been insufficient time, as when the vote was taken, a surprising chorus of voices rose to shout their “nays,” opposing the article’s passage. Moderator O’Sullivan determined the voice vote to be two-thirds in favor.
As a result, the positions of Town Collector and Town Treasurer can be appointed by the Town Administrator (itself an appointed position), reducing the number of offices that are both elected and paid in Westwood’s Town government from 6 to 4. Within those offices, officials who are both elected and paid have been reduced from 12 to 10. Following the Massachusetts General Court review and enactment of Article 15, the only elected, compensated positions in the Town of Westwood's government will be the Town Clerk (full time position and salary), three Assessors ($1,800 stipend), three Select Board Members ($2,000 stipend), and three Sewer Commissioners ($1,800 stipend). See Appendix C to Warrant Book (p.63).
Article 17: Westwood Voters Strongly Support Progressing Toward Sustainability
Article 17 was the only article opposed by a majority of FinCom members, and it garnered the greatest attention of the evening. With voter discussion almost entirely in favor of its passage, Article 17 survived FinCom’s recommendation for indefinite postponement. By an electronic vote of 121 to 48, voters rejected FinCom’s recommendation, allowing Article 17 to move to a discussion and vote on its merits.
Resident Sara Wasserman, who voted against indefinite postponement, spoke on the importance of sustainable development in light of weather extremes. She noted that taking steps toward sustainability will help Westwood mitigate erosion, flooding, and high stormwater runoff volumes that result from climate change.
She concluded to light applause, “Westwood leads the way in Massachusetts on many levels including community life and in our school system. We should lead the way on being sustainable as well.”
A discussion on the pros and cons of Article 17 was followed by an electronic vote, with 109 to 42 in favor of passage. The requirement for passage was two-thirds (66 percent) vote in favor. Article 17 passed with 72 percent of the vote.
Article 17 should be expected to move Westwood significantly forward towards sustainability in both existing and new development. It requires electric vehicle charging stations in some parking areas. It requires sustainability features in much of new development.
Article 17 amends Section 6.1 (Off-Street Parking) of the zoning bylaw to provide that a charging station must be placed in a parking area that has 25 or more parking spaces. To protect consumers, charging station fees cannot exceed 120 percent of the actual cost.
Article 17 also replaces language in Section 7.3.8 of the zoning bylaw that made a relatively weak, subjective ask of developers to adhere to “principles of energy conscious design” where “reasonably practicable.”
The new language is much stronger. It that requires that developers “shall” adhere to energy conscious design. Developer proposals must incorporate renewable energy resources.
However, there are still some softer, new provisions. Developers must use “reasonable” energy-efficient and green-centered technologies in building materials. They also must use “reasonable” water-saving and green-centered technologies in plumbing fixtures.
In making the case for Article 17, Westwood’s Director of Community and Economic Development Nora Loughnane noted requirements of the new Section 7.3.8 would apply to all new, non-residential developments subject to an Environmental Impact Design Review (EIDR) by Planning Board, and is not intended to apply to single-family residential structures.
Article 17 also amends Section 7.3.8 of the zoning code, “Preservation of Landscape,” by replacing its title and focus with “Sustainable Landscape.” The new provision protects existing trees with caliper size of 5 inches or more by requiring that they be maintained or relocated. Additionally, developers must remove invasive vines and noxious plants that can endanger trees.
Complete Outcome of Voting: Article 1 through Article 20
Article 1 - FY23 Budget Adjustments by Transfer. No vote was taken on this article, which normally provides a supplemental budget to areas that need it, with funds being transferred from budget areas with projected surpluses. FinCom notes that for FY 23, no transfers are needed.
Article 2 - Majority vote in favor of FY23 budget adjustments by appropriation.
Article 3 - Majority vote in favor of FY24 Operating Budgets. The result of this vote is an average tax bill increase of about 7.25 percent.
Article 4 - Majority vote in favor of raising and appropriating and/or transferring $1,355,500 for the purchase and/or lease of capital equipment and improvements that include three trucks for Department of Public Works (DPW), vehicles, gear, and equipment for the Fire Department (Fire), technology for the Information Technology and Library departments, vehicles and equipment for Police, and facility maintenance, energy efficiency, municipal parking lots and police station floorings for Buildings.
Article 5 - Majority vote in favor of raising, appropriating, and/or transferring from available funds $1,017,000 for the purchase and/or lease of capital equipment and improvements for Westwood Public Schools (WPS).
Article 6 - Unanimous majority vote in favor of raising, appropriating, and/or transferring from available funds $1,260,000 for the purchase and/or lease of sewer capital improvements.
Article 7 - Unanimous two-thirds vote in favor of appropriating $500,000 to pay for engineering and improving infiltration and inflow of the town's sewer system.
Article 8 - Unanimous vote in favor of raising, appropriating, and/or transferring from available funds $445,000 for the purchase and/or lease of an ambulance and fire department rescue equipment.
Article 9 - Unanimous vote in favor of raising, appropriating, and/or transferring from available funds $1,100,000 for purchase and/or lease of capital equipment for DPW, Buildings, and WPS.
Article 10 - Majority vote in favor of raising, appropriating, and/or transferring from available funds $125,000 for the Stabilization Fund.
Article 11 - Majority vote in favor of raising, appropriating, and/or transferring from available funds $1,540,000 to the OPEB Liability Trust Fund.
Article 12 - Unanimous vote in favor of borrowing $1,850,000 to purchase and equip a new fire ladder truck.
Article 13 - Unanimous two-thirds vote in favor of borrowing $1,500,000 to expand the Westwood Cemetery.
Article 14 - Unanimous two-thirds vote in favor of selling the property at 47 Willard Circle, that is town property as the result of a tax taking.
Article 15 - Two-thirds vote in favor of converting the elected positions of Town Treasurer and Tax Collector to appointed positions.
Article 16 - Two-thirds vote in favor of amending the zoning bylaw to allow earth material movement applications to receive administrative review and approval instead of a public hearing before Planning Board.
Article 17 - Two-thirds vote in favor of incorporating sustainability amendments into zoning bylaw.
Article 18 - Two-thirds vote in favor of amending the zoning bylaw to require screening around new dumpsters on non-residential and multi-family residential properties.
Article 19 - Two-thirds vote in favor of amending the Town of Westwood General Bylaw related to Dumpsters to require lids on dumpsters and specific times of day that dumpsters can be filled and emptied.
Article 20 - Unanimous two-thirds vote in favor of housekeeping amendments to the zoning bylaw, which allows for corrections and clarifications.
Readers can view the proceedings of the 2023 Annual Town Meeting on Westwood Media Center's YouTube channel.
Thanks to Professor Peter Ittig for sharing news for this article.