Berry Berry quite contrary

Joann Berry, our new Town Moderator, has already distinguished herself. She has shown that she has the raw power to silence her political opponents at Town Meeting. Nicely done! (cue the laugh track).

Ms. Berry and I have a bit of history going back around 15 years. In fact, she was just about the very first person I ever met with right before I started getting involved in local politics. As I recall, she was the head of the League of Women Voters (which has turned into an incredibly partisan organization, by the way). I met with Berry at the request of then-Town Moderator Don MacKenzie to talk about the need for balance at Town Meeting and proposed to her that the League get behind the idea of presenting both "pro" and "con" presentations so that Town Meeting voters could be confident that they had enough information to make valid decisions. MacKenzie wanted the League's endorsement before he would entertain making any changes.

Isn't that ironic? You can't make this stuff up. I have literally been working on the same issue for like 15 years, with Berry at the bookends.

And the big takeaway from my first meeting with Berry, besides the League of Women Voter's Board's vote not to pursue my suggestion, was a "what if" question I asked her. I tell this story only because it involves my good friend Charlie Kadlec.

At the time, I didn't know Charlie. I probably had just introduced myself to him and joined his email list, but otherwise did not know him. It has been a great pleasure in my life to get to know Charlie...and Clint...and Dick Calandrella....and some of the other great people I used to work with closely on local political issues.

I said to Ms. Berry, what if there was a contentious issue at Town Meeting, and you were giving a presentation on the "pro" side of the issue, and that cranky guy who always gets up to speak, Charlie "Cadillac", was giving the "con" presentation. And let's say you got a call from Charlie asking you to delay the debate because he was stuck in traffic and couldn't be there for half-an-hour. Would you ask the Moderator to take up another matter while Town Meeting waited for Charlie's arrival, or would you insist on sticking to the schedule, knowing that he would not arrive until after the issue had been debated and decided?

What do you think was Berry's response? Don't peek ahead....

She said would proceed and not wait for her opponent to arrive. Well, it is nice to know that people can be consistent. I certainly try to be, and evidently so does Ms. Berry.

So in this context, it is very understandable to me why Ms. Berry refused my request to speak. She sees no need to present "both sides" because this is about WINNING, not educating voters at Town Meeting.

I now want to go through in detail my attempt to make a presentation at the Special Town Meeting of Tuesday, December 10, 2019. I will not repeat some of the things I have written in recent articles, but will add some links at the bottom for anyone who wants to read more.

On Saturday, December 7, I sent Ms. Berry two emails requesting time to make a 10-minute presentation. On Tuesday, the day of the Special Town Meeting (STM), I finally received a note that my request was being denied. I asked her to reconsider, and got no further response.

Ms. Berry's written reply on Tuesday morning is worth quoting, because I think it shows why I was denied. Here is her response:

Subject: Response sent on Sunday, apparently not delivered

Allen,

I appreciate your concerns but do not see that your standing for more time is any different than any other town meeting member. By your own admission, you have not been involved in the process for the past couple of years and though your concerns in the past were not incorporated into the current plan does not mean that they were not heard (I don't know one way or the other, but you had opportunity to weigh in). You do bring up several points and I would urge you to focus on those that you think are the most salient to your argument and that you can make in 2 minutes.

Jo-Ann Berry
Town Moderator


So note in Ms. Berry's response that she said I have no more "standing" to speak than anyone else, and therefore she would only give me two minutes like everyone else. Nowhere does she cite my failure to attend her "pre-town meeting" meeting.

Note also that she sees my comments in a certain context. To her, if I expressed my concerns to the School Committee, I had no reason to present them to Town Meeting. If that were true, there would be no reason for Town Meeting because the School could just hold an open meeting and people could express their concerns there before the School made their decision. Ms. Berry apparently fundamentally misunderstands what Town Meeting's role is in approving or denying warrant articles.

