Opinion: Select Board Town Meeting Decision Oversteps Boundaries

In a blatant display of the dangers inherent in concentrating power in the executive, the Select Board has not only eliminated even limited hybrid town meetings for both the May and June sessions of Town Meeting but has provided misleading information, insulted Town Meeting Members (TMMs) and silenced one of its members.

This latest incident in what appears to be a developing pattern began on Friday, April 5 and culminated on Monday April 8. Here’s what we know.

Judith Feinleib, Town Meeting Precinct 6
Judith Feinleib is a Town Meeting Member from Precinct 6 and publishes the If I May website.

The Events – Phase 1 

The Friday, April 5 early morning Select Board meeting was a customary first meeting following town elections; during it, the new Board constitutes itself and begins work. Because the previous  Select Board consisting of Roy Epstein, Elizabeth Dionne and Mark Paolillo had agreed that it would  make sense to have the Chair operate through the Spring 2024 Town Meeting, Roy Epstein and  Elizabeth Dionne remained the Chair and Vice-Chair respectively.  

Mike Widmer, the re-elected Moderator recommended that Town Meeting be conducted with a  limited hybrid option. In his view, TMMs attending remotely should not exceed 15% of the total  number of TMMs at any session; the 30 – 34% of TMMs who had attended the three town meeting  sessions that comprised the Fall 2023 Town Meeting remotely were too great a number.  Nonetheless, he supported the option for people who need it, something that Town Clerk Ellen Cushman felt could be done.  

To make a long story relatively short, Chair Epstein opposed having any remote option since “Covid  is over;” he felt that space in the balcony was all that should be provided for those who might have  reasons to stay apart and that convenience ought not to be a factor in deciding whether or not to  provide remote access. Vice-Chair Dionne who began by saying she had been undecided, opted  for no remote option, at least in part, because she felt remote attendees do not pay adequate 

attention. Matt Taylor, the newly elected Board member was in favor of adopting the Widmer  approach and pointed out that as a result of Covid, business is conducted differently than it used  to be and that all big corporations have remote options.  

When the vote was taken, Epstein and Dionne voted in favor of in person only. In his first Select  Board vote, Taylor voted against.  

The Events ― Phase 2 

As might be expected, the in person only vote engendered letters/emails. On Monday, April 8, Paul  Roberts, a Precinct 8 TMM sent an email outlining the advantages of hybrid meetings to all Town  Meeting members; he urged them to voice support for hybrid sessions at the Monday night Select  Board meeting. Elizabeth Dionne then emailed saying that there was too much work that needed to  be done by the town’s administration to add to it by having remote Town Meeting sessions; she  listed items she wants the administration to address. 

At the Monday evening Select Board meeting, the matter was brought up during the limited period  in which citizens are allowed to speak; speakers were allotted two minutes and told that no more  than 15 minutes would be given to this matter. Paul Roberts made a compelling statement in favor of reconsidering the original decision.  

Chair Epstein noted that state law rather than the town’s by-laws determine how Town Meetings  are conducted. He reiterated his opposition to remote meetings and listed other towns that are  having in person only meetings. And he stated that the Board of Health which had met Monday afternoon, had not felt it necessary to impose additional restrictions. He was against  reconsideration. 

Vice Chair Dionne repeated the tasks she has already given or will be giving to the town  administration to accomplish and said that perhaps she would consider remote attendance in the  fall. She too was against reconsideration. 

Mr. Taylor did not get to speak. Why? Because in Chair Epstein’s opinion, since a motion to  reconsider must be made by someone who originally was in favor and Mr. Taylor had opposed it, there was no reason for Mr. Taylor to speak.  

And with that, the Chair moved on without recognizing anyone who might have had follow-up  questions. 

What’s Wrong With This Picture? 

  • It is customary for the Moderator to recommend an approach for the Spring and Fall Town  Meetings to the Select Board. It is also customary for the Select Board to accept his  recommendation. That did not happen here. 
  • Mr. Epstein’s suggestion that most towns are returning to in person meetings is misleading.  A Google search indicates that both hybrid and in-person Town Meetings are being held in 
  • Massachusetts this year. Among the municipalities holding hybrid meetings are Lexington,  Dedham, Wayland, Plymouth, and Medfield; Northborough intends to adopt hybrid  meetings as soon as it has acquired the necessary technology. 
  • The Board of Health felt that as long as the town had safe sections in which people could  sit, it was not required to take an active part in decision making about Town Meeting. In  other words, the Board of Health took a passive role rather than the more active effort Chair  Epstein’s remarks appear to suggest.  
  • No actual research has been done into the reasons why people decided to attend remotely  or into the reasons why the number grew for each night of the November Town Meeting.  Some number of fully vaccinated/boosted people can be assumed to have health issues  that make attending large meetings in enclosed spaces problematic. Some may well have  found this to be more convenient. And, on the third night when the number of remote  attendees was highest, some may have stayed away because they had to compete for  parking with a high school sports event that made attendance even more difficult than it  had been on other nights. Unlike the old high school, the new high school does not have  sufficient parking to accommodate all TMMs much less TMMs and a high school sports  event. Indeed, people could be seen arriving late because they had such a hard time  finding a parking place. 
  • Even so, it is Ms. Dionne’s actions that are the most bewildering. Why? Because on Friday morning, she gave one set of reasons for opposing remote sessions emphasizing her belief  that TMMs do not pay adequate attention when they attend virtually, and on Monday, she changed what she had to say completely.  Perhaps Ms. Dionne changed her approach because she realized how offensive her  comments were to the many TMMs who prepare and pay attention whether they attend in  person or virtually. In any case, the tasks Ms. Dionne presented in her Monday email to  TMMs and reiterated verbally that evening, suggested a well formulated plan that in her  view necessitates superseding the needs of Town Meeting. Had that plan really existed on  Friday, surely she would have referred to it then.  
  • And finally, while technically, Mr. Epstein may be correct about the way a vote to reconsider is handled, he used that to keep Mr. Taylor from speaking. Whether or not one supported or  agrees with Matt Taylor, he is a duly elected member of Belmont’s Select Board and it is  unacceptable to silence him.  

Overstepping Boundaries 

No Select Board members in this writer’s memory have assessed TMMs and the caliber of their  performance as negatively as has happened here. Indeed, the comments of the Chair and Vice  Chair of this Board smack of arrogance and their actions are, at best, high-handed. 

Moreover, no Select Board has found a way to keep any of its members from speaking since Anne  Paulsen was the sole reform member of a reactionary board. Anne Paulsen and Will Brownsberger who followed her in the role of sole reform member, worked hard to eliminate this.  

The behavior of the current Board appears have begun with and to be the result of empowering the  Select Board by centralizing town offices and functions under it and the Town Administrator. Given this, it is fair to say that Belmont’s acceptance of the Collins Report recommendations has had unintended and unfortunate consequences. Belmont needs to refuse to expand the power of the  executive even further.  

The most important job Select Board members have is to represent all of Belmont’s citizens.  Members have an obligation to not overstep. They have an obligation to make sure that they do not  diminish Town Meeting as well as an obligation to treat Belmont’s legislature as the equal it is supposed to be.

By-passing Town Meeting for any reason, including those cited by Ms. Dionne, are  neither acceptable nor good governance. Clearly, those who were worried about giving too much  power to the Select Board and the Town Administrator had good reason to be concerned.  

About the author: Judith Feinleib, a Precinct 6 Town Meeting Member has a doctorate in Political Science and, as an  independent consultant, helps people with social media posting, writing and in-house and external  corporate communications. Contact her at feinleib@gmail.com. Her If I May articles can be found  on Facebook at or on the If I May website.