He never attended a town meeting, but Aristotle nailed it when he said that nature abhors a vacuum.
The 2023 Annual Town Meeting began shortly after 6:30 p.m. on Monday in Bedford High School’s Buckley Auditorium. And there were high hopes among town officials and residents that the 22-article no-frills warrant could be addressed in a single session.
So how did things begin? Two early articles that normally are pro forma took 40 minutes to finish. (Town Meeting needed another four hours to complete the remaining articles – all in one session.) Both articles were approved as printed in the warrant.
The first extended article pertained to debate rules, placing time limits on presentations, amendments, and comments, and setting a deadline for introducing an additional article. The proposal stipulates that any provision can be waived by Town Meeting vote.
Former Selectman Joe Piantedosi proposed an additional rule, requiring vote tellers to announce their counts via microphone by sections of the auditorium, rather than report them to the moderator for tallying and eventual announcement of the total.
“This is a procedure used in other towns and it’s a way to create more transparency,” Piantedosi explained, adding, “It helps take away some of the doubts from last year at Town Meeting.”
After consulting with town counsel, Moderator Mark Siegenthaler announced he would not accept the amendment. “We have used the same process for many years. I see no reason why this is going to improve the operation of Town Meeting.”
After Alethea Yates questioned the arbitrary ruling, Siegenthaler said counsel confirmed to him that the moderator is in charge of “the conduct of Town Meeting.”
“We’re off to a great start,” deadpanned former Selectman Walter St. Onge. He continued, “What’s the point of putting the rules out there? Why not just tell us what they are?”
Siegenthaler said historically, voting on written debate rules is “efficient and effective” as well as a long-standing process.
Town Meeting spent even more time deliberating about one provision of Article 3, which ironically is a compendium of what are considered four routine items collected to save time under the “consent article.”
The flashpoint was a provision to “authorize the Select Board to acquire any or all easements for sidewalks, trails, drainage, or other utility purposes, as they may deem in the town’s best interests.”
As explained in the warrant, the proposal is to authorize acceptance of easements pre-emptively to save time. Normally such donations would need Town Meeting approval.
But one voter wanted to separate the provision from the rest of the consent article. After Select Board Chair Bopha Malone explained that this covers voluntary donations, the amendment lost. Then another voter asked for an explanation of the difference between “acquire” and “accept.” Another resident suggested inserting the word “voluntary.” Malone told Town Meeting that the proposal won’t change any current practices. That amendment was defeated.
Easements for some voters are a sensitive subject on the floor of Town Meeting. A year ago, Town Meeting fell short of authorizing the Select Board to acquire easements – by gift, purchase, or eminent domain – to clear the way for construction of the Minuteman Bikeway extension.
The same proposal failed to reach the required two-thirds threshold at Special Town Meeting in November, attended by more than 1,000 people. (The vote literally was a tie.)
On Monday, about 250 voters approved the consent article after about 25 minutes of debate.