They say the only constant in life is change, and Tewksbury residents showed their appetite for the new at last night’s well-attended Special Town Meeting. The Carnation estimates that close to 200 voters, guests and town officials and staff turned out, including a number of first-time attendees sporting blue to support a bundle of articles that had been promoted as moving the town forward and creating new opportunity for residents.
Scott Wilson was once again sworn in as temporary moderator. That position will be on the ballot in April to hopefully elect a resident to a three-year term.
Voters quickly and unanimously signed off on articles 1 through 6, which dealt with budget matters and allocated $110,000 in Community Preservation funds to improve drainage in the area of Livingston St. where cricket games and youth football practices are held.
Article 7 saw several parcels set aside to protect watershed resources and increase open space and wildlife habitat. The land will come under the control of the Conservation Commission and aligns with the Open Space and Recreation Plan. Articles 8 and 9 provided an easement for use by the new elementary school and sold off some small lots to abutters at market rate, while 10 and 11 authorized a zoning change to reflect the controls necessary for the Town to comply with the Consent Decree regarding the Sutton Brook Disposal Area — a Superfund Site — as recommended by the EPA and MassDEP.
Next up were a trio of articles that, taken together, authorized a home rule petition to replace the term “Board of Selectmen,” and other gender-specific designations such as “Chairman,” with “Select Board” and “Chair.”
“It is time to update and utilize inclusive and equitable language for all elected and appointed boards in our community,” said Select Board member Jayne Wellman, who asked that the change be put on the warrant. “The Board of Selectmen is the only board with any kind of gender reference in its name. The term ‘select board’ is commonly used now, and it’s appropriate to update our charter and bylaws to reflect the language we are already using everyday.”
Attendees agreed and were near unanimous in approval, with one nay vote for the three articles. Representative Tram Nguyen took to social media to congratulate voters and voice support for the home rule petition.
The remaining three articles were citizen petitions. Any registered voter may seek to place an article on the warrant. For annual Town Meeting, held in May, 10 voter signatures are needed. For Special Town Meeting that bar is higher, with 100 signatures needed.
Article 15 accepted Robbie Terris Way as a public street and was unanimously approved.
Article 16, submitted by resident Christine Chesbrough, creates a “Do Not Knock Registry.” Currently, all solicitors must register with the Tewksbury Police Department and receive a license from the town clerk. Now, when a solicitor receives that license, it will come with a list of addresses they must avoid.
The original article sought a $300 fine for violations. Finance Committee member Richard Levasseur proposed raising that number to $1,000 given that enforcement and maintaining the list will require effort from town staff.
“Let’s give it some teeth,” said Levasseur. Residents agreed.
The lone contentious article sought to change the term length of elected Planning Board members from five to three years. That citizen petition, put forward by residents Paige Impink and Chris Mullins, garnered 516 signatures.
“Moving to a three-year term means more seats will become available each election cycle,” said Impink. That creates more opportunities for residents to run while countering the “incumbency effect,” where a challenger is going head-to-head with an elected member, something Mullins contended discourages participation.
Opponents of the article countered that the Planning Board deals with complex matters and that bringing in new members in the midst of projects could jeopardize timely approvals. Former Select Board member Mark Kratman expressed doubt that a shorter term would encourage more people to run, but longtime resident and official Jay Kelley disagreed, saying a five-year term is a barrier for many.
Planning Board chair Stephen Johnson, who worked in the weeks leading up to STM to convince residents that shorter terms would be a detriment to the town, insisted that there is no evidence that competition will be increased by having a three-year term and sought to defeat the motion by requesting a standing vote for indefinite postponement, a negative motion. Given the pressure applied by some elected officials to defeat 17, Johnson no doubt expected that the requirement to stand and be counted versus a voice vote would work in his favor.
In the end, the vote wasn’t particularly close, with indefinite postponement soundly defeated and the article being adopted by a margin of 125 to 40.