I spent the rest of the day on Tuesday finalizing my charts and writing my notes, and in the afternoon, when I had drafted out a two-minute speech (impossible to make with 14 slides, by the way, even though I tried), I decided to offer Ms. Berry a compromise. I wrote a six-minute speech. This was too quick to my liking, but based on her denial and her power as Moderator, I thought she might go for it.

I went to Town Meeting a little early to speak with Berry and did so. I told her that I wanted to offer a compromise so we didn't have to make this an issue at Town Meeting (requiring a vote to approve a longer presentation) and offered to do my presentation in six minutes instead of 10. She refused. She said that instead, she would bring my request to a vote, but before doing so, she would tell Town Meeting that I hadn't gone to the "Pre-Town Meeting" meeting, and then I could respond. If Town Meeting approved the time allowing me to speak, I would be able to present. So I sat down and waited.

The entire Special Town Meeting of December 10, 2019, is available on Acton TV at this link: http://actontv.org/on-demand/post-video/acton-town-meeting-12-10-19. The part where I was to speak is around the 52:00 mark.

After the three boards spoke for about 20 or 30 minutes, it was time for me to make my case as to why I wanted to make a presentation and to urge Town Meeting to approve it. I got up to speak and Ms. Berry told me to wait. Here is the exchange with the time on the video for those who enjoy watching things on TV:

53:38 MODERATOR BERRY: "Mr Nitschelm and I have spoken already and first I will make a statement and then we'll hear from you.

"Town Meeting members should know that there is a process to be included on the agenda with a "con" presentation, and in fact we will hear one on the sewer article, that includes that, part of that process attending a public, posted meeting the week prior to Town Meeting, a well-established practice that has been going on for at least a decade, umm, it is my understanding that the speaker is aware of this process and did not participate. Therefore, I was not willing to grant his request for privileges beyond other Meeting members, however, it is my understanding that the speaker has prepared a presentation, a "con" presentation, on the school article, and the meeting, if the Meeting would like to hear from him, I would entertain a motion."

"A motion first. And a second, okay, it has been moved and seconded to hear a "con" presentation of 10 minutes, all who are in favor, this would require a majority to pass, all who are in favor please say 'aye' [audience says aye], all who are opposed please say 'nay' [audience says nay], I believe the 'nays' have it, umm, you may still have the normal limit for speakers from the floor."

NITSCHELM: "A ballot, a ballot vote with the clickers, please?"

BERRY: "It was quite clear."

NITSCHELM: "okay, I withdraw. Can I show my slides?"

BERRY: "If you can include it in the two minutes, do we have, can we get the slides up?"

"Please put two minutes...thank you."

[I attempted to race through my 14 slides in two minutes, unsuccessfully. I had perhaps three slides to go when my time expired.]

NITSCHELM: "...We could save $1 million dollars a year if we built a single school instead of a twin school..."

57:58 BERRY: "Your time has expired."

NITSCHELM: "Can you give me an extra 30 seconds, please? No?"

BERRY: "Are there any other speakers wishing to address the question?"

So a few points about this exchange.

First, I never was given the opportunity, promised twice, to address Town Meeting prior to the vote to allow me to give my presentation.

Second, I have given several Town Meeting presentations and have never attended a "pre-town-meeting" meeting to do so, except perhaps for the very first one 10 or more years ago. My memory is hazy, but I do recall being in the Public Safety Building and running through the Town Meeting agenda.

Since then, I have given several presentations and have neither attended this "required" meeting, nor have submitted my presentation in advance. I have always either brought the presentation with me, or emailed it the day of Town Meeting to the town's IT people.

Thus, Ms. Berry's description of my understanding of the process, which she claims I willfully violated, is false.

