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David Scribner
Voters at the Great Barrington Special Town Meeting Monday night August 6 hold yellow cards aloft to reject a measure that would have repealed the ban on single-use plastic water bottles, a ban that had been approved at the May 7 Annual Town Meeting.

Town Great Barrington voters sustain plastic water bottle ban, but reject purchase of controversial property

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By Monday, Aug 6, 2018 News 37

Editor’s note: This article has been revised to include town counsel’s estimate of the total legal costs of defending the appeal to the ZBA ruling on 11 Roger Road.

Great Barrington — Great Barrington cemented its reputation as a progressive town as residents voted resoundingly tonight (August 6) at a special town meeting to keep a ban enacted this spring on single-use plastic water bottles.

The vote to preserve the ban passed by almost 100 votes 297-199. The article to repeal had been presented earlier as a petition for a special town meeting by resident Laura Keefner after the original ban passed at the annual town meeting in May.

Laura Keefner, opponent of the bottle ban, addressing the special town meeting. Photo: David Scribner

The move to repeal the water bottle ban was so controversial that the special town meeting attracted upwards of 100 more residents than had attended the Annual town Meeting on May 7 where it was first passed.

Town Clerk Marie Ryan said 503 voting residents attended the meeting. The Monument Mountain Regional High School auditorium was packed, not only with Great Barrington residents but with residents from other towns who had a rooting interest in the matter.

After the motion was introduced, a vigorous debate ensued along the lines of the same arguments that have been heard in the past: proponents of the repeal reiterated their desire for personal freedom, their concern about its effect on merchants, their desire for greater recycling efforts and what they say is a lack of planning regarding its ramifications.

See video below of the discussion of the proposed repeal of the single-use plastic water bottle ban:

Proponents argued that there is a ready replacement available in the form of reusable water bottles, that discarded plastic is harming the environment and that Great Barrington should show some leadership, as Concord and Sudbury — the two other Massachusetts towns that have bans — did.

More than twice the number of residents wanting to preserve the ban spoke compared to those who wanted to repeal. A motion passed that called for a secret ballot rather than a show of hands. The motion to repeal then seemed to lose steam.

Another controversial measure that would have allowed the town to purchase 11 Roger Road failed. In order to put an end to a longstanding and expensive zoning dispute with business owner Gary J. O’Brien, the town had proposed to purchase 11 Roger Road for $298,000.

Town Counsel David Doneski. Photo: David Scribner

Town Counsel David Doneski said the litigation on the dispute (the town is suing O’Brien, who is also suing the Zoning Board of Appeals, and resident Roger Belanger is suing the ZBA) could drag on for another year, costing the town even more than the $30,000 it has already spent trying to enforce the most recent cease-and-desist order issued by code enforcement officer Edwin May. Doneski’s law firm has estimated that the legal bills to defend the appeal to the ZBA ruling will be up to $100,000.

The motion to purchase 11 Roger Road failed when it did not receive the required two-thirds majority. The result was 199 in favor, 149 opposed.

Two other articles passed with minimal dissent:

  • A motion to borrow or transfer $65,000 to complete repairs on the town transfer station garage facility passed 304-79.
  • A motion authorizing the use of $20,000 in Community Preservation Funds to replace the chimneys on Town Hall passed by acclamation.

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37 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Michael Wise says:

    Clarification: The vote on the Roger Road purchase motion was 199 in favor, 149 opposed; it failed because this action required a two-thirds majority.

    1. Thank you for the clarification, Michael. I’ve corrected the copy to reflect the required two-thirds majority.

  2. Steve Farina says:

    The caption for the lead picture is incorrect. It more likely shows the vote on the “call to question”, which should not have been recognized by the Moderator. The man who made the motion clearly disregarded the Moderator’s admonition that he stand in line and then make it from the microphone. Whoever this gentleman was,walked past the seven or so people waiting to share on both sides of the issue, including a 17 year old girl. Thus by “cutting the line”, and being recognized, he cut about 20 minutes off what was only an hour long meeting at that point. The Moderator did state that there were only about 7 people left to share, yet still a 2/3 majority voted to end debate (though I know for a fact that some of those people did not fully understand that their vote was silencing people).

