Welcome to this week’s LexObserver news roundup, a quick read you can expect in your inbox every Friday.

As Thanksgiving approaches, we’re happy to report that fundraising progress remains steady: We’ve raised about $11,000 so far, and have just under four weeks to reach our goal. Please continue to spread the word and give, and thank you all SO much for your continued support!

We’ve got lots of news about Special Town Meeting and more in today’s newsletter. But before we get to that, a note: Your reporter, and the rest of the team, will be busy eating too much leftover pie next Friday, so there will be no regular newsletter next week. But, you’ll receive some reporting from us early next week, and, we’d like to send out a special newsletter next Wednesday featuring comments from YOU: What, and who, are you thankful for in Lexington?

We welcome comments on behalf of individuals and organizations alike. If you’d like to share, please send your brief comment to sophie@lexobserver.org, as well as your name and/or organizational affiliation, by 4 p.m. next Monday, Nov. 22. Or, you can DM us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook by the same deadline. We really would love to hear from you, so please do share!


Now, this week’s news:Week of Nov. 19: Lexington News Roundup

Reported by Sophie Culpepper; Proofread by Harry Forsdick

NEWSLETTER SECTIONS:

  • Special Town Meeting continued over four evenings this week, with changes to zoning, approval of new building construction funds, a fever dream concluding session about leaf blowers, and more.
  • On Sunday, a petition/letter was circulated by a Diamond Middle School parent criticizing Superintendent Julie Hackett for her handling of the threat at Diamond Nov. 4. The petition received relatively few signatures  under 30  but Hackett responded Monday with a schoolwide communication addressing and refuting the petition’s claims, which she said were misleading and unfounded.
  • Jewels From the Crown follow-up: After last Friday’s newsletter, Lieutenant Christopher Barry of the Lexington Police Department followed up to explain why it can take multiple years for jewelry, and any evidence, to be returned to the owner in a crime investigation.
  • This week (and last week’s) town COVID-19 numbers went up slightly, but remained low  and, a look at the first state estimates for the number of 5-11-year-olds with at least one dose in Lexington.
  • Community announcements (local vaccination clinics for kids ages 5-11 at LHS began TODAY; Transgender Day of Remembrance tomorrow; community member Robert Berend seeking a Thanksgiving dinner table to join next week)

The week in Special Town Meeting: Out with a bang, not a whimper

Note: We covered each of the five full sessions of STM 2021 on Twitter @ObserverLex.

Monday, Nov. 15: zoning article 15 fails by razor-thin margin; zoning article 16 passes

  • Widespread power outages affected Town Meeting Members in several precincts for a few min early in the meeting — as many as 6 of the 9 precincts, according to Select Board Chair Jill Hai, who cited precincts 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 9 as being affected. Special Town Meeting was able to proceed after a brief delay.
  • The meeting began with a tribute and a moment of silence for longtime Lexington community member George Burnell, who passed away Nov. 3 at age 92. He was a Town Meeting Member at the time of his death and a highly active citizen throughout his life. More here.
  • Possible path to affordable housing denied: Article 15, Open Space Residential Developments (OSRD), failed by a razor-thin margin — the vote required a simple majority to pass, and failed with 49.1% of votes in favor — specifically, 85 yes, 88 no, and 3 abstaining. The article sought to implement OSRDs as one way to allow more affordable housing by allowing denser development than conventional subdivisions allow, while also preserving open space and facilitating historic preservation. More in Planning Board report.
  • One amendment to the failed main motion passed before the main vote, allowing more additional parking for visitors, while two other amendments to the main article also failed. All three proposed amendments here.
  • Detractors expressed a range of concerns with the proposal, including that Town Meeting should wait to hear the affordable housing recommendations of the Comprehensive Plan Update in the coming months; others wanted to see more guarantees of sustainability; others wanted more financial analysis and general refinement.
  • Planning Board Chair Charles Hornig noted that with the recent departure of Staff Planning Director Amanda Loomis and reduced Planning staff, it would be difficult for the Planning Board to adequately prepare any zoning articles for Annual Town Meeting in the spring. In a follow-up email to LexObserver, Town Manager Jim Malloy wrote that Loomis had departed for “an opportunity for advancement,” and that a new position will be advertised soon. 
  • Less parking required: Article 16, residential parking, passed with 71.2% of the vote (116 in favor, 4 against, and 8 abstaining). It reduces the number of required parking spaces in a residential development plan from two to one, though this does not limit the number of parking spaces per dwelling. More in the Planning Board’s report. Also, we previously reported on Articles 15 and 16.
  • Due to early technical delays and protracted debate about Article 15, Special Town Meeting chose to use an extra (4th) day this week to avoid convening “around the Thanksgiving dinner table” by continuing into next week, as Moderator Deborah Brown said.

