Town Meeting - May 3rd, 2021
Third night of annual town meeting, held via remote participation. Materials were available from https://www.arlingtonma.gov/town-governance/town-meeting.
Peak attendance was 245 of 252 town meeting members.
The moderator announces that May 10th will be devoted to budget articles. We'll hear the minuteman article on May 12th at 8pm.
Article 21 - Reserve Affordable Housing for People Earning at or Under 60% AMI
The Select Board recommended no action on Article 21. Judith Garber has a substitute motion that would require a majority of Affordable Housing Trust Fund monies to be earmarked for affordable housing at 60% AMI or less, CDBG funds notwithstanding.
(Judith Garber) Ms. Garber invites Arlington resident Laura Kiesel to present the substitute motion.
(Laura Kiesel) Ms. Kiesel recalls that town meeting established an affordable housing trust fund last year, using the definition of "affordable" from the Community Preservation Act. Ms. Kiesel believes that 80% AMI is too high, and almost double the income of black and latinx residents in Boston. Leon Andrews of the National League of Cities said that communities need to use a lens that defines equity. The National Low Income Housing Coalition found a surplus of homes for people making over 100% AMI, but a shortage of homes for those making 30--50% AMI. She believes high housing costs discriminate against people with housing choice vouchers, because private housing is too expensive for the voucher to cover. Ms. Kiesel has to live on the top floor of a building with no elevator, because there's not enough affordable housing to go around. We need to adopt this in order to address historic biases. She feels the amendment is a compromise between a hard cap at 60% AMI and current policy.
(Patricia Worden) Ms. Worden says she's been actively involved in affordable housing for over 30 years, and this might be the only option to address affordable housing during this town meeting. She thinks the affordable housing trust can be used to benefit people who make too much money. Passing this article would bring a measure of social and economic justice to Arlington. Ms. Worden thinks the affordable housing trustees will become the most powerful unelected board in Arlington. The Master plan concluded that affordable and senior housing were the only kinds of housing that Arlington needs. Without this article the AHTF could be used for market rate housing. She says the Select Board and Planning Department don't care about affordable housing, and that developers have donated to Select Board members during elections. She says this article is an opportunity to walk the walk, and that the Select Board and ARB are only concerned with developer profits.
(Karen Kelleher) Ms. Kelleher hopes that everyone will listen to all of the arguments about the need for affordable housing. If this were a resolution, she'd support it. She thanks the article proponents for their advocacy and notes that moving from statement to strategy will take a lot of work. She says we shouldn't take options for affordable housing off the table, namely private developers that will build it for free. Affordable housing is a hard math problem that doesn't work out, because people who live in affordable housing don't make enough money to cover construction and operation of the building. There are really two options: (1) public subsidies, and (2) getting private developers to cross subsidize via market-rate units Private developers can only build to 70--80% AMI. Limiting our choices means we may have to give up opportunities. To step up, we can't take either strategy off the table. The trustees first job will be to create a strategy and a plan; so far, we haven't given the trustees any power, or any money. She believes we shouldn't be taking options off the table before the trustees have even met. She says there's a fine line between claiming support for affordable housing and NIMBYism.
(Dan Dunn) Mr. Dunn supports the idea, but not the article. He says we're not subsidizing people earning the median income. He cites the recent advertisement of a lottery for residents at Downing Square, which is in the 30--60% AMI range. The fellow from the League of Cities said that affordable housing strategies have to be customized for each community. We haven't customized because the trustees haven't met yet. He thinks we should let the committee come up with a strategy, and amend the bylaw if they get it wrong.
(Caroline Murray) Ms. Murray asks what AMI is based on -- just Arlington, or a larger area.
(Jenny Raitt, Planning Director) Ms. Raitt says AMI is based on a wide area around Greater Boston, which includes Boston, Cambridge, Quincy, Newton, and New Hampshire. It's a statistical metropolitan area.
(Amos Meeks) Mr. Meeks says it feels like there are two kinds of affordable housing. Deeply affordable at 60% or under, and the 80% you get from private development. Deeply affordable needs to be deeply subsidized. He sees the affordable housing trust fund as a form of public subsidy, and thinks it makes sense to have the fund focus on that. Federal and state subsidies are already restricted to 60% AMI or less. Hopefully we won't have to deny funding to an over-60% project because an under-60% project fell through. He generally supports the article.
