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Wakefield Voters to Decide Town's Future on Tuesday

Apr 18, 2019 07:35AM ● By Dan Marra

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WAKEFIELD – Is Town Meeting the purest form of democracy? Or is it having a town-wide referendum? Or should town-wide votes be used as a system of checks and balances on Town Meeting.

Those are the questions Wakefield residents will need to answer when they head to the polls next Tuesday, April 23. Ballot question 1 will ask voters if they want to keep the current rules to force a town-wide referendum vote on an approved Town Meeting article – which currently requires 200 signatures over 10 days – or to increase that threshold to 2.5 percent of registered voters over a 12 day span.

The majority of communities that have a referendum use a representative Town Meeting and require a higher threshold to bring an article to a town-wide vote – Winchester (3 percent), Reading (3 percent), Burlington (5 percent), Saugus (10 percent).

For opponents of the increase, like Wakefield resident Bob Mitchell, the opportunity to have a vehicle to challenge Town Meeting serves as a necessary system of checks and balances. Even the increase, Mitchell says, would make it that much more difficult for residents to question a vote taken at Town Meeting.

“Town Meeting is fantastic,” Mitchell said. “But it’s easy to stack Town Meeting and push something through that’s not amenable to the general public.”

And so, according to Mitchell, having an achievable threshold to force a town-wide vote on measures passed by Town Meeting is critical.

However, supporters of the increase, like Rich Greif, argue that Town Meeting is the purest form of democracy, pointing out that Wakefield has an open Town Meeting, allowing any and all residents to show up, raise concerns and ultimately vote on the articles.

Additionally, while the town-wide referendum has been used sparingly – five times over 20 years – the last two times it was used was to curtail the downtown parking garage and the public safety building.

“These projects passed overwhelmingly at Town Meeting, but a few people oppose a project and they can say whatever they want,” Greif said. “There’s no standard for truth and facts outside of Town Meeting.”

Greif also points out that an article can only go to a town-wide referendum if it passes Town Meeting. If the article is voted down then there’s no referendum option.

“There are people that launch misinformation campaigns,” Greif said. “I and others believe the town deserves better than to have a small majority hijack the process and spread false information.”

And while Mitchell and others have pointed out that supporters of a particular article can “stack Town Meeting” with their supporters, Greif has countered saying that anyone can attend Town Meeting, “there’s no reason why people can’t line up their own supporters at Town Meeting and vote for or against an article.”

Both Mitchell and Greif have also focused on the impact this vote will have on the future of Wakefield. Mitchell is concerned that asking for nearly 500 signatures jeopardizes the potential to get a referendum vote called, potentially challenging future issues. Meanwhile, Greif has said that having such a low threshold to overturn an approved article at Town Meeting could jeopardize future projects down the road, including building a new high school or public safety building.

“I don’t know what the future issues are that might need to be voted on,” Mitchell said. “But this is a good check and balance on Town Meeting, to make sure that when it goes to the general voter, the article is something voters can accept and support.”

“We have major issues that need to be addressed in the coming years – from a feasibility study for the high school to a public safety building,” said Greif. “We can’t risk having a small majority overrule the will of Town Meeting. Any delays on these projects now will cost us more money in the future.”

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