Tuesday, Nov. 16: Financial Articles 4, 7 pass; Zoning Article 17 passes
 

  • More relief money: Under Article 1, Town Manager Jim Malloy presented budget updates, including that the town has $9.9M in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds at its disposal for the next 3 calendar years, and is currently discussing possible participatory budget processes (giving residents a say on how to use the money) with the Select Board.
  • A new staff position: Financial Article 4, amending FY22 operating budget, passed unanimously (170-0) with 1 abstention. The article made a few changes to line items in the operating budgets of various departments, from Library Personal Services to Unemployment, where projections were greater or less than actual costs; all changes are explained in the Appropriation Committee’s report. The Town Manager delivered a presentation explaining that adding a new Management Analyst position into the budget will help fulfill tasks e.g. coordinating ARPA funds. Full motion here.
  • Cemetery building construction moves forward: Financial Article 7, appropriating funds for the construction of Westview Cemetery, passed by approx. 89% (150 in favor, 19 against, 7 abstentions). This project has been studied and debated at several previous Town Meetings, having most recently passed with a funding allocation of $3.3M at Town Meeting in 2020. The article appropriates $770,000 in additional funds for the previously passed building project, but the funding previously passed was not sufficient for any of the five bids made this June, partly due to COVID-related price increases. Select Board statement here.
  • Keeping Hartwell clean: Zoning Article 17, a citizen petition by TMM Cynthia Arens (P3) for Sustainable Development at Hartwell Ave, passed with approx. 98% votes in support (170 in favor, 4 against and 3 abstentions). The article requires hybrid HVAC systems for laboratory buildings taller than 65 ft.
  • This article elicited a notable number of statements in favor from Town Meeting Members and the public alike. Motion here.

Wednesday, Nov. 17: Articles 5a and b on police station construction both pass; Article 9 on Mt. Independence Historic District fails in close vote

  • This meeting began with a tribute and moment of silence for longtime Lexington community member Sherry Gordon Townes, who passed July 29, 2021 at age 62. She was the first Black School Committee Member in town, and very involved in supporting LPS and as a TMM. More on her life here.
  • New Police Station finally moving forward:Article 5 included two components related to police station funding; the two components were voted on and passed separately, and one proposed amendment failed. Motion here.
  • Part 5a appropriates $255,000 in supplementary architectural funds for permanent police station at 1575 Mass Ave, and passed unanimously — 173-0, with 3 abstentions.These funds were requested since the project planning costs have increased past the original allocation due to project delays and incorporation of community feedback into updated plans.
  • Part 5b appropriates $615,000 for the preparation of a swing space at 173 Bedford St for a temporary police station — it passed with 87.9% of voters in support (145 yes, 20 no, 13 abstentions). This space would house the LPD during the construction of the new permanent station.
  • The failed amendment, introduced by TMM Dawn McKenna (P6), would have struck part B from the motion. McKenna argued that voting on the swing space now assumes the outcome of a vote which has not yet taken place; she said it was dismissive of the vote for a debt exclusion to fund the permanent station construction, a vote which will not take place until next spring. Amendment here.
  • As the vote totals suggests, TMMs overwhelmingly supported Article 5a; Article 5b sparked more debate and questions along the lines of TMM McKenna’s, but ultimately 5b passed.
  • Historic loss: Article 9, to establish a Mount Independence Historic District, failed despite receiving a majority of votes; this article required a 2/3 majority to pass, and received 52.4% of votes (88 yes, 80 no, 10 abstentions).
  • It would have placed designated properties in this neighborhood under the protection of the local Historic Districts Commission, which reviews all proposed changes by developers and enforces additional requirements for maintaining historic characteristics of the neighborhood.
  • This article elicited impassioned debate both in favor and opposition from TMMs and members of the public alike. Motion here.
  • Some in favor pointed out that the proposed district included a large Italian style villa as well the houses of two artists (Hermann Dudley Murphy,  and Aiden Lassell Ripley). At the time of Murphy’s death, he was a very well-known painter. Ripley’s murals can be seen in the Lexington Post Office and the Reading Room of the Cary Memorial Library; his murals and paintings illustrated life throughout the history of Lexington and Massachusetts. But, multiple TMMs expressed concerns about the precedent of recognizing the houses of these artists as historic, given the number of well-known figures who have lived in Lexington.
  • In particular, many debated whether or not the restrictions on development from the HDC would limit the possibilities for developing affordable housing, which the developer who purchased the key historic property says they intend to create.