    1. Steve Farina says:

      Could 50 people have been convinced to vote to repeal had everyone shared…maybe, if Facts Matter. However, it seems with the predisposition that people came into the meeting with that they wanted to “be right”, rather than “do the right thing”, and they got their way. 🙂

      1. Tom Blauvelt says:

        Hi Steve,
        People did do the right thing by upholding the ban.

      2. Steve Farina says:

        Good morning Tom, I would certainly feel better about it if I was not among those shut out from sharing. You were at both the ATM and the STM and I hope you noticed that even the presentation of those in favor of the ban changed tack at this meeting, based upon the facts. The very facts that I put forth here on the Edge repeatedly. At the ATM some of the modifications to the original wording of Article 22 were also in response to the facts that I presented here on the Edge.
        Not being given the chance to bring forth the facts in the Town forum will always leave an asterisk on the bylaw for me. We will not now know if having the facts actually would have mattered to the voters who went out of their way to come to the Special Town Meeting.
        Of course, if the AG’s office finds the bylaw to be inappropriate after they perform a substantive review (which they rightly should for its still many wording problems), then we may be revisiting this again.

    2. Steve Farina says:

      Additionally, it appears my motion to reconsider the Call to question should have been allowed (Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised):
      May be reconsidered
      Yes, but if vote was affirmative, only before any vote has been taken under it. A negative vote on this motion can be reconsidered only until such time as progress in business or debate has made it essentially a new question.

      1. MIchael Wise says:

        This is one of the points on which the manuals of parliamentary procedure disagree. Under the Town Meeting Time rules that we follow (which I looked up during the meeting to confirm), the vote on a motion to call the question may not be reconsidered.

    3. Carl Stewart says:

      I find myself, to my surprise, agreeing with Mr. Farina on this issue. [Caveat: I am assuming that Mr. Farina’s recitation of the facts is accurate.] If a member of an assembly wishes to “call the question” (not “call to question” as Mr. Farina states it), she must be recognized by the chair of the meeting. Someone can not simply blurt out “I move to call the question” unless that person has been recognized by the chair. In Mr. Farina’s version of the meeting, which I did not attend, the person who moved to call the question sought to cut off debate without having been recognized. The chair/moderator has considerable leeway, however, and the vote on calling the question is not invalidated because of what some might call a procedural defect.

      In my not-so-humble opinion, the better course to have followed last night would have been for the moderator to allow each of the 7 (?) people waiting to speak to have 2 minutes each…a total of a mere 14 minutes added to the debate…and then recognized the party who moved to call the question. A few additional minutes of debate, even if repetitive, would have been a very small price to pay for relative community harmony. The bottle ban issue is clearly one that has energized the town (witness a larger attendance for the Special Meeting than for Annual Town Meeting) and saving a few minutes of debate time should have been less important than allowing those 7 more speakers to speak their views.

      1. Chris Blair says:

        Carl, Right. We should not staunch debate. We should avoid expedience and the rush to vote to know the outcome of the vote. There is a real, essential need to hear both sides in full voice. The debate also should inform ones thinking.

      2. Michael Wise says:

        In explaining the procedures at the start of the meeting, I admonished that using a motion to call the question just to prevent the hall from hearing other points of view would not be neighborly, although not technically out of order. I also made it clear that I would ignore random shouts of “call the question” from the back of the hall. The motion would have to be made by a speaker at the microphone after recognition by the moderator.
        That is what happened, but after a breakdown in what I had hoped would be a means of promoting a balanced debate. I asked that proponents of the motion line up on one side of the microphone and opponents line up on the other, and I said that I would recognize speakers in alternation. This worked pretty well for the first half hour or so, but then the two lines tended to merge into one, on what was supposed to be the “opponent” side of the microphone. When I recognized the speaker who moved to call the question, he appeared to me to be the next speaker in the line of proponents.
        Perhaps I should have asserted that I would not admit a motion to call the question until everyone in line had spoken. I know that some moderators claim that authority, but I have been reluctant to do so. I did push back, probably harder than I should have, against cutting off debate while several speakers were still not heard from. But the meeting insisted on a tallied vote on the (non-debatable) motion to call the question, which made it clear that over 2/3 of the voters wanted to proceed to the vote on the main motion, and so we did.
        All advice, even from people who weren’t actually there, is welcome. I’m still learning this job.

