Published in the November 9, 2018 edition.


WAKEFIELD — Town Meeting last night agreed to an increase in the number of signatures needed to send an article approved at Town Meeting to a townwide referendum election. But that number was less than the 5 percent of registered voters that the Charter Review Committee sought.

In the midst of a protracted debate on Article 28, Town Councilor Edward Dombroski proposed a compromise of 2.5 percent of registered voters as the signature threshold. After more discussion, Town Meeting approved the article as amended by Dombroski by the required two-thirds majority. The Charter change must now go before the voters in next April’s Town Election.

Currently, an affirmative vote of Town Meeting must be put to a townwide election if 200 registered voters petition the Town Council to do so. The Charter Review Committee saw that figure as unreasonably low and recommended under Article 28 changing it to a number equal to 5 percent of the total number of registered voters in town. Five percent of the town’s roughly 19,000 voters would be about 950.

The Charter Committee also recommended changing the number of days allowed for collecting those signatures from “10 town business days” to “12 calendar days.”

Lawrence Street’s Charles McCauley likened the Charter to the U.S. Constitution, which should not be changed except for very good reasons. He added that a townwide election is a much more representative sample than a Town Meeting vote.

David Watts, Jr. of Greenwood Avenue moved to amend Article 28 to increase the threshold of signatures to 10 percent of the total number of voters. But on advice of Town Counsel Thomas Mullen, Moderator William Carroll ruled Watts’ amendment out of order because it would be too great an increase over what was posted in the Town Meeting warrant.

Robert Mitchell of Spaulding Street argued that the referendum option was not overused and listed the five times that he said it had been used in the last 20 years.

Michael McLane of Fairmount Avenue said that he was the first to attempt to use the referendum option to put a Town Meeting vote before the voters in an election. He called the proposed increase in the required number of signatures “very anti-democratic.”

Lisa Butler of Third Street said that she favored the 5 percent threshold because it would make petitioners think twice before forcing the town to incur the cost of an election. She noted that anyone who wanted to be heard and vote at Town Meeting was free to do so.

Kristen Henshaw of Pierce Avenue said that she saw the increased signature threshold as “voter suppression.” She said that she felt the same way about closing neighborhood precincts and centralizing voting.

Richard Greif of Kingmont Street reminded voters that Town Meeting articles go through a long, public deliberative process. He also pointed out that since all Charter changes approved at Town Meeting must then go to a townwide election, those arguing against Article 28 were in effect trying to suppress votes by keeping it from going to an election in April.

Town Councilor Ann Santos said that the proposed change was not a reaction to any particular event. She argued that 200 signatures was too low a number to be able to overturn a Town Meeting vote.

Water Street’s Robert McLaughlin disagreed with claims that 200 signatures were “easy” to collect. On the contrary, he said that most people are wary of anyone with a clipboard asking for signatures.

After some more discussion, Ami Wall of Elm Street moved to end debate and put Article 28 to a vote. After several people objected to closing off debate, Wall’s motion failed and Town Meeting was back on the main motion under Article 28.

Dombroski then made a compromise motion to amend the motion setting the number of required signatures at 2.5 percent. He called it a “fair compromise” that would address everyone’s concerns.

Town Councilor Paul DiNocco spoke in favor of the compromise proposal, adding that people who claimed that Town Meeting didn’t represent the whole community should vote “Yes” and allow it to go to a townwide vote next April.

After a concern was raised about what would happen if the 12th day for collecting signatures fell on a weekend or holiday when Town Hall was closed, Dombroski offered a second amendment to extend the deadline in such cases to the next day that Town Hall would be open.

After further discussion, that amendment was voted favorably. It was followed by a favorable vote on Dombroski’s amendment to set the signature threshold at 2.5 percent.

Back on the main motion under Article 28, Gould Street’s William Spaulding denounced claims of “voter suppression,” reminding Town Meeting that only an affirmative vote would allow a townwide election on the proposal.

Andrew Bray of Highland Avenue argued that 200 signatures was too low a number to be able to undo a vote of Town Meeting. “The bar should be higher,” he said. He noted that many towns do not even have a referendum option for appealing Town Meeting votes.

Brian McGrail of Outlook Road maintained that the change should go before all the voters in an election, which he pointed out was exactly what Article 28 opponents claimed to be in favor of.

Marc Luca of Water Street noted the irony that the referendum option was put in the Charter to counter potential abuse of the Town Meeting process, however lately it seemed that the referendum process was being abused.

Ami Wall again moved to put Article 28 to a vote. This time, her motion passed and Moderator Carroll called for the tellers to count the votes on the Article 28.

In the end, Article 28 as amended passed by the two-thirds majority needed for Charter changes. The vote was 148-43 in favor of the amended motion that set the signature threshold at 2.5 percent. The change must still pass at April’s Town Election before it will become part of the Town Charter.