Thursday, Nov. 18: Unbeleafable

  • How to summarize yesterday’s final Special Town Meeting 2021 session? The best TLDR might be that debating leaf blowers can be as messy and complex as watching Chris Nolan’s Inception backwards while sitting upside down on a pogo stick.
  • Prior to the genuine chaos that was the debate on Article 10, yesterday’s STM began smoothly enough. Moderator Deborah Brown delivered a beautiful tribute to Barry Sampson, a TMM for 50 years (!) who married his LHS sweetheart. He died May 25, 2021, age 76. More on his life here.
  • Annual budgeting: Article 3, the first of two final articles to be considered that evening, concerning appropriating money to stabilization funds, passed unanimously (with 2 abstentions).This is an annual article used to address any changes to the budget needed since the close of the Annual Spring Town Meeting; this year’s article appropriated (a) $200,000 to the Transportation Demand Management/Public Transportation Stabilization Fund; (b) $570,300 for the Capital Stabilization Fund, both from the tax levy. Select Board Statement here.
  • And now the debate begins: But Article 10, Reducing Noise From Landscape Maintenance Equipment, put STM in amendment Russian doll mode. First, before yesterday’s STM session, the Select Board submitted an amended motion for Article 10 late on the evening of Wednesday Nov. 17, less than 24 hours in advance of the meeting.
  • Restricting the use of gas-powered leaf blowers: The ORIGINAL motion, before last night’s changes, included ~four main components: separate resident, Town and commercial time and day limitations on use of landscape maintenance equipment; seasonal limitations on gas-powered leaf blowers; increased fines for violations; and an eventual phase-out of gas-powered leaf blowers, by 2025 for landscapers and 2026 for residents. But the new motion last night STRUCK the phase-out of GLBs, because the SB received a clarification to that part and it was already causing confusion. Select Board statement here.
  • Democracy at work: Even before the amendment saga began, debate was spirited; some TMMs and members of the public expressed concerns about the noise, pollution and health hazards of gas-powered leaf blowers, and others expressed concerns about burdening landscapers and Lexington residents with the high costs of electrification.
  • Then, during debate, Robert Rotberg (P3) proposed to amend the main motion — by reverting to the ORIGINAL motion, adding the gas-powered leaf blower phase-out back in.
  • Rotberg subsequently accepted a friendly amendment (no vote required)  from Jessie Steigerwald (P3) to his motion, clarifying an exemption for a certain kind of large wheeled leaf blower which had caused confusion in the original motion. Confused yet? Read on…
  • Then, Steven Kaufman (P5) submitted an amendment to the amendment, proposing delaying the phase-out of GLBss until 2027 (it ultimately failed).
  • Following the submission of this amendment, multiple TMMs and Lexington’s legal counsel spotted inconsistencies in the times of permitted landscape equipment use in the main motion, creating considerable confusion. This inconsistency was corrected at length, with several recesses/pauses.
  • Kaufman’s amendment failed, but Rotberg’s passed, leading to the same motion that existed before last night being on the floor, plus the small clarifying sentence and correction of inconsistent times. If you’re not lost yet…
  • After hours of debate, the article almost got postponed: TMM Dawn McKenna (P6) proposed indefinite postponement (tabling the motion until a future Town Meeting), and other TMMs also voiced concerns that the motion had gotten too messy to complete in this STM and should be tabled as a matter of good process.
  • In the end, it passed by a wide margin: But, TMMs voted to continue debate, and the motion as amended by Rotberg passed with 84.9% of the vote (135 yes, 24 no, 10 abstentions).
  • ​​”Thank you for this amazing evening of democracy,” said Select Board Member Mark Sandeen to Moderator Brown.