      3. Steve Farina says:

        Mike, I would not want to be in the position of moderator, especially on a meeting such as this. I know I apologized to you personally for my outburst, but also want to do so publicly. Consider this that. 🙂
        That said, although I find it very frustrating to be shut out in such a manner again, I also know you had were trying to do the best job possible and make the correct decisions based upon what you saw. I realize that it was difficult to see what happened with the lines merging from your vantage point.
        I don’t pretend to know all the parliamentary procedures, as was evident last night and appreciate all the information you have to process in short order while running such a large meeting.
        It is unfortunate that the gentleman felt it was appropriate to walk past the line and grab the microphone.
        It was obvious I was upset that he did so, as were the others in line – but I also know that none of us are perfect and get the call right every time and I understand your reasoning.
        The next unfortunate event was that so many voted to end debate, when many clearly did not understand what they were voting on.
        It is over and done, hopefully we can all learn from the experience and move forward.

    4. Bill Arienti says:

      Get a life. People who went to the meeting had their minds made up before they got there. The arguments against and for the bill were all the same as the first time it came around.

  3. Michelle Loubert says:

    All this to “repeal this law” per the petition, which law wasn’t a law at the time this meeting was called. It wasn’t a law at the time the meeting was held. I continue to question the validity of this meeting. A challenge could happen. The citizen petitioners would have been wise to “rescind the vote” or wait for AG approval and then request to “repeal the law.”
    And use this time to better organize. For the record, I attended the meeting but abstained from voting due to my position on the validity of the Aug 6 meeting. At the very least, this meeting makes for interesting case study.

  4. Susan Pettee says:

    Some opponents to the town purchase of the O’Brien property said that the town’s record with the firehouse and Housatonic School properties is not promising for this proposed purchase. I wish I had pointed out that the O’Brien property, in a residential area (the source of the problem!), would be much easier to sell to build houses on than the other two buildings, that require a speculator/contractor with big plans to remodel and reuse them. As I understand it, the O’Brien trucking operation has a couple of small buildings that could easily be demolished, and the site has no major pollution problems, only a danger of spilled gasoline, which would have mostly evaporated unless O’Brien deliberately spills a lot in the future.

    As a retired lawyer, I am all too aware of the law’s delays and uncertainties Therefore, I was unwilling to require the neighbors of the operation to suffer longer in order for the town to go to court to enforce the existing cease and desist order, which may well be stayed by the court anyway because of the upcoming lawsuit. A friend who is a successful and aggressive litigator told me yesterday that, in his opinion, buying the property was far preferable to continuing to pursue this expensive lawsuit.

    1. Stee Farina says:

      HI Susan,
      I am not against the purchase of the property by the Town, per se. We deserve more information. If the approval was given for the purcase, and the Town expends $20,000 to test the soil and finds it contaminated, we are out $20K and still face litigation. I believe the contract was written such that the Town pays for the testing. There is too much information lacking. For instance, what is to stop GJO from selling to the town, and turning around and buying it back for the $200k predicted as a potential sale amount. They could then take the $100K provided by the town and use it to develop the property – at the expense of the taxpayers. The sales agreemnet contract needs work, and the Town should have a better handle on the actual perceived cost to the taxpayers, and potential dispositions of the property before bringing it up again.
      Additionally, as I mentioned in the meeting, the Select Board chose not to do a mailing to all the registered voters of the Town, therefore an indeterminate number of voters were not even aware the was a Special Town Meeting, let alone a warrant Article seeking to spend over $300,000.
      The Select Board can always prepare the info I suggest, or not, and call for another Special Town Meeting to address it before the 31DEC18 contract expiration. Or, they can attempt to renegotiate the agreement after soliciting more input from the people whose money they are seeking to spend.