(Steve DeCourcey, Select Board Chair) Mr. DeCourcey says that the Select Board salutes the intent of the article. He says the bylaw that established the affordable housing trust fund was intended to set a ceiling rather than a floor. He's not aware of any communities in MA that put AMI restrictions into their bylaws. He thinks the trustees should be allowed to define goals first, and bring them to the Select Board for approval. Currently, the trust fund has no money and no funding source. During the last two years, 100% of CDBG funds spent on affordable housing went to housing for 50% AMI or less. He thinks the bylaw should contain a general construct, and not a specific policy that will have to be amended each year.
(Gordon Jamieson) Mr. Jamieson asks what the CPA's criteria for affordable housing are, since that's what our trust fund bylaw is based on.
(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says that CPA funds for affordable housing have to be used for housing at 100% AMI or less. Units at 80% AMI can count towards the town's subsidized housing inventory, but those at 80--100% AMI cannot.
(Gordon Jamieson) Mr. Jamieson asks for an explanation of how the restriction would be applied.
(Doug Heim, Town Counsel) Mr. Heim says he reads it as "a majority of non-CDBG funds".
(Gordon Jamieson) Mr. Jamieson thinks this is a well-intentioned amendment that tries to proscribe too much in the bylaw. He thinks that regulations would be a more appropriate place. For example, we passed a stormwater bylaw earlier, and most of the details are in regulations. Regulations can be changed without action from town meeting. He's sure that the proponents will show up at trustee meetings and lobby for what they want.
(Clarissa Rowe, Point of order) Ms. Rowe wishes to make a point of order, as chair of the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC). She says Ms. Raitt is correct about the law, but the CPAC doesn't support spending affordable housing funds at 100% AMI. They've used a lot of funds for housing at under 60% AMI.
(John Leone, Moderator) Mr. Leone says that's not a point of order.
(Frank Ciano) Mr. Ciano asks if the fund trustees have been appointed.
(John Leone) Mr. Leone says they haven't.
(Frank Ciano) Mr. Ciano asks how the fund will be funded.
(John Leone) Mr. Leone says we're talking about spending, not funding.
(Frank Ciano) Mr. Ciano says he supports the article.
(Anna Henkin) Ms. Henkin supports the article. She says it's only asking for a majority of money to be spent at 60% AMI or below, and the rest can be spent on other things. She thinks this discussion has been very anti-accountability, and that the trust should direct its efforts towards the people with the greatest need.
(Leba Heigham) Ms. Heigham moves the question.
Motion to terminate debate passes, 174--62--2.
(John Worden, Point of order) Mr. Worden asks what he should do if he can't get the voting portal to work. He asks if he can call his vote in.
(John Leone) Mr. Leone gives Mr. Worden the number to call.
Vote on the substitute motion fails, 84--154--5.
(Nancy Bloom, Point of order) Ms. Bloom asks if we have to vote when the recommended action is no action.
(John Leone) Mr. Leone says yes, town meeting has to dispose of each article on the warrant.
(Roderick Holland) Mr. Holland has a point of order about the voting portal. He says that the moderator has correctly identified a failure mode (connection error) and a workaround (refresh the page with your web browser). Mr. Holland says that makes for a system that isn't beautiful, but is workable.
Vote on the Select Board's recommendation of no action passes, 190--46--6.
Article 22 - Provision of Town Email Addresses for Town Meeting Members
The Select Board recommended a vote of no action; Anna Henkin provided a substitute motion.
(Anna Henkin) Ms. Henkin motions to table article 22.
(Steve DeCourcey) Mr. DeCourcey believes that Len Diggins is working with Ms. Henkin to revise her substitute motion.
(John Leone) Mr. Leone agrees to table the article.
Article 24 - Ranked Choice Voting
This article is an effort to bring ranked choice voting to Arlington's local elections. It authorizes the town to file a home rule petition, and bring the question before Arlington voters.
(Steve DeCourcey) Mr. DeCourcey says the board supports RCV for single-seat elections 5--0. There was 4--1 support for RCV in multi-seat elections.