What was the Diamond petition all about?

  • In two of our previous newsletters (Nov. 5 and Nov. 12), we’ve mentioned a threatening phone call regarding Diamond Middle School on Nov. 4, which was determined not to be credible, but still resulted in a police search of the building.
  • The investigation is still ongoing, according to Lexington Police Lieutenant Christopher Barry. It can be very challenging to track the origin of such a call: “Tracking it down, and folding back the layers, is tough, even for crime labs, to determine where this thing came from originally,” he said. The State Police Department’s Fusion Center, which is also working on this investigation, could not be reached for comment by press time.
  • Last Sunday, a letter and petition addressed to Superintendent Julie Hackett was circulated by a Diamond Middle School parent, receiving about 28 signatures, including multiple members of the same family who signed in a few cases, according to the version reviewed by LexObserver. The letter criticized Hackett and Diamond school leadership for the handling of the threat, making multiple specific criticisms and allegations, and calling for a School Committee meeting at which parents could publicly weigh in “in regard to what the protocol should be in the event that an incident like this happens again.” Though the petition received relatively few signatures, considering the number of students at Diamond (roughly 900) and at LPS (roughly 7,000), on Monday morning, Hackett sent out a school-wide response responding to and refuting the specific criticisms and allegations. 
  • Initially, the petition was posted on social media, rather than being sent directly to Hackett. Following Hackett’s schoolwide response Monday, Hackett confirmed to LexObserver that the petition author had reached out to her, and that they had initiated a dialogue. When LexObserver reached out to the author, she asked that her name not be used, despite posting the petition on the ~3,700-person Facebook group Lexington Mavens, a group for female-identifying Lexington residents. She declined to make a statement, but confirmed her identity as a Diamond parent and confirmed that the petition was first shared Sunday. Though in Hackett’s original public communication, the superintendent advised against discussing the issue in an upcoming School Committee meeting, since the investigation remains ongoing, the petition author wrote that Hackett later told her parents could bring up any concerns during the public comment period of the Dec. 14 School Committee meeting. Additionally, she explained in a message that some of the signatures on the petition (about four signatures, according to a follow-up email from Diamond Principal Jennifer Turner) were not by Diamond parents, but rather from other LPS parents, because “this is an all school concern.”
  • In her public communication, Hackett also wrote “I have not even heard from one concerned parent or school community member about the Diamond Middle School incident” prior to the petition circulation, which she wrote spoke to “how well the situation at Diamond was handled.” In fact, in a follow-up message, she noted that “we received dozens of messages of support from families who commended us for our handling of a difficult situation.” 
  • One of the key claims of the letter/petition was that the decision to keep children in school was single-handedly made by the superintendent, citing a police officer as confirming this; Hackett refuted this claim, writing that “we were in constant contact with Lieutenant Chris Barry and Interim Chief Michael McLean throughout the incident” and that keeping students in school “certainly was not a decision I made in isolation.” Barry told LexObserver that he did recall speaking to “a gentleman” that day on the phone, presumably the petitioner’s husband, but Barry confirmed Hackett’s account to LexObserver that even if the superintendent is responsible for whether or not to close schools, her decision is very much based upon input from many others, including “what the police have relayed to her for information,” including the credibility of the threat. “We offer as much information as we can; we make a good decision based upon all the people involved,” even if the announcement “comes out through her voice,” he said.
  • Barry limited the information he shared about the deliberation process for safety reasons. “I shared with the superintendent that there were similar threats within the last few weeks or so, but nothing similar that day,” he said. “So then we have to evaluate at that point in time, how valid is this threat.” It’s important not to publicize the details of what they look for in making that evaluation, Barry explained, because “we don’t want out there what we look at in a threat to determine whether it’s valid or not, because then, a potential bad person will know what to put in threats to scare us even more.”
  • Diamond Parent Miranda Cohen was one of the petition signatories, and explained that her issue was how the threat was communicated to students. “I personally had no problem with the way [the threat] was handled by the police,” she wrote in an email to LexObserver. “It was that nothing was communicated to students,” she claimed. “I was just shocked that no one at the school told the students what was going on, thus unnecessarily panicking and scaring kids. My daughter said there was eventually a PA announcement made, but it was after kids were crying and panicking, and that they couldn’t hear that late announcement well in the gym with all the high ceilings and echoes,” she wrote.
  • “Children feel safe in times like these when adults let them know what is happening in a reassuring and developmentally appropriate way. They also do better in these circumstances when they know what to expect in advance,” Hackett wrote in a follow-up message. “We crafted a message for students with these principles in mind, letting them know what was happening. We reassured them that everything was o.k. and that as part of a routine safety check, they might see police officers and dogs in and around the school.” The principal read this carefully crafted message over the loudspeaker, Hackett explained, “so that all children would hear the exact same message at the exact same time.” Principal Turner also shared the exact message she shared with students with families “to keep them apprised of the situation.” Staff also followed up by answering students’ questions and reassuring them, Hackett added, while administrators circulated the building checking on teachers, and “counselors were available to provide additional support as needed,” she added. “I tried to be clear and explanatory, but reassuring” in the PA announcement, Turner confirmed in a follow-up email. 
  • Cohen linked her frustration to a broader “frustration some feel that LPS is not using federal funds to help kids deal with the rise of mental health challenges,” since the district currently plans to use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) III funding as seed funding for an elementary world language program; the School Committee and Hackett have both explained that they believe this is the best use of the funding, which is designated in part for addressing students’ socio-emotional health needs, LexObserver previously reported.
  • In a follow-up email, Hackett reiterated that “students were not locked in the classrooms” as was alleged in the letter/petition, adding that students “were free to go to their bathrooms and lockers if necessary, but we generally encouraged teachers to keep students in their classrooms in the same way we would if students were experiencing a normal day.” Principal Turner confirmed in a follow-up email that there was no lock-down or shelter in place, and that students could also go to the main office or to see their counselor. “We extended B block so that they missed one other block (C block), about 49 minutes. Some teachers extended B block instruction; some played games, and some played a movie for the additional block, Turner wrote. “The search did not begin during B block, but we didn’t want students to be transitioning from B to C block when the dogs arrived,” she added. “We only asked that they stay in their classroom when the dogs were in the immediate hallway where their classroom was located (which was never more than 5 or so minutes), so that they didn’t distract the dogs,” Turner wrote.
  • The letter also expressed frustration that students were kept in the building, rather than being evacuated. Hackett noted that “it is not always advisable to remove children from the building, which is why we work closely with first responders who are trained to manage emergency situations like the one we experienced at Diamond.” She added that a search of the school perimeter and building are always a key part of a response to any school threat. In a follow-up email to LexObserver, Hackett wrote that whether or not evacuating from the building is “advisable is “more complicated” than whether or not a threat is credible, and reiterated that whether or not to evacuate “is a call that trained first responders are best equipped to make in collaboration with the schools.”