Third, the Town website under "Moderator" does list several requirements, but attendance at the "pre-town-meeting" meeting is apparently not one of them. Here are relevant quotes from the documents publicly posted that bear on this question:

1. A Guide to Acton’s Town Meeting.
(http://www.actonma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/3781/GuidetoActonTMFINAL?bidId=)

"The Moderator typically holds a “pre-Town Meeting meeting” approximately a week ahead of Town Meeting and you can discuss your amendment and any presentation that might go with it at that time." (emphases mine)

2. Moderator’s Guidelines and Helpful Tips for Powerpoint Presentations at Acton Town Meeting.
http://www.actonma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/3782/PresentationGuidelinesFINAL?bidId=)

"Presentations will generally be limited to 8 minutes by the proponent. The Moderator generally holds a pre-Town Meeting meeting and this will be used in part to discuss any requests to exceed this time limitation." (No other mentions of "pre-Town Meeting" meeting, including no attendance requirement.)

In conclusion, Moderator Joann Berry improperly and arbitrarily denied my presentation on a matter of great importance to the Town of Acton, to the detriment of Town Meeting voters. Given her introduction and characterization of my supposed disregard for the rules, it is no wonder that Town Meeting members may have been skeptical of a last-minute attempt to present information as it was outside some supposedly normal process. It was not.

Don't forget to go to the polls on Tuesday, December 17, to cast your ballot which will decide three capital overrides. If all three pass, the Average Single Family tax bill will increase between $570-$657 per year for 30 years.

Other Acton Forum articles on this topic

In 2013, I did a six-part series on the problems with Town Meeting. This link goes to the first article in the series: http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/town-leaders-dont-understand-role-town-meeting

My original post on the Twin School building question, 12/6/19: http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/better-school-plan

When Joann Berry refused to answer my emails asking for time to make a presentation, and ignored the phone message I left for her at the Town Manager's office, I quickly got a response with this posted article the next day: http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/where-joann-berry

I raise concerns about the process and the upcoming ballot vote three days after the STM: http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/truth-and-consequences

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Comments

Allen, don't you know that there are people in their 70's who...

Allen, I think you overstate your opinions, exaggerate and complain about a few hundred dollars on your taxes......hey man, if you don't want to pay your taxes, or cannot afford them, there's remedies for this.....either move out of town or plead poverty.

I'm 73, I don't go to town meetings except when I want good schools, good fire stations, good police departments, good town management, respectably but not overly paid for their services to our town. I own a townhouse, pay my taxes, and don't complain because, essentially, there's NOT ONE THING IN ACTON for an old man like me to complain about. YES, we pay people in Acton who work for us over $100,000, a few almost $200,000! That's FINE, because they know and love and work hard for endless hours doing their jobs, knowing their specialties, literally saving our lives, or teaching our kids and grandkids, or enforcing regulations about parking or drinking or whatever. I don't begrudge them one single dollar of their well-earned salaries.......evidently from your "Acton Forum" internet postings, you DO begrudge each and every one of them their salaries. Then there's this thing this week where I proudly voted IN FAVOR OF a new fire station, and a new, modern reasonable school building to replace one or two that are obviously not ideally suited to today's educational standards and goals.....who would object to that? OH, only YOU and an handful of tax scofflaws or self-appointed educational experts.

..Allen: it's time to give it up. Your latest epistle to your readers about the unfair nature of $500 additional taxes for 30 years......this wreaked of Charles Dickens' Scrooge......it's no longer selling as a popular opinion among Acton residents who moved here to have a good life, to enjoy the benefits of great school system, of a crew of town management folks who dealt with all the needed health and safety and administrative issues in efficient and fair fashion, who trained and dispatched a fully qualified police and fire crew to protect and serve us all 24/7/365.

If you don't want to pay for this, just SAY SO!! You're entitled to your opinion! But no, over 90% of us bought into this and moved here and are happy we did. I'm 73, I'm not sending kids to school at 6:45 am...(that's another issue I would dispute with school folks but not here..6:45 is NOT an hour to be learning algebra or history! Take it up with me another day!)

Now, Allen, what's your problem? You live in one of the most blessed places on planet Earth, with a strange national and state government that gives you so many advantages and tax breaks and opportunities over so many other places on this planet. So what's your problem with kids getting the best education at full price or with a fire station less than a mile from 1/4 of the current residential addresses in Acton?

