Annual Town Meeting kicked off in person on Monday for the first time since 2019, bringing voice votes and communal laughter back to Battin Hall in Cary Memorial Building.
Here are the highlights from the first week of Town Meeting.
Educators advocate for contract conditions
Before Town Meeting even began, scores of Lexington Public Schools educators and community members gathered outside Cary Hall in the fading daylight Monday evening to advocate for a new contract that includes increased compensation and educator support. The Lexington Education Association (LEA), School Committee and district administration have been negotiating for a year without reaching an agreement, leaving educators in the school system without a contract. Monday’s rally was the latest of several protests organized outside School Committee meetings and school buildings in recent months.
“We want the Lexington community to understand that remaining in negotiations for over one year is not the norm,” Lexington Education Association President Avon Lewis wrote in a follow-up email to LexObserver. “For the past three years, educators have weathered constant shifts in schedules, precautions, public opinion, state funding, and more in order to provide an education to the students of Lexington.” Educators need greater adjustments to staffing and compensation in their next contract than the School Committee and administration have offered to cope with increased student needs and the demands of working in education today, Lewis said.
Some Town Meeting Members clapped for educators as they entered Cary Hall, while several passing cars beeped horns in support, prompting cheers.
Educator demands for increased pay and support in the wake of the pandemic are widespread across the state and the nation. Thousands of miles away from Cary Hall, Los Angeles schools shuttered for three days this week as public school workers went on strike for higher pay.
On Monday, when Town Meeting reconvenes for its third session, members are slated to vote on the Fiscal Year 2024 budget, which includes the budget for the school district. Over the past few months educators have also criticized the recommended budget, arguing that it does not meet educator and student needs and that the Town is prioritizing saving for a new high school over those present-day community needs. Superintendent Julie Hackett, as well as municipal leaders, have noted that this budget season has been especially challenging, with pandemic effects and special education costs exacerbating budgetary pressures for the school district.
“We are hoping that the community members who are town meeting members will go into town meeting, will ask hard questions, and, as the elected representatives of the town, will take the appropriate democratic actions they deem fit,” Lewis wrote. “We are not going to tell them what to do, but we are hoping that they will stand up for the town services, like the schools, like the police and fire and library, that make Lexington a great community, instead of squeezing the services until they are a shadow of what they once were.”
A last-minute change to the Opening Ceremonies
Town Meeting traditionally begins with contributions from two organizations that honor Lexington’s history: the William Diamond Junior Fife & Drum Corps and the Lexington Minute Men. For the past three years, with Town Meeting confined to screens, those groups have not been able to enact their ceremonial roles – so this month, many community members were especially eager to enjoy the music and fanfare they bring to the opening night once more.
But while the Fife and Drum Corps marched into Cary Hall to enthusiastic applause on Monday, the Minute Men were conspicuously absent after an internal vote to remain a male-only organization generated consternation among several Town Meeting Members over the weekend.
The Minute Men, a private group of history-minded volunteers honoring the men who rode into battle on April 19, 1775 to begin the American Revolution, participate in Lexington traditions including Town Meeting and the annual reenactment every year. But under their longstanding bylaws, only men are permitted to join the company. In a letter to the Select Board and Town Meeting Members on Monday, Captain Commanding James Lee explained that the company had recently voted to remove all gender-specific pronouns from its bylaws as part of a year-long process to update those bylaws. Company leadership had then formed a committee to explore the possibility of removing gender requirements for membership “recognizing the growing tide of sentiment” among members supporting that change.
In January, a member officially proposed removing gender requirements from the membership bylaw, and members held a vote on that motion at the company’s March 16 meeting last week. While a majority of members present supported the motion, it did not receive the ¾ supermajority required to change a company bylaw, Lee wrote.
After Town Meeting Member and Minute Men member Joshua Apgar (P3) wrote a letter to Town Meeting Members criticizing the vote on Friday, Town Meeting Member Betty Gau (P8) invited fellow TMMs to wear white, the color traditionally worn by suffragists, to the opening night of Town Meeting “in solidarity to support women’s rights in Lexington, in our state and in our country.” Several other Town Meeting Members wrote emails criticizing the Minute Men’s vote and questioning whether the company should participate in Town Meeting.
On Saturday, just two days before Town Meeting, Town Moderator Deborah Brown announced that after “very productive and thoughtful conversations” with Lee, “Together, we decided it is best that the Minute Men not participate in our opening ceremonies this year.”
“We came to the mutual agreement that any potential disruption would distract from the business of the Town Meeting,” Lee wrote in a follow-up email to LexObserver. The company has not met to discuss Town Meeting’s reaction to its bylaw vote since the March 16 meeting, he added.
Town Meeting Member Cindy Arens (P3) was among several members who still wore white on Monday. “I was indeed wearing white in solidarity not just for a woman’s right to join a group that gives honor to our Town’s and nation’s history, but a woman’s right to be [equally] recognized and equally participate in all parts of society, all around the world,” she wrote in an email to LexObserver. She added that she “appreciated that the Moderator spoke with the Captain of the Minute Men and that the Captain chose to explain what steps the Minute Men have taken to be more inclusive.”
