Wakefield Spring Election to Focus on the Will of the Voters
Nov 19, 2018 07:30AM
● By Dan Marra
WAKEFIELD – This spring Wakefield voters will head to the ballot box to defend the will of the voters at Town Meeting. Or they might be voting to defend their own voting rights. It just depends who you ask.
That’s the situation Wakefield finds itself in after the contentious Article 28 passed Town Meeting recently. Twenty years ago the Town Charter was amended to give residents an opportunity to challenge any article that was passed at Town Meeting. For the last two decades, any approved article could be brought to a town-wide referendum vote if opponents are able to garner enough signatures for a petition. Currently, that requires 1 percent of the registered voters in town (or about 200 people) to sign this petition.
The amended article and the one that will be on the ballot in the spring will increase the required signatures to 2.5 percent (about 500 registered voters).
Rich Greif, a Wakefield resident and one of the supporters for increasing the petition threshold, argues that the current bylaw makes it too easy for citizens in town to call for a town-wide referendum, and potentially overriding the will of the Town Meeting voters.
“There’s been a small group of individuals that are organized and can get 200 signatures and get an article overturned,” Greif said. “There’s no standard for what you can tell people to get them to sign the petition. You can tell them anything – providing them misinformation to scare people.”
According to Greif, the town looked at other towns and most communities with an open Town Meeting, like Wakefield, have no such referendum. The majority of communities that have a referendum use a representative Town Meeting and still require a higher threshold to bring and article to a town-wide vote – Winchester (3 percent), Reading (3 percent), Burlington (5 percent), Saugus (10 percent).
But for opponents of this article, like Bob McLaughlin, they fear this limits the voice of the community. According to McLaughlin, supporters of an article can “stack Town Meeting” and having a referendum allows for a system of checks and balances. “Stacking” is the nature of an open Town Meeting, and with an article people are passionate about, the Galvin Middle School, for example, the number of Town Meeting members can swell in support.
Two reasons – first the Town Charter is reviewed every 10 years and the last time it was reviewed was in 2008.
Second, in the 20 years this referendum has been in the Town Charter, articles passed at Town Meeting have been called to a referendum five times, and passed a town-wide vote twice. However, the only two times a referendum vote overrode Town Meeting occurred in the last four years – when residents voted against the downtown parking garage and the public safety building.
While both men agree that Town Meeting is the purest form of democracy – where any member in the community can cast their vote – McLaughlin feels that having an easier referendum vote is important for Wakefield.
“A referendum is just putting an issue out to the general public,” McLaughlin said. “We’re taking a controversial issue and letting the people vote on it. These are big issues that would change the character of the neighborhood and having a referendum vote is an important check and balance on Town Meeting. It’s not easy to stand in front of the post office and get 200 signatures, any increase will make it that more difficult.”
But for Greif, the will of the voters at Town Meeting should not be so easily overturned, leading to a costly ($15,000) town-wide election on projects that were already approved.
“You risk people becoming disenfranchised,” Grief said. “Fewer people become part of the process or run for town government. If you can overturn all the hard work at Town Meeting with just a little bit of action it dissuades participation.”
But for McLaughlin, the reason for this article is more straightforward.
“This Article 28 is just sour grapes,” he said. “People are upset because of what happened with the public safety building and the parking garage. But keep in mind, this has happened only five times in the last 20 years. We may never use this again, but you can’t make it harder to bring to a town-wide vote.”