Allen, I thin your usefulness to Acton has been outlived....there is not a single rational argument you presented other than the almighty dollar saved. Time to resign from Acton Forum, Allan.....but, of course, again, you created this.......so I doubt you will publish this.

If you DO, remind folks that EVEN PEOPLE 73 and older like paying more taxes to give our kids better buildings for education and better fire and EMT coverage, EVEN IF it costs us $500 more a year !!!

Another Acton resident/taxpayer

You misunderstand my motives, DJ

Hi DJ,

Thanks for your comment and taking the time to write it. I can tell you feel strongly and your position of course is valid. Staying in Acton, willing to pay higher taxes as costs go up, is your right and privilege, and Acton is lucky to have you and people like you in town.

Before I address the substance of your incorrect characterization of my motives (I would have preferred you asked, rather than assumed, but I forgive you for that :) ), let me observe that for every “DJ”, there is another 73-year-old who leaves town because of the high taxes. Actually, it is probably more like two or three people. These people also have lives, and they are being uprooted, perhaps not by choice, but by the skyrocketing taxes (and, of course, plenty of other expenses) and either can not afford the increases (say they are on a fixed income) or do not want to pay the increases (they are cheap, or believe they would rather spend their money on other things than property taxes). We are not able to hear from any of these people because they have left. That is fair...I’m just pointing out that we are becoming polarized in Acton too by this local phenomenon. Okay, on to my point.

I do not personally care if the taxes go up, i can afford them and an extra $500 per year on a $12,000 tax bill is not going to change my life. I also expect to take your advice and leave town at some point. This fight, and my work on Acton Forum, is not personal. If it were, I would just close Acton Forum and save myself the $600 or so I spend each year to maintain it.

I am not doing this because I am a cheap Republican. I am doing this because I believe very strongly in democracy and process. I trust voters to make the “right decision” for them, and I am fine with any decision they make, so long as the vote is fair. And what that means is that they can’t be fooled or misled in order to coerce their vote. It must be a “fair fight.” The deck is very stacked in favor of the town leadership, so much so that their proposals are almost always presented with the three boards in a “united front” which stifles dissent. You actually saw this in action at the STM when the member(s) of Fincom who voted not to support the Fire Station refused to say why at Town Meeting.

Since you sort-of asked, I voted in favor of the fire station, It was a much improved design than the previous version, but I was distressed that the likely future cost of personnel was not disclosed properly.

So if 900 people go to Town Meeting and the Moderator allows three “pro” presentations and refuses to allow one “con” presentation based on a rule she has invoked, falsely applied, that she could have waived, and then voters are asked to vote based on this one-sided view, that is wrong.

And that’s it, in a nutshell. Have a very nice weekend,

Allen

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and is an Associate Publisher of Acton Forum.

On the "Con" presentation

TM votes must not be a rubber stamp of the "Pro" position. Even with a positive result for the "pro" position, it behooves the TM members present to hear the "con" position. To hang any last-minute "con" presentation on a vote, where the Moderator has discretion, is specious at best, given the likelihood that the vote for the article would succeed and the vote for the "con" presentation would fail. We, as TM members do not vote on whether to hear 2-minute comments, pro or con, as is proper. And, we as TM members should not vote on presentations either, especially in this case with a likely a-priori idea of which way the wind is blowing. Even if not a single TM vote changes, TM members must hear opposing arguments from both "pro" and "con" presentations and 2-minute comments; it is only fair to the minority.

In the hypothetical of there being both "pro" and "con" presentations well in advance, another "pop-up" presentation on either side needs to be negotiated and possibly split. But, when there are 3 presentations on the "pro", with NONE on the "con", as in this case, the moderator should bend over backward to fill the void of one-sidedness, with even a last minute (3-day notice in this case) presentation.

There is an on-going request for input into TM improvements, and this should enter the mix for TM changes. I will be submitting the above as an input...