(Greg Dennis, Election Modernization Committee) Mr. Dennis presents the article. Article 24 proposes home rule legislation that would allow the use of ranked choice voting to elect town officials. One of the key issues that RCV tries to address is vote splitting, where the winner wins with less than a majority. The threat of vote splitting can cause potential candidates to bow out, rather than become spoiler candidates.
Mr. Dennis goes through some examples to illustrate how RCV works. He says the task of the voters is simply to rank candidates in the order of preference. RCV would ensure that the winning candidate has a majority of support. It would also ensure a bigger candidate pool. If the state approves our home rule petition, this will still have to be approved by Arlington voters.
The Election Modernization Committee (EMC) urges a no vote on the Schlictman Amendment. With that amendment, there would be years when Select Board members are elected with RCV and years when they're not; it would depend on the number of seats up for election.
(Paul Schlictman) Mr. Schlictman has an amendment that would restrict RCV to single-seat races; multi-seat would be conducted as they are now. His presentation slides have the heading "If it ain't broke, don't break it".
Mr. Schlictman feels that the EMC has viewed itself as an advocacy organization for ranked choice voting. The Select Board formed the EMC to examine town election practices, but they've spent most of their time working on RCV. He thinks we got an advocacy organization rather than a study group.
Mr. Schlictman believes that RCV won't limit gamesmanship; instead, it will just change the game. Mr. Schlictman runs in school committee races, where there are generally three candidates. He tries to build constituencies with the other candidates. With RCV, he'd have to ask people for their number one vote, rather thank asking them for one of their two votes. It will be just like Cambridge. He thinks this will make elections more intensively competitive and change the character of multi-seat elections. He asks town meeting to adopt his amendment, and then vote down the entire article.
(David Levy, Point of Order) Mr. Levy asks if Mr. Schlictman's amendment is in scope of the article.
(John Leone) Mr. Leone thinks it's in scope.
(Beth Ann Friedman) Ms. Friedman has an amendment, asking the Town Clerk to report tabulations for each round.
(Frank Ciano) Mr. Ciano supports Mr. Schlictman's amendment. He says he's still trying to figure out how RCV works, and asks Mr. Dennis to clarify a few points.
(Greg Dennis) Mr. Dennis explains.
(Frank Ciano) Mr. Ciano thanks Mr. Dennis for the explanation, but says he's not in favor.
(John Worden) Mr. Worden agrees with Mr. Schlictman. He thinks ranked choice voting is a solution in search of a problem. He says that if we used RCV in 1860, Abe Lincoln would not have been elected president, we wouldn't have had a civil war, and wouldn't have freed the slaves. He believes in the principle of "whoever gets the most votes wins", regardless of what the percentage is. Cambridge has proportional representation, but they're electing a whole bunch of councilors. It takes days or weeks for them to figure out who won. If we adopt RCV, we won't know the winner the night of the election, and we'll need a computer system to figure out who the winner is. Mr. Worden says that computer systems didn't work so well for vehicle inspections last April, and they aren't working for town meeting portal. Mr. Worden says that computers denied him of his right to vote during this town meeting. He says it's better to have paper. He says that we shouldn't let a computer decide who wins our elections.
(John Deyst, Point of order) Mr. Deyst hopes the moderator could keep the discussion in scope of the article.
(David Levy) Mr. Levy moves the question.
Motion to terminate debate fails, 115--118--3.
(Brian Rehrig) Mr. Rehrig notices that the Select Board vote was not unanimous. He'd like to hear the thinking behind the board's minority vote.
(Steve DeCourcey) Mr. DeCourcey voted against the article because he didn't like the way votes were redistributed in multi-seat elections. You have to keep redistributing votes to get to 50%. The EMC had a lot of discussion about how to use RCV, and there are other options for multi-seat elections. East Hampden adopted RCV for single-seat, but not for multi-seat. If some voters don't fill in all of the choices, then RCV doesn't guarantee majority support.
(Christoper Heigham) Mr. Heigham asks what "two more more skipped rankings" means.
(Doug Heim) Mr. Heim believes this is trying to consider ballots that have equally prioritized votes, or where the voter skipped a choice.
(Greg Dennis) Mr. Dennis says a skipped ranking would be specifying a first and third choice, but not a second. In that example, the third choice would be promoted to second choice. However, if a voter skips two or more choices, then we can't assume that (say) the fourth choice is really the second. So, if they skip two or more rankings, then we wouldn't count the later ones. He says this is pretty standard throughout the county.