Jewels From the Crown Follow-Up: Why Carrie Thenen’s Jewelry Is Still Being Held as Evidence

  • In the same two previous newsletters (Nov. 5 and Nov. 12), we’ve also covered a break-in at Jewels From the Crown; last week, we reported that jewelry from a previous break-in, roughly three years ago, is still being held by the Lexington Police Department as evidence. Lexington Police Lieutenant Christopher Barry followed up with LexObserver on Monday to explain the reason evidence is held so long. 
  • “We still will hold the evidence that we recovered…until that court case goes to court,” he explained, because “once we release that stuff, and it’s gone, then that part of our case is gone too.” In other words, the defense can question the validity of the evidence if the police return items to their owners pre-trial; “if we give it back… a defense attorney may or may not use the defense of: How do we know this the same stuff? How do we know this is what my client stole? How do we know this is what was recovered?” Barry said. “The chain of custody is something that’s often gone over very fine-tooth comb-wise from a defense attorney.”
  • The original break-in took place in 2019, according to Barry, but there is no way to know exactly when the jewelry will be returned to Thenen, he said; DNA from the evidence, in this case the jewelry, must be analyzed by the State Crime Police Lab to be used in court — and since they are the lab for the entire state, they can have a substantial backlog. While there is a defendant named in that case, and “what we believe is good DNA from the scene from the defendant…until that gets analyzed by an approved agency, the State Police Crime Lab, we’re not going forward with the charges … until we have that.” The State Crime Police Lab could not be reached for comment by press time about the reasons for the delay in analyzing this DNA.
  • “It’s just a long, slow, steady process that I can imagine feels very, very long for victims,” Barry said.