In the future, Arens wrote, “I’m looking forward to having the Minute Men at the 2024 Annual Town Meeting opening, with [its] first women members!”
Every vote counts: Two tied precinct-level Town Meeting races are resolved
When Lexington held its annual town-wide election earlier this month, two Town Meeting precinct races ended in ties, leaving their outcomes undetermined until precinct representatives could hold run-off elections.
In the contested Precinct 7 race, incumbent Umesh Shelat and new candidate Benjamin Charles Lees both gained exactly 100 votes. In Precinct 9, though eight candidates ran for eight open seats, one of those seats was for a shorter two-year term – and since incumbent Mark Valerian Andersen and new candidate Diana Donovan both earned 134 votes, a runoff was required to determine who would have a two-year term and who would have a three-year term.
On Monday, just before Town Meeting convened, both precincts held their run-off races. Shelat secured the Precinct 7 seat with 11 votes to Lees’ eight, according to Town Clerk Mary de Alderete. Andersen secured the three-year Precinct 9 term by a single vote – nine votes to eight votes – leaving Donovan with the two-year term, de Alderete wrote in an email to LexObserver.
Monday night: A ban on selling fur products, and a change to the Town’s tree bylaw
Town Moderator Brown kicked off Town Meeting Monday night with a statement that encouraged civility in comments without mandating it, softening her traditional declaration of a zero-tolerance policy for disparaging remarks about individuals or their motives following a recent state Supreme Court ruling that protects the “right to be rude” in public meetings.
“It is the tradition of our meeting that remarks should be relevant to the motion under discussion and should not contain personal attacks,” Brown said on Monday. “Believe me, your points will be most effective if they are limited to the merits of the proposal, not speculation about the motives of any person or organization.”
Ban on selling fur products in Lexington
Among its first actions, Town Meeting approved a ban on the sale of fur products in response to a citizen petition from Town Meeting Member Dinesh Patel (P6). Patel’s four grandchildren – Bela, Nayan, Nadia and Lila – explained the article to Town Meeting in a video presentation, arguing that the article would protect animal welfare, public health and the environment. Lexington is the sixth community in Massachusetts to ban fur sales, joining Cambridge, Brookline, Weston, Wellesley and Plymouth. The article details a few exemptions, including sales of fur products for religious or cultural purposes.
Members approved the fur ban with overwhelming support – 161 votes in favor, two opposed and two abstentions.
Much ado about easements
Town Meeting Members also authorized the Select Board to grant permanent easements over Dunback Meadow Conservation Land to property owners Charles Hornig and Ingrid Klimoff. The vote begins a lengthy process that would allow the family to connect to the Town sewer system and expand their own system’s capacity so it can accommodate their daughter and her family moving back to their home as well.
Most votes to grant easements do not require Town Meeting approval – but because a 20-foot strip of Town-owned conservation land separates their home from the sewer line, Hornig and Klimoff have to gain Town Meeting and, later, state-level approval to make the change.
While most Town Meeting Members supported the family’s petition, a small minority of members raised questions about whether the family might take advantage of new zoning to develop denser housing on their property with the expanded sewer system, and one Town Meeting Member proposed an amendment to enforce a limit on the number of homes that could connect to the sewer system with the easements. The family said the amendment, which overwhelmingly failed, “seems like a personal attack,” and Select Board members unanimously opposed the amendment. (Hornig is a longtime member of the Planning Board.)
Members approved the easement authorization with 141 votes in favor, 19 opposed and nine abstentions.
A greener energy code
Town Meeting Members approved a change to the Town’s energy code, replacing the existing Stretch Energy Code with an opt-in Specialized Energy Code with higher standards for energy efficiency in building design and construction. The code, developed at the state level, will apply to new construction starting in 2024, and is intended to ensure new construction is consistent with state and local net-zero goals for 2050.
The energy code change passed with 154 votes in favor, three opposed and four abstentions.
Tree bylaw change
Lexington’s tree bylaw outlines fines developers must pay and/or replanting they must complete to compensate for cutting down trees of a certain size in the process of building new projects. But the bylaw has a loophole: Developers only have to complete mitigation for trees they cut down within the 12 months before they submit an application for a building or demolition permit. That means developers have the option to cut down as many large trees as they please, wait one year, and apply for a permit without having to pay any fines or replant.
Article 28, proposed by the Tree Committee and approved by Town Meeting Monday, attempts to close that loophole – or at least make it less appealing. Now, developers will have to wait triple that time, three full years, if they want to avoid paying fines or completing replanting.
Article 28 generated questions and discussion among Town Meeting Members about the importance and enforcement challenges of preserving the community’s trees. The article passed with 149 votes in favor, 10 opposed and one abstention.
Wednesday night: Center zoning changes, a demolition delay bylaw change
Minuteman High School superintendent’s report
During Town Meeting’s second session on Wednesday, Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School Superintendent Kathleen Dawson introduced herself to Town Meeting for the first time and presented her FY2024 recommended budget, including operating, capital and debt service totals. Dawson began her role as Minuteman superintendent last summer, after Ed Bouquillon retired.
