Edgartown makes quick work of annual meeting
Edgartown voters marched briskly through a 68-article annual town meeting warrant Tuesday night. They paused along the way to debate the nature of representative government and how best to provide town water service to homes whose wells are afflicted by high nitrate levels.
A total of 208 voters out of 2,897, or seven percent of the electorate, walked through the doors of the stately Old Whaling Church on Main Street. Town moderator Philip "Jeff" Norton Jr. began the meeting at 7:30 pm and called it a night a little less than two hours later, establishing a modern record for brevity, according to those experienced in the annual conduct of town affairs.
Edgartonians rejected only one article, a request to set the number of voters needed for a quorum at 100 voters, and agreed to indefinitely postpone three others. Voters unanimously approved an emergency addition tacked on to the annual warrant asking for $71,423 to address mold and structural problems at the town library.
Selectman Arthur Smadbeck addresses voters under the watchful gaze of town moderator Philip Norton Jr. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Voters go to the polls between 10 am and 7 pm today. There are several contests on the ballot and 13 ballot spending questions. David Murphy faces a challenge from Kevin Searle for a seat on the board of health; incumbent David Blackburn, Richard Fenn and Herbert Foster are the candidates for two seats on the library board of trustees; and Timothy Connelly and Jay Guest will square off in a race for the wastewater treatment commission.
The meeting began with committee reports. Deborah Edmunds, chairman of the community preservation act (CPA) committee, urged voters to complete a questionnaire handed to them as they entered the meeting designed to help the committee set priorities on how best to spend CPA funds.
James Cisek, a member of the committee examining how best to make use of the old Edgartown School, reported that following a meeting with the architects and members of the council on aging the committee was recommending the school be used to provide seven to nine units of housing for municipal workers on the second floor and six to seven units of senior housing on the first floor.
The former school cafeteria could be used as a community function room, said Mr. Cisek, who added that the school reuse committee would begin meeting with the town affordable housing committee.
In short order voters took up a $22,725,132 operating budget for the 2007 fiscal year (FY), which begins on July 1, 2006. Mr. Norton instructed the voters before he read the list of department spending that anyone with a question or comment should call out check and he would return to the item.
As the money flowed line by line the only sound in the room was the turning of pages. The first and only cry of "check" was a question related to the salary line item for animal control, $75,800. A voter wanted to know the breakdown. My salary and two part-time assistants explained Barbara Prada, animal control officer.
There were no further questions. Voters approved the budget unanimously, prompting Mr. Norton to observe, "That was the fastest ever. I'm surprised since you got your tax bills yesterday."
With the operating budget out of the way, the steady march through the warrant began in earnest. Voters unanimously approved $3,500 to purchase an insurance policy that would provide $500,000 in survivor benefits for public safety personnel in the event of a duty-related death.
"We felt it is in the best interests of the town to have this policy," said Art Smadbeck, selectman, "and hopefully we will never need it."
Despite the recent consternation of some property owners over increases in property tax bills, Article 26, a request for $40,000 from the board of assessors to conduct a valuation update of commercial property for FY 2008, did not raise a murmur. "You know what that's going to mean?" asked Mr. Norton, but voters moved on without discussion.
Article 28, a request to change the number of voters needed for a quorum from 5 percent of the electorate, a number generally agreed to be 150 voters, to 100 voters, prompted the first extended debate.
Voters in favor of the measure, which was submitted by the town clerk at the urging of the selectmen, argued that routine town business sometimes required successive special town meetings because not enough voters turned out. Lowering the quorum would expedite town affairs and save costs.
Others disagreed, arguing that the importance of town meeting outweighed any convenience that might be realized if the quorum was lowered to 100 voters. Some voters said the goal should be to encourage more participation, not to put decision-making in the hands of fewer voters.
The article was defeated 125 to 79 in the evening's only standing vote.
Voters quickly sailed through money requests for the police, shellfish department, and harbor department.
The only hurdle in an otherwise smooth procession through the meeting landscape occurred when voters came to article 49, a measure submitted by the board of health and water commissioners intended to allow the town to recoup the cost of running water pipes to homes in the Edgartown Meadows subdivision.
There was general agreement that the handful of homeowners, who now must use bottled water because their wells show levels of nitrates that exceed safe drinking water standards, had a problem. The board of health, water commissioners, town officials, and voters wanted to help. There appeared to be no objection to the costs either to the town or homeowners.
But when Robert Burnham, a water commissioner, requested that the article co-sponsored by his commission be indefinitely postponed, confusion reigned. Mr. Burnham said the water commissioners were not happy with the language of the article, but his explanation left voters in a muddle about why the article needed to be withdrawn and the effect on companion article 50.
The discussion flowed back and forth over an issue about which there seemed to be general agreement, prompting calls for the moderator to move the question. The motion to indefinitely postpone was soundly rejected and article 49 passed on a voice vote.
Taking up article 50, language allowing the water commissioners to levy special assessments to pay for the cost of laying pipes, Mr. Norton asked, "Do you want me to read it?"
"No" shouted the voters in unison. That article passed.
The voters had had enough discussion of water. Taking up article 55, a request for $1.5 million to construct a new public well, Mr. Norton asked, "Do I have to read it? It's a million and a half for a well. Discussion? Nobody wants to talk about it. Love it."
One voter had a question about the cost of the well. "I don't dare let Bobby [Burnham] answer it," said Mr. Norton to laughter. Mr. Burnham provided a short, succinct answer to the question.
"Excellent," said Mr. Norton, smiling at his friend.
The last question of the evening came from a voter who wanted to know how much free cash the town had appropriated during the course of the meeting and how much would be available at the end. Pam Dolby, sitting at the front of the room as town administrator in the seat formerly occupied by Peter Bettencourt, who retired after 40 years in the job, rattled off the figures.
Looking at Mr. Bettencourt, who for the first time in a long time was sitting among the voters, Mr. Norton asked, "Aren't you proud of her, Peter?"