     

COVID-19 cases in town tick up slightly, remaining low overall; first vaccination estimates for 5-11-year-olds released by the state

  • Due to the holiday last week, the town dashboard was not updated in time for last week’s newsletter, so we’re sharing numbers for the past two weeks today. Last week, as of Nov. 12, the town had 18 new cases, 3 more cases than the previous week; this week, as of today, the town had 21 new cases, another small increase. So, cases increased slightly over the past two weeks, though they remain low overall.
  • According to state data for Lexington, which began including vaccination rates for 5-11 year olds about two weeks ago, 27% of 5-11 year olds per capita in Lexington had received at least one dose, as of yesterday. These numbers are not perfect; population numbers used for Massachusetts municipalities are estimates based on the 2010 census “with estimates updated every year using mathematical modeling,” according to an email from Omar Cabrera of the Department of Public Health Communications Office, as LexObserver previously reported. In that reporting, he explained that while total population estimates at the municipality level “are likely to be relatively accurate, when they are broken down into smaller categories like age or race/ethnicity, the numbers become more unstable,” explaining certain data discrepancies but demonstrating that data for these age-based categories are estimates and should be taken with a grain of salt. 
  • At press time, Lexington Public Schools had not updated its dashboard of case numbers with this week’s countsLast week, cases were very low (in single digits).

  Community Announcements

  • Now that the Pfizer vaccine is officially authorized for 5-11-year olds, LPS is holding multiple vaccination clinics; they began today. You can sign up here.
  • Tomorrow, a Transgender Day of Remembrance will be held on Zoom from 7 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. The event will include “reflections by local transgender women and nonbinary people of color (those most impacted by transphobic violence), a reading of names, and opportunities to talk about allyship,” according to Valerie Overton, Chair of LexPride. The event is sponsored by LexPride and cosponsored by Lexington Human Services, Lexington Human Rights Committee, Arlington LGBTQIA+ Rainbow Commission, Belmont LGBTQ+ Alliance, Cambridge LGBTQ+ Commission, and Network for Social Justice. You can register here.
  • Robert Berend, a Lexington community member, is looking for a Thanksgiving table to join next week. “Know of a nice friendly and all vaccinated group of people who have room for one well read friendly guy in his 60s at their table for Thanksgiving?” He writes. “I’m available, happy to bring food and drinks to share. Due to my own Covid concerns, a crowded elbow-to-elbow type of setting is not for me.”
  • Berend is immunocompromised, so does not want to be in too crowded a setting, “but if someone has a little gathering with room for one more at the table, I would welcome that,” he wrote in an email to LexObserver. You can read his Patch post here and get in touch at tactile8888@yahoo.com.

That’s a wrap for today. Was this roundup useful to you? What do you want to see in this email nin the coming weeks? Let us know, and please, please ask your friends to sign up and donate too! Again, reach out to sophie@lexobserver.org with tips and questions anytime. As always, you can also check out and share our websiteFacebookTwitter and Instagram pages. Thanks for reading and have a great weekend.

With gratitude,
Nicco Mele, Sophie Culpepper, and Sarah Liu
LexObserver Team

This newsletter was updated by adding the following unintentionally omitted sentence stating the outcome of the Article 10 vote: In the end, it passed by a wide margin: But, TMMs voted to continue debate, and the motion as amended by Rotberg passed with 84.9% of the vote (135 yes, 24 no, 10 abstentions).

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