Lexington, as one of the regional school’s nine member towns, contributes to its budget each year. This year, Dawson said that Lexington will be asked to contribute about $3.5 million to the school’s approximately $30.3 million budget. The proposed FY24 budget represents a 4.5% increase from FY2023. Dawson cited ongoing teacher negotiations, the addition of three full-time educators in light of increased enrollment and health insurance costs among this year’s budget drivers.
Minuteman is seeing an increase in enrollment overall, Dawson said, leaving less room for out-of-district students and increasing the budgetary burden on member districts. For the current fiscal year, Lexington has 68 students enrolled in Minuteman; Dawson estimated Lexington will enroll 77 students in the next fiscal year.
Town Meeting will not vote on Lexington’s contribution to Minuteman’s budget until it considers the full Town budget on Monday.
Expanding the Center Business District, and other zoning changes
Town Meeting approved a few different zoning changes during its second session – including adding a few properties to the Center Business District, extending the deadline for Major Site Plan Review, establishing a less onerous process for minor modifications to projects that have already received Board of Appeals or Planning Board approval, and approving small technical corrections. All zoning articles approved on Wednesday required a ⅔ majority to pass.
Article 36 changed the zoning of some properties next to the Center Business District currently zoned for government civic-use – including the Meriam Street parking lot and the medical building at 16 Clarke Street – to add them to the Center Business District, where most commercial uses are permitted without any discretionary process. Planning Board Member Charles Hornig said the change, which was supported by the Center Committee, would create coherence among properties that are already a natural part of the Center’s business district, including some that already serve commercial uses despite their different underlying zoning.
Hornig emphasized that the zoning amendment would not necessarily change any of the current uses of the rezoned properties – especially the parking lot – but would make it easier for the Planning Board to make uniform zoning changes that apply to and support all of Lexington Center.
A few Town Meeting members raised concerns that the zoning change could lead to a loss of parking in Lexington Center by paving the road for other development in place of parking. Hornig said the zoning amendment would not change anything about the parking lot, but added that multiple Town committees have had many discussions about more effective uses for its land over the past few years, and would continue having those conversations. Any change to the parking lot, which is on Town-owned land, would require Select Board and Town Meeting approval.
Town Meeting Members also asked how Article 36 related to Article 34, a hotly debated article to create overlay districts for multi-family housing that would include Lexington Center. Hornig said that the two articles were independent of each other. Though they apply to some of the same land (including the parking lot), Article 36 opens up possibilities for commercial uses on the land, while Article 34 creates possibilities for residential uses (so if both passed, mixed-use could be permitted on the parcels in question).
Article 36 passed with 144 votes in favor, 22 opposed and five abstentions.
A different zoning article, Article 37, extends the Planning Board’s current 60-day application deadline for Major Site Plan Review applications to 150 days. Planning Director Abby McCabe explained that the change would give the Planning Board and department more time to hold public hearings and conduct a thorough review of all projects undergoing a Major Site Plan Review process.
In the past couple of years, the Planning Board has proposed more zoning that relies on Site Plan Review for project approval as an alternative to special permits in an attempt to reduce barriers to denser development in Lexington. While special permits give the Planning Board veto power over projects, projects subject to site plan review still require public hearings and Planning Board review, but cannot be vetoed by the board.
Article 37 passed with 157 votes in favor, nine opposed and three abstentions.
Demolition Delay: Balancing historic preservation and affordable housing
Similar to the Town’s tree bylaw, the Demolition Delay Bylaw is a tool the Town has to incentivize historic preservation. That bylaw stipulates that developers must wait a full 12 months before demolishing a building listed as “historically significant.” The Historical Commission asked Town Meeting to increase that required delay to 21 months, arguing that the change would lead to more preservation and even slow mansionization by incentivizing preservation of smaller houses instead of having them be torn down and replaced with larger ones.
Town Meeting Member Jay Luker (P1) presented an amendment to the bylaw change that retains the demolition delay period of 12 months for developers building multi-family or inclusionary housing. The Select Board supported the amendment; member Joe Pato said it allowed the Town to balance the “two public goods” of historic preservation and encouraging affordable housing. But Historical Commission members did not support the amendment, and said that while they all supported creating more affordable housing, they did not believe that goal should be tied into a bylaw intended to support historic preservation.
Town Meeting passed Luker’s amendment with 98 votes in support, 51 opposed and seven abstentions. Town Meeting passed the amended article with 119 votes in favor, 36 opposed and six abstentions.
Expanding the Tree Committee
Town Meeting voted to add two associate (non-voting) positions to the seven full members that currently constitute the Tree Committee, expanding the committee. Tree Committee Chair Gerry Paul explained to Town Meeting that the change aimed to accommodate increased interest in joining the committee from community members, add expertise and create a pipeline for full members.
162 Town Meeting Members unanimously approved the change, with three members abstaining.
– With additional reporting by Kunal Botla