Controversial Articles Could Be Postponed To Streamline Town Meeting

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Town Meeting , COVID-19

The Castle in the Clouds playground at Harwich Elementary School had to be demolished last year for safety reasons. Funding to build a new playground included in the annual town meeting could be postponed as selectmen seek to streamline the warrant. FILE PHOTO 

HARWICH — Critical budget items will be the focus of the June 22 annual town meeting. Other articles, especially those likely to generate prolonged discussion, will be postponed.

That is, if the town can hold the session on June 22.

“I’m still skeptical we’ll have a June annual town meeting,” Selectman Michael MacAskill said last Friday.

If the meeting is held, Board of Selectmen Chairman Larry Ballantine said a lot of people may not feel comfortable attending a town meeting at that point. Controversial articles, as well as community preservation funding requests and petition articles, may have to be eliminated.

Given funding shortfalls anticipated by the pandemic, board members agreed they need to take a close look at revenue generation. Interim Town Administrator Joseph Powers said Governor Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito hold a teleconference with administrators every Tuesday and have strongly urged towns to look at holding spending to one-twelfth of the annual budget, if town meetings can be held before the June 30 end of the current fiscal year.

“They still harbor doubts we’ll be able to go in June,” Powers said. “They still expect COVID-19 to be prevalent in August.”

Selectman Donald Howell suggested the warrant be reduced to eight to 12 articles. It would be unfair to do much more than address major budget items, he said.

Ballantine said capital funding appropriations could be left out of the warrant. MacAskill agreed with that plan, adding he is much more focused on protecting the town employees than the need for new trucks.

“We already needed a tax diet,” Howell said. “Folks—with this [pandemic] on top of that—need a break.”

Howell said if the town adopts a one-twelfth budget, he does not recommend spending to the limit because of the expected shortfalls. That message was also offered by Finance Director Carol Coppola. The one-twelfth budget would be necessary if town meeting is not held by the end of June and no funds have been appropriated.

Selectmen also focused on whether or not to move forward with Community Preservation Act funding articles. Those funds are generated through a 3 percent property tax surcharge and contributions from the commonwealth. One of the articles seeks $500,000 for the elementary school playground project and was identified as essential.

Howell questioned why a playground is considered essential and other CPA proposals, such as housing, is not. He recommended selectmen put forward all of the CPA articles, which have been vetted and discussed by the community preservation committee and stakeholders since last July.

Selectman Stephen Ford said he had a discussion with David Nixon, chairman of the community preservation committee, and Nixon does see housing funding as essential. But he made clear that is his opinion and it has not been discussed with the committee. Ford said he got the impression the committee will go along with whatever selectmen decide. Selectmen agreed those decisions will be made in an upcoming meeting.

The other issue facing the board, Ballantine said, is petitioned articles. The 59-article warrant has five petitioned articles, including funding the Harwich Port and Chase libraries; promoting the town through the chamber of commerce; a single-use plastic water bottle ban; rescinding the plastic bottle ban voted last year; and a climate change policy bylaw.

Selectmen can’t pull the petitioned articles from the warrant, Ballantine said. Bourne selectmen asked petitioners if they would be willing to postpone articles in their warrant, he added.

One petitioner pointed out if the article is postponed, it would require 100 signatures for a petitioned article in a subsequent special town meeting, instead of the 10 required for an annual town meeting. Powers said with the mutual agreement of the board of selectmen of the petitioners, articles could be placed on a future warrant without need for another petition. Selectmen agreed to examine how to move forward with the petitioned articles and other articles they plan to remove from the warrant in their April 30 meeting.