Change to town manager OK’d in Belchertown

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 05-12-2023 4:31 PM

BELCHERTOWN — Town Meeting this week voted to move ahead with a change that would give Belchertown a town manager for the first time and approved dozens of other items in a meeting lasting a little less than three hours.

Some discussion preceded the vote on the first budget item after Select Board member Ed Boscher asked Town Meeting to reject the $60,369,152 budget to allow time to cut the spending plan by 1%. Referring to the town’s “structural deficit,” in which recurring expenses are persistently higher than revenues, he said the town got lucky this year in terms of balancing the budget with $1.5 million in free cash, but he warned that it was on the road to a Proposition 2½ vote.

“A ‘yes’ vote will indicate to me the town is amenable to an override,” Boscher said.

Town Accountant Jill Rossi contended that the budget was nothing like a Proposition 2½ override, and questioned the benefit of cutting 1%. And Select Board Chairman Jim Barry said the same questions has arisen for many years, and although the town needs to deal with it, he said the sky was not falling.

“I don’t think it’s up to this group to say no,” he said.

Finance Committee Chair Laurie Shea disagreed.

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“It is up to you,” she said. “The Finance Committee would have liked to have a lot more information.”

Voters nonetheless approved general government spending and all other budget items by substantial majorities, despite pleas from some voters to draw a line on the annual spending increases. The closest vote was on the $32,597,863 school budget, which passed by 160-60.

The budget relies on a tax levy of $33,370,145.

Town manager contentious

Debate on the article seeking a change from town administrator to town manager became contentious at one point after an amendment to the language was proposed that would give a search committee the power to make successive recommendations to the Select Board, in the event the first slate of candidates was rejected, until the pool of qualified candidates was exhausted.

The amendment was in reference to a recent decision by the board to hire Steve Williams, the public works director, to succeed the retiring Gary Brougham as town administrator after rejecting the three finalists a search committee put forward.

When a resident spoke in support of the amendment, saying it would be “a step away from cronyism and towards accountability and integrity,” drawing applause, an irate Ronald Aponte, Select Board member, took to the microphone to offer a retort, calling the comment “so inappropriate.”

“To insinuate we appointed Steve Williams on a 5-0 vote because we’re familiar with him and not because he’s qualified, I’m offended by that, the board is offended by it and I would hope Town Meeting is offended by it,” Aponte said. His remarks generated louder applause.

The amendment was defeated on a vote of 141-73, and the town manager article won passage by 187-21. The article directs the Select Board to petition the Legislature, which must sign off on the change.

Zone changes, CPA money, state flag and seal

Town Meeting voters proceeded to approve a series of zoning changes and Community Preservation Act appropriations, and OK’d a petition article seeking support for a change to the state flag and seal.

Speaking for the article, David Detmold of Montague said the flag has been the object of protest by Indigenous people for at least 50 years. A commission set up by the Legislature has recommended a new flag and is in the process of polling state residents to help decide on a new symbol.

“Maybe we can do better than a hand holding a sword over an Indigenous person’s head,” Detmold said. “Let’s send a message.”

The vote was 91-59 in favor of the change.

The meeting, with at least 226 voters in attendance at the peak, opened with an award for Brougham, a 30-year town employee. Presenting the Gary Whitlock Award, Aponte said the honor was reserved for “people who have a passion for serving the town.” He credited Brougham for “inspiring leadership” and introduced him as “Mr. Belchertown.”

Brougham said he’d been thinking back on all that had been accomplished during his time, with the building of a new senior center, police station, fire station and two schools, and he praised town employees’ dedication and professionalism. Even during the pandemic, which placed “incredible demands” on public employees, he said, town government continued to function as if all the buildings were open.

“I’m very proud of everyone who has made this possible,” Brougham said.

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