Citizens’ petition articles: the Decas School’s future, remote meeting access up for votes

Sep 29, 2021

In what appears to be a coordinated effort to express displeasure with town leadership, activists have sent five “citizens’ petition” articles to fall Town Meeting. Almost all would, in some way, reduce the Select Board’s power or sidestep the board entirely.

The five articles on the warrant for the Oct. 25 meeting were signed by various community leaders including those involved in the ‘No to Notos’ campaign and current and former Select Board members. 

Most items voted on at Town Meeting are put on the meeting warrant by the Select Board. Citizens’ petitions are a way for voters who gather an adequate number of signatures — at least 10 — to get an issue to a Town Meeting without going through the Select Board.

Here's a look at this fall's petition articles:

Decas School reuse

The future of the John W. Decas School, located at 760 Main St., is the primary focus of the petition article proposed by Wareham resident Leslie Edwards Davis. 

Advocates for the article, titled “Repurpose the John W. Decas School for uses to benefit the community, have created a website to explain and promote their idea. 

The article asks voters to give control of the Decas School’s future to a committee that would be tasked with turning the property into a community center, of sorts. The plans being shared online suggest the center would house the Council on Aging and provide space for other community programs. 

The petition article would create a committee to govern the school’s reuse, and designates the first seven signatories of the petition as its members. The committee would have members’ terms end on a staggered basis, and the original petitioners would be the majority of the board for at least three years.

The petition also would mandate the town spend $15,000 for a study about the reuse of the Decas school for a community center. The Wareham Redevelopment Authority already paid for a Decas reuse study that determined laboratory space would be the best use.

Advocates for the article proposed later converting some classrooms into senior housing. Select Board member Jim Munise signed this petition, along with petitions for the articles related to the Redevelopment Authority and the town’s earth removal regulations.

Reduce Select Board power over Town Meeting warrant

Article 16, which removes the Select Board’s power to block some articles from making it to Town Meeting warrants, is of the most straightforward attempts to reduce the Select Board’s power. It also collected the most signatures of any of the petitions — 41 in total, while the others received about 15 to 20 signatures. 

The article would change the process for Town Meeting warrant articles submitted by other town boards and committees. It would ensure that any such articles submitted to the Select Board would be included on the warrant — regardless of whether or not the Select Board supports the proposal. 

Currently, the selectmen act as the gatekeepers of the warrant and decide whether to allow articles onto the warrant or not, even when those articles are proposed by other town committees or boards. Only citizens’ petition articles can bypass the Select Board and automatically be included in the warrant.

This isn’t the first challenge to the Select Board’s authority over the warrant, but it is the most wide-ranging in recent years. 

In 2020, former School Committee member Mike Flaherty submitted a citizens’ petition article to name the Wareham Elementary School after a committee-sponsored article was blocked by the Select Board. 

In spring 2019, Sandy Slavin submitted a citizens’ petition article that would allow the Community Preservation Committee to place articles directly on the warrant. That article failed. Slavin, who clarified at the meeting that she authored the petition entirely independently and without consulting the CPC, said the petition was prompted by the selectmen’s repeated downvoting of funding for new housing units at Agawam Village over the course of three years.

Long-time town political players Alan and Sandy Slavin signed this petition, as did several members of the Sewer Commission.

Zoom access, right to speak at meetings

Another petition article would require the majority of town board and committee meetings to hold all meetings with remote access through Zoom or another program that allows citizens to watch and participate in meetings from home. 

The article names a number of boards that would be required to comply: The Board of Selectmen, Zoning Board of Appeals, Conservation Commission, Planning Board and Board of Health. It also says that “any other board which deals with land use or holds adjudicatory hearings” would be required to comply.

The petition also declares that any board that holds adjudicatory hearings would be “forbidden to refuse to acknowledge or accept comments from residents” during any time citizens are allowed to participate in a meeting as long as that citizen would not be speaking about an issue currently before a court of law. The petition also says that threatening to sue the town or filing an appeal about a board’s decision could not be used to prevent that person from speaking about other matters before the boards.

The petition seems to stem from recent dust-ups at meetings, mostly regarding Select Board Chair Judith Whiteside’s practice of not allowing anyone who has threatened legal action or filed a complaint to speak at meetings, which has led some other committee chairs to follow that same policy.

Per state law, the chair of a committee has broad authority to choose who can or cannot speak at meetings. It is unclear whether a town bylaw could override that privilege.

Earth removal

One citizens’ petition calls on the Select Board to audit the A.D. Makepeace Company's past and present earth removal operations and, if needed, enforce the towns earth removal regulations.

Regardless of the purpose of the earth removal, if earth is removed from town, companies are supposed to clear that removal with the Select Board and pay the town 25 cents per cubic yard removed.

The petition specifically named four addresses at which A.D. Makepeace is developing solar fields with Borrego, a solar energy company: 160 Tihonet Rd., 71 Charlotte Furnace Rd., and 64 and 77 Farm to Market Rd.

Those sites have been controversial, with conservation activists decrying the environmental impact of clear-cutting forest and removing earth to install solar panels.

The petition calls upon the Select Board to determine the number of cubic yards of earth removed (including the volume of trucks and the number of truckloads) from all A.D. Makepeace properties where earth removal has taken place. The petition also requires the town to calculate any earth removal fees and penalties that may be owed to the town by A.D. Makepeace.

In addition, the petition urges the selectmen to require A.D. Makepeace to prove that any earth removed for agricultural purposes — which would be exempt from the earth removal fee — was used for those purposes.

Reconfiguring the Redevelopment Authority

The Wareham Redevelopment Authority — a town body defined by state law that typically exists “for the purpose of engaging in urban renewal projects” — could see significant changes if Article 17 passes.

Currently, the Redevelopment Authority is made up of five members, each of whom joined the committee in accordance with a March 2018 state law specific to Wareham. That law requires the board to consist of two members of the Select Board (serving one-year terms), the town administrator, the director of planning and community development, and one registered voter of the town, who is appointed by the Select Board to serve a three-year term.

Article 17 seeks to change that. 

If passed, the article would require the town to petition the state legislature to amend the 2018 law, replacing it with new language that would significantly alter who can serve on the Redevelopment Authority and how members are chosen.

The proposed amendment to the law would increase the Redevelopment Authority to seven voting members — four elected to five-year terms and three appointed by the Select Board (to serve a term of unspecified length). 

Under the new arrangement, the town administrator and the director of planning and community development would have a voice at meetings but would be unable to vote.

Perhaps the most significant change would be the requirement that members of the newly-reconfigured Redevelopment Authority could “not be on any other Board, Committee or Commission in Town that deals with land use, adjudicatory or financial matters,” per the text of the article. 

State law appears to require that “every housing and redevelopment authority shall be managed, controlled and governed by five members,” rather than seven. 

It is unclear whether Article 17’s effort to reconfigure the Redevelopment Authority and increase its size would hold up under legal scrutiny.

Fall Town Meeting will take place on Monday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. at Wareham High School (7 Viking Drive).

Correction: The graphic included with this story has been corrected to reflect that Peter Dunlop is the lead petitioner for Article 16 on the fall Town Meeting warrant.