Race for town moderator looks to be competitive…

It looks as if the race for the position of Town Moderator may end up being competitive, with one Warrant Committee member, Mike Widmer, planning a run and two others town residents: Mary Tinkham and Walter McLaughlin (also a WC member) expressing an interest, as well. It’s worth noting that the field could narrow. McLaughlin is said to be in the “thinking” stage and Tinkham has said she may withdraw.

For those who haven’t been to Town Meeting before, the Moderator position is quite an important one. The Moderator acts as MC for the Town Meeting, helping lead a large and unwieldy group through the business of approving the Town’s budget and other appropriations and debating matters before the Town.

Even more important is the Moderator’s role in making appointments to key Town committees. It may not be widely known, but the Moderator appoints the Warrant Committee, which is charged with reviewing all town appropriations and reporting to the Town Meeting and Board of Selectmen about them. Warrant Committee members serve in a purely advisory role, but in this Town, their word carries a lot of weight. Under Hall, the Warrant Committee developed a reputation for fiscally conservative leadership, though some have criticized it for being both older and more conservative than the town as a whole. Hall made an effort to address those problems with recent appointments, including Bill Lynch, a father of three school age children in town. The Moderator also appoints three of seven members to the Capital Budget Committee, a hugely important committee that help sets the Town’s capital spending agenda.

As many of you already know, Belmont’s long time Moderator, Henry Hall, is hanging up his gavel after 17 years. Hall told the Belmont Citizen Herald that he’d been considering not running again for a number of years, but that he’d figure it was time to call it quits. While its hard to know exactly what the reason was, his decision might have been influenced by backlash the last Special Town Meeting on October 22, during which a debate about zoning issues related to bank ATMs spiraled out of control. In the wake of that meeting, the BCH put in print what many Town Meeting members were saying privately: it was time for the Town to have a new moderator, and Hall was likely to face opposition had he run again.

As a Town Meeting member for just over a year, I was no fan of Hall. The debacle at the Oct. 22 meeting followed other poorly run, chaotic meetings, during which debates often strayed off point. I’m thinking of the recent debate regarding funding of a building committee for the Library, where Hall allowed a motion to postpone the vote on the building committee to morph into a debate on the merits of a new Library itself — much to the confusion of Town Meeting members. In one memorable exchange, a Town Meeting member asked permission from Hall to allow a Belmont High student to speak in favor of the Library. Rather than encouraging the student’s interest in town politics, Hall angrily denounced the move, scaring the wits out of the poor girl, then only grudgingly allowed her to make her appeal after it became clear that those assembled were outraged that she wouldn’t be allowed to speak. Shameful.

As for how things would change under the new candidates — its hard to say. Both Widmer and McLaughlin have reputations as fiscal conservatives who are reluctant to approve new spending. As an example, Widmer in May pushed through a $516,000 reduction to the Town’s level service budget — split between 60/40 between the schools and the town budget — in anticipation of savings from restructuring the Town’s health insurance plan with employees. Widmer has been a staunch opponent of using the Town’s free cash to pay for recurring expenses.

McLaughlin was a Town Meeting member from Precinct 8 for 30 years before being ousted by a slate of new candidates including (*ahem*) me. He’s a new, but outspoken member on Warrant Committee, and has recently weighed in on proposals for reform at the Belmont Municipal Light Department.

As Moderator Hall has noted himself, competition for the Moderator position has been scarce. He ran opposed in only once in his 17 years in office, despite the outsize role Moderator plays in shaping the town’s fiscal policy and spending priorities. It looks like this year may be different — and competition is generally a good thing. But if the field boils down to just Widmer or McLaughlin, don’t expect big changes! The deadline for filing papers to run for Moderator is Feb. 19!