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Westport weathers outdoor town meeting

Voters give schools more money; land vote gets testy

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 7/29/20

WESTPORT — Enough Westport residents (273) braved Saturday morning's bright sunshine and heat to pull off the town's first outdoor meeting.

And they managed, mostly, to maintain good spirits …

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Westport weathers outdoor town meeting

Voters give schools more money; land vote gets testy

Posted

WESTPORT — Enough Westport residents (273) braved Saturday morning's bright sunshine and heat to pull off the town's first outdoor meeting.

And they managed, mostly, to maintain good spirits during the hour and 41 minutes and to vote the schools an additional $150,000 from the town's diminished Free Cash account.

The big goal,” Moderator Steven Fors said later, “was to hold a meeting that would allow us to complete the necessary business in a way that exposed attendees to acceptably low risk of COVID infection. We achieved that.”

He said that the basic setup, including check-in tables and seating, PA system and people's cooperation with temperature and coronavirus screening, worked well.

Less successful, he said, were efforts to direct people to forward and outward seats — “they largely chose their spots.”

They had also hoped to avoid use (and constant sanitizing) of microphones by attendees through using a system whereby participants would use cell phones to call the moderator with comments — he would then put his phone to his microphone.

In testing that worked great initially, but was found to produce feedback from several locations so it was never used,” Mr. Fors said.

Weather cooperated with no rain and a slight breeze. It was warm and the sun intense, but not unbearable.”

But he added, “I hope we never have to do it again. Preparation consumed a mountain of time and energy. I have suggested repeatedly my salary be eliminated as most moderators in the state are unpaid. If we had to do this every year I would want my salary quadrupled.”

School spending

After thanking all who helped set things up, including “the very small group of people who stepped forward to volunteer,” and some rearranging of people with seats too close to the microphones, Mr. Fors tackled Article 2, the town budget.

Most of the proposed budget sailed through without comment.

Finance Committee Chairman Gary Carreiro said the process essentially had to begin anew in the spring after it became clear that town revenues were in trouble.

The budget presented to you today reflects a 20 percent decrease in overall projected revenue,” he said.

But cuts to the schools went too far for many in the audience.

Budget Committee member Tracy Priestner rose to amend the $18,440,895 school budget by adding $150,000 from the Free Cash account.

That amount, she said, amounts to the cost of three teachers who are needed to keep programs strong and enable students to return to school safely.

She said she supports the other proposed Free Cash withdrawals (security cameras for the elementary schools and a front end loader for the Highway Department) and agrees that Free Cash withdrawals should not be taken lightly.

But she said “students need their teachers now more than ever,” adding that both the School Committee and Board of Selectmen support adding the $150,000.

Mr, Carreiro cautioned against further Free Cash withdrawals. Town and state budget projections are very uncertain, he said, and “we could have an even bigger shortfall in fiscal year 2022.” He noted that the budget removes an additional firefighter and police officer — there have been no added hires in those departments for a decade, he said.

Nancy Stanton-Cross countered that the $150,000 could be quickly recovered. Through collective bargaining talks with the unions, “we can easily accomplish putting that money back in.”

We are in the process of building a new school,” said School Committee member Thomas Aubin, and will need to keep students rather than have them leave for other schools. “We need to offer our students the best opportunity they can have.”

By standing vote, the amendment to add $150,000 passed by a clear majority.

After the vote, Mr. Fors expressed surprise at how few people stood to leave. “I applaud you all for sticking around.”

Front end loader

A diminished list of capital purchases passed without comment but Tony Vieira disagreed with taking $240,000 from Free Cash to pay for a new front end loader for the Highway Department. He made a motion that the department use state Chapter 90 money it has already received for road maintenance-related expenditures.

He said would be “wise” to hold on to that Free Cash for unforeseen needs.

Selectman Brian Valcourt disagreed, saying that the Highway Department depends on that Chapter 90 money to do its yearly road repairs and drainage work. “To shift $240,000 (away from that work) would be wrong.”

Mr. Vieira's motion failed — the money will be taken from Free Cash.

Property dispute

Article 15, involving a sliver of property alongside the new school construction site, was quickly approved, then revisited when an audience member said he was not given a chance to speak.

Though only involving a $1,600 expenditure, it produced the morning's most heated debate.

John Greenwood, who claims the piece of land belongs to him and has filed suit over the issue, urged attendees to defeat the expenditure.

This is a motion to take a piece of property from me by eminent domain,” he said.

None of this is necessary, he said. The town could have come in, done what it needs to do “and be done already … We'd be good neighbors working together and the school will get the extra seven parking spaces that this is all about.”

Not so, Mr. Valcourt replied.

The land in question in fact is titled to the town,” a fact confirmed by several surveys, Mr. Valcourt said. “He is disputing that title and trying to claim that land by adverse possession” through his lawsuit. He called the $1,600 insurance against the unlikely case the town does not prevail in court.

Town Planner James Hartnett added that failure to pass the expenditure would produce delays for the new school project and that resulting costs would be $50,000 “at the low end.”

The vote on Article 15 proved close so Mr. Fors called for volunteer counters to get a precise number.

That process failed its first attempt after Mr. Fors told several people who had left the designated meeting area that they could not vote from outside the taped-off meeting area.

Several shouted back at him, one saying that they had left the area to get out of the sun.

Please be silent,” Mr. Fors replied. “If you would like to come back in the meeting and cast your votes that is fine.”

After the count was redone, the motion to spend the money was defeated — 85 voted yes, 82, voted no but it failed to get a 2/3 majority.

I apologize to everyone for raising my voice and getting angry,” Mr. Fors said, “but I am going to ask everyone to behave like we behave in town meeting which is to call for a point of order. We don't yell at the moderator, yell at other people.”

Zoning code

A thorough “re-codification” of the town zoning code, which some feared might produce too much debate for an outdoor summer meeting on a hot day, passed near the end of the meeting with little discussion.

The rewrite of the zoning bylaw was prepared during more than a year's work by the Planning Board. James Whitin, chairman of the Planning Board, said the work was needed to “make sense of over 70 years of zoning laws being added to the bylaw..” He called it a “lengthy, tedious process (involving) months of hearings.”

A related zoning rewrite was recommended to be passed over for time reasons but Zoning Board Chairman Roger Menard asked that action be taken — the clarifications it makes are”necessary for us to do our job,” he said.

Voters did so without discussion.

The last few items passed as quickly as they could be read and the meeting was adjourned.

Thank you for showing up and being good citizens,” Mr. Fors as people headed for the parking lot.

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