(Christoper Heigham) Mr. Heigham asks what would happen if someone selected two first choice candidates.
(Greg Dennis) Mr. Dennis says our machines would detect the over-vote and kick out the ballot, just as they do today.
(Christopher Heigham) Mr. Heigham asks what other communities use this system (for multi-seat elections).
(Greg Dennis) Mr. Dennis says it's currently not as popular as the proportional method, but it is gaining wider adoption. A number of communities in Utah use this method for multi-seat elections.
(Patricia Muldoon) Ms. Muldoon is an election warden in precinct six and is active with the Arlington League of Women Voters. She was first introduced to RCV in the 1990s and the LWV supports it as the fairest voting method. Arlington voted in favor of RCV when it was on the ballot in a state election. Regarding computers, our new ballot tabulators are able to use this form of RCV; these are the same machines we're currently using in elections. She thinks this will expand candidate diversity, which we need. RCV will help with that, and more competition should drive voter turnout. She thinks we should give voters the chance to decide whether to adopt ranked choice voting. Our select board races should use one system, and not vary year by year. She thinks this is work that will improve our elections, which is part of the EMC's mandate. She encourages a yes vote.
(Juli Brazile) Ms. Brazile is a town meeting member, and is also the Town Clerk. As a voter, she's supported RCV for years and thinks it will give voters more choice. As the Town Clerk, she sees no problem administering elections under RCV. A computer does the counting in all cases, even today -- memory cards are brought back to the clerk's office and totaled. She urges a no vote on the Schlictman amendment.
(Greg Christiana) Mr. Christiana thinks there's no way we could possibly know what people's second and third choices would have been in the 1860 presidential election. He's studied RCV for years, and had to tell voters about it when canvassing. He thinks that candidates are more likely to run positive campaigns because the election isn't winner take all. Candidates tend to compete for first and second choice, rather than slinging mud at each other.
(Charlie Foskett) Mr. Foskett thinks that voting for the winner is a tradition that's worked well in this country for the last three centuries. He thinks it's arrogant for anyone to tell him that he can't vote for only one candidate. He thinks that RCV could help the candidate he least likes to get elected. RCV is fundamentally complicated and flawed; it's a complex system and it can't possibly work. He asks town meeting to vote no.
(Joe Curro) Mr. Curro has points to make about strategic voting and voter turnout. For strategic voting, there's nothing wrong with bullet voting. However, people may want to express a preference, and RCV allows that. For turnout, whether RCV makes an improvement will have to be seen in practice. In 2012 there were five candidates for two Select Board seats, and we had 19% turnout in the election. Ranking allows you to get the candidates that are the most palatable to the most people. That's the key feature.
(Betty Stone) Ms. Stone is very much in favor of the article and against Mr. Schlictman's amendment. Using RCV only for single-seat elections would result in an inconsistent election process, and she thinks that's going to be confusing. The proposal for multi-seat races is a straightforward application of the single-seat process. It's a simple process for voters. We have tabulators that can perform this kind of RCV, results will be available on the same time schedule, and there won't be any additional costs to the town. She thinks elections aren't about candidate campaigns as much as they are about giving voters choices.
(Daniel Jalkut) Mr. Jalkut thinks the core question is whether this will make elections better or worse. Tom Lehrer proposed that there was no such thing as a perfect election strategy. Even if there isn't a perfect strategy, that doesn't mean we can't try to improve. Winner takes all has enough problems that it's worth trying something new. The arguments against RCV is that it's complicated, but the idea of listing preferences is not complicated to a voter. That's what's most important here. When people chose not to vote, they're choosing not to be represented. He supports the article.
(Annie LaCourt) Ms. LaCourt says that what we're really debating is whether to put RCV on the ballot and let the voters decide. She thinks Mr. Schlictman's argument is actually an argument in favor of RCV. If more people run, then more people will vote, and this will improve democracy. She asks if the EMC has done more than advocacy for RCV and if the Select Board feels that the EMC has fulfilled their mission. She supports bringing this before voters and opposes the Schlictman amendment.
It's nearly 23:00, and we adjourn for the night.