Town Meeting

Brighton Town Meeting

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ISLAND POND — How many is too many?  Whether select board members or town staff, that question was the underlying tension running through the discussion at Brighton’s Town Meeting Monday night.

Moderator Pierre Gervais opened the meeting at the town hall with the pledge of allegiance and explained Robert’s Rules of Order before opening up discussion on the first three items on the warning.  Those items were for discussion only, and will be voted on by Australian ballot on Tuesday, March 5.

The item that drew the most interest was:  “Shall the voters authorize the addition of two new members to the select board for terms of one year each in order to create a five-member select board?”  Town residents spoke out both in favor and against the proposal.

Select board member Michael Testut said the proposal “stops a lot of anarchy.”  He said with members on the select board serving for long periods of time, having a five member board will bring more diversity.

“People have good ideas instead of the old ways,” he said.  Mr. Testut also mentioned he’s the only current select board member who is retired from his day job, and he has the time to go out and talk to people in the community.  He would like to see select board members who have more time for that.

His fellow board member Heather McElroy said she is concerned about the proposal because it is already difficult to find three people willing to take on the elected position.  She said a two-person quorum is easier to manage and two people can keep the town running should the third be incapacitated for any reason.  Some voters voiced the same concern about finding enough people to serve.

Mr. Testut said he knows people, some of whom were in attendance at the meeting, who are interested in serving on the select board.  He wondered aloud how folks could be so sure about the difficulty of finding five people when it hasn’t been tried yet.  Others present, like Mark Bean, stood to speak in favor of the proposal on the grounds of eliminating the “old boys’ club” and getting fresh ideas.

One person asked what would happen if the town changed its structure to a five-member select board, but not enough people were interested in serving.  Town Manager Noah Bond said it could stall important projects.

Town Administrator Joel Cope stood to say he has been working with select boards for over 30 years, and Brighton doesn’t need a five-member board; with five people, there will be clashes and disagreements.  He said there are already vacancies for listers and members of the water board, so if people are interested in serving they can start there.  He turned and addressed the crowd asking how many people attend select board meetings regularly.  Only a few raised their hands.

“You don’t need a five-member board,” Mr. Cope repeated.

Before the question was moved and the discussion wrapped up, Beth Rodondi said she is disheartened to hear the negative comments about the select board.

“Civil servants deserve more than to be accused of being an old boys’ club,” she said, adding they give countless, thankless hours to their role.

Water Commissioner Mark Vaillancourt was up next to give his report and provide updates on the new wastewater treatment plant project. He read a prepared statement outlining the amount of work it has taken to secure five grants or grant/loan combinations to fully fund the project. What started out as a $3.5-million project a few years ago has ballooned with inflation to an estimated $6-million.

At the end of his description of the time and effort involved in the project, he urged the public to keep Mr. Bond on as town manager, along with Mr. Cope, and also Michael Strait, the town’s director of recreation and economic development.

A member of the audience asked why so many grants, with their associated paperwork and staff time, are necessary.  Mr. Cope said that the options are either to go to a bank and borrow money the taxpayers have to pay back with 6 percent interest, or go after grants.

“Grants are free money,” he said. “Why would you not go for it?”

A member of the public rose and said he wanted to address the rumors that seemed to be underlying a lot of the discussion that no one has named, and that is the issue of “too many managers.” Mr. Bond, Mr. Cope, and Mr. Strait are all current town employees, which was not necessarily the expectation of some taxpayers, he said.

Mr. Cope said it’s important to have people on board who understand the level of sophistication of the grants and the amount of work that goes into them.  Ms. McElroy added it’s better to have multiple people involved in these projects and know what’s going on, so one person isn’t the sole keeper of information.

After a lengthy discussion about how grants work and who writes them, the discussion was wrapped up and the meeting moved on.  The question of town employees came back around quickly, however, as the main event — Article 9, the town operating budget — came up for a vote. The warning had incorrect numbers.  The correct article should have read as follows:

“Shall the voters authorize total fund expenditures for operating expenses of $2,189,637.04, of which $1,657,002.67 shall be raised by taxes and $532,634.37 by non-tax revenues ?

One resident noted that in previous select board minutes it was clear that Mr. Bond’s salary would be paid for by American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money for two full years, and part of Mr. Strait’s salary would also be paid for by ARPA.  However, in the budget being voted on Monday night, Mr. Bond’s salary was part of the taxpayer-funded allotment.  Brighton’s annual report said Mr. Bond’s salary would be paid for by ARPA money for one year.  Ms. McElroy said she didn’t have an explanation for the discrepancy.

In response to a question about a $50,000 wage increase in the budget, Mr. Bond offered an obscure answer about how an employee might not be paid very much and could choose to self-fund his position through grants.  It turned out, he was referring to Mr. Strait, who will look for grant money to cover his position. When asked what would happen if Mr. Strait couldn’t find the money to cover his salary, Mr. Bond said that would be up to the town, but did not say when or how that would be decided.

Another person asked how long they should expect Mr. Strait to stay on to help with grant-funded projects. Mr. Bond said he thinks it could possibly be until 2031, though Mr. Cope said much of the work should be complete by the end of 2026.

A resident asked how the select board is planning for the future, to avoid the current situation where many public works projects need to happen at once.  Mr. Bond said members are working to put money aside for the future.  That wasn’t happening before, he said. Ms. McElroy added the same is being done for smaller projects, like painting the town hall.  She said the select board and staff are putting together a preventative maintenance schedule for town assets.

The budget was passed unanimously.

Earlier in the evening the Brighton Town School District also voted on its budget.  The voters approved spending of $2,982,090 by a margin of 41 to 19.

By Trisha Ingalls

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