OPINION: A Newcomer's Perspective of Westwood's 2023 Town Meeting


Image of an audience from Canva.

By John Aram, Contributor

Attending the Town Meeting on May 1st generated several impressions for me, a relative newcomer to Westwood. First, one has to be impressed with the organization of the proceedings. While this may not be unusual for communities with long practice in holding town meetings, the articles in this meeting were presented succinctly, procedural rules were spelled out clearly, and the meeting proceeded methodically and efficiently. To me, the event communicated a tone of practiced professionalism.

In terms of audience participation, two aspects stood out to this observer. The first concerns Article 15, a recommendation from the Select Board to make the positions of Treasurer and Tax Collector appointed rather than elected. No one from the audience rose to speak when the motion was introduced and explained, leading one to believe that the article would be unopposed. The Moderator called for a voice vote and interpreted a predominance of voices as approving the Article by the required two-thirds majority.

Yet, a number of “nay” votes were clearly audible as well, leaving the impression that a number of individuals in the meeting had reservations about Article 15. Because none of the dissenters had spoken in the discussion period of the Article, people attending did not have the benefit of knowing their concerns. A keypad vote is required if seven members challenge the Moderator’s interpretation of the voice vote but there were no challengers.

I was left wondering what the dissenters might have said. Did they object to making these positions appointed and thereby weakening public control? Were dissenters advocating for retaining as much local democracy as possible? Were they worried that this change would add administrative costs? The meeting moved on quickly, leaving several individuals apparently frustrated at having missed the opportunity to speak. Whether or not their concerns would have been persuasive, I believe all Town Meeting members would have benefited from discussion of their issues.

Audience participation with regard to Article 17 concerning a series of policies promoting environmental sustainability in Westwood followed a different course. This article had been endorsed by the Westwood Environmental Action Committee and its supporters were seemingly well organized. The predominance of speakers favored these policies and each person spoke from prepared notes.

The proposals included allocating one charging station for any new development of 25 or more parking spaces and required inclusion of energy consciousness in new building design as well as meeting new building standards for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and water use efficiency. It was reported that all proposals have already been in place in University Station for a decade.

In a split vote, FinCom had recommended that Town Meeting members indefinitely postpone this Article, arguing that the wording was insufficiently precise and that investments in sustainability risked diminishing business development in the town. Thus, sustainability advocates had to defeat the motion to postpone the Article indefinitely, and then they needed to achieve a two-thirds majority of voting persons in order to approve the sustainability provisions, which they did.

I came away from the meeting with three conclusions. First, it became clear that effective advocacy and dissent in the Westwood Town Meeting requires pre-work and coordination. One’s chances of success appear directly related to the level of preparation and organization.

Second, from a personal perspective, the process and outcome of the Sustainability Article was highly gratifying. I was proud of my new community’s desire to participate actively in this country’s transition to green energy. Sustainability advocates succeeded in a two-fold task of defeating a postponement motion and passing a positive Article with a super-majority of those present. I felt thankful for their activism and positive work on behalf of the community as well as the nation.

Finally, major financial and policy decisions are made by the town’s registered voters at the annual Town Meeting, as required by the Town Charter. Two hundred and twenty-three individuals registered at the meeting, satisfying the original quorum of 175, which was reduced to 45 in April of this year by the Select Board. However, only 151 persons voted, for or against the sustainability Article, representing approximately 1.3% of the town’s registered voters. Monday’s meeting was local democracy working in accordance with honored traditions and aspirations of this country. It might only be sustained and improved upon by more robust citizen participation.

Thanks to John Aram, a retired professor of management policy, and a recent resident of Westwood, for contributing this opinion to Westwood Minute.

Westwood Minute takes no position on the opinion articles that it publishes, but seeks accurate and thoughtful commentary on topics that matter to our community, from a variety of differing viewpoints. Feel free to reply with your reaction below, or submit another perspective to WestwoodInAMinute@gmail.com.

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