At the May 7 Town Meeting, there was a warrant article that should have been on the docket, that should have been voted on, and that deserved passage. It was an article that had been part of an earlier draft of the warrant, and then it was removed through an improvident 3-2 vote by the Select Board. It was an article that could have made a difference to hundreds of youth and adults. The article was the Community Preservation Committee's (CPC) proposal to repair and improve the Wolf Swamp fields.
The absence of the Wolf Swamp fields project on the Town Meeting warrant was a missed opportunity that reflects a lack of regard for the work done by the CPC and the Parks Board, which had carefully considered the proposal. Its absence on the warrant also reflects, shall we say, an overabundance of confidence that the three Select Board members held in their own judgment and wisdom. That confidence propelled the Select Board majority to substitute its opinion for the assessments of a greater number of folks who had spent more time studying the subject.
The Wolf Swamp fields badly need repair, and their use needs to be re-oriented to sports like Lacrosse and Soccer, where interest is intense, and so part of the proposal was to fill in two ball diamonds in favor of more field space. To accomplish this, the project required $96,000, and the money was to have been derived from Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds, which allows the town to receive a 26% match from the state, which is about the best deal in municipal finance.
So how can a project with unquestioned merit and which makes fiscal sense go down to defeat? Or more precisely, how can such a project be kept from the voters at Town Meeting? The CPC voted unanimously, 9-0, to approve this project. Other CPA projects were rejected, tabled, or failed to pass so overwhelmingly. The CPC included people with histories of long service to the town, such as Gerald Nolet, Arlene Miller, and James Goodhines. This group was not apt to venture out on poorly designed schemes. It was certainly a group that would not agree on every town issue, but it could agree on this.
The Select Board has many other things to do besides second-guessing the layout of sports fields and the angles at which lacrosse balls may be flung. The objections raised by the members who voted to kill the warrant article showed no deference to the review done by the many people who have given a lot of thought on how best to use the town's resources for recreation and sport.
One Select Board member suggested that still more review should be done by the Planning Board and by the Town safety committee. After input by the Parks Board, a vote by nine members of the CPC, review by the Select Board, and a vote by residents at Town Meeting, this process hardly cried out for more bureaucracy. As Mr. Goodhines noted, the need had been identified for several years, and the project was advanced after receiving feedback from the community.
The shame in all of this is that the voters were denied a chance to have their voices heard. Was this idea so dangerous that the people could not be trusted to vote on it? While it was within the power of the Select Board to eliminate this article, surely that power must be tempered by a decent respect for the opinions of the constituents who conferred that power by electing the members of the Select Board. Was it not possible that the voters, had they approved the article, were right, and the three members of the Select Board wrong?
At worst, the Wolf Swamp fields project was a matter on which reasonable minds could differ. Then why not allow our direct democracy to work? Why not allow the clash of ideas, the questions and answers, and the discussion on the floor of Town Meeting to illuminate the best path forward? Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." That competition was overridden in this instance, but in our system, the debate never ceases, and this question will arise again, and the expression of the views of the electorate cannot be silenced forever.
Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.