    2. Carl Stewart says:

      There is a good argument to be made on both sides of this issue, but I have been a litigator for nearly 50 years and I have seen that capitulating by settling may make sense in the short term but can be unwise in the long run. The “surrender” sends a message to at least some potential litigants that simply be instituting a lawsuit they are likely to “win” regardless of the merits of their claim. For what it’s worth, it is the stated reason why our glorious 45th President never settles. (Of course that statement, as well as a few thousand others by Mr. Trump, is a lie. He has settled many hundreds of lawsuits over the years because it was the sensible thing to do.)

      1. Susan Pettee says:

        You may be right. I thought that Great Barrington did not have so many obnoxious scofflaws that relieving the aggrieved neighbors of O’Brien’s depredations would be a problem. After last night’s meeting, I am not so sure.

      2. Patrick Harrington says:

        @Susan You know to respond to scofflaws and bullies don’t you? You get them on the ground and you don’t let them get up, figuratively speaking.

    3. Paul says:

      Thank you for that comment. I noticed there were very few/no real vehement vocal objectors last night on the land purchase. It was clearly much more of uncertainty and not really being familiar (in detail at least) with the matter at hand (which is disappointing in of itself that people vote w/o having the story).

      The fact that this neighborhood was not given public comment/hearing 20+ years ago to weigh in on this land use and impact (and when many of the long-time residents were here then), it’s disappointing that so many others in Town now get the opportunity to do so – when the locals at ground-zero have literally spent the last year + working the topic and Town government, which of course is subsequent to all the prior iterations of the same fight neighbors waged in years gone by.

      It’s easy to see why so many of them lost hope. The Business does whatever it wants. The Town does nothing. And now the Town voters give no actionable support to end either.

      It was clear to me that many last night need to actively learn about the realities of what these residents are subjected to daily/nightly. Reach out to those locals, walk the neighborhood and ask them.

      Just watch out for the toxic diesel dump trucks and other commercial vehicles while there.

      Purchase idea is far from ideal , but likely the best option all around. Now the Town will spend on legal with no guarantee of outcome, or timeline. More of the same for neighborhood since Town doesn’t even enforce their own bylaws or Ruling. Such a pity.

      1. John says:

        As far as I know, the 35 neighbors can simply by the property themselves at 400,000. Their complaints can permanent go away in the time that it takes to close. A very easy solution.
        Boom, done.

  5. Michelle Loubert says:

    Regarding the land purchase and getting the business out of this neighborhood, I ask, what if O’Brien moves the business in another GB or Housatonic neighborhood? Will the Town come to that neighborhood’s rescue if they, too, plead for help? What if the residents of this neighborhood are not of the economic means to buyout the business or sue? What then? Are those citizens on their own? I rarely agree with Karen Smith but she was correct last night…this purchase will not solve the problem since this business owner will continue his business practices elsewhere and to someone else’s misery. In short, the town would simply pass the headache on to someone else. This is not good governance.

    1. Jan Wojcik says:

      The point is that this is a residential neighborhood where the ZBA has repeatedly abdicated their responsibility and never committed to what variance is allowed in that neighborhood.
      Ed May has not been been supported by the TM or the ZBA and as a result GOB, LLC has taken advantage of the situation and made it his primary repair and stock yard for his plow-trucks and his rent-a-truck side business dba Irish Trucking.
      The neighborhood deserves better support and the towns folk also deserve a competent local government.
      It’s time to drain the swamp and have more common sense dictating the rules of engagement.

  6. Frank Bolson says:

    I was hoping Mr. Farina was going to get up earlier to speak. I’m sure he was being polite by letting others go. It does seem odd to me that he usually gets cut off. For me, he usually sees both sides and looks for facts and resolution on matters. My opinion anyway. I found the moderators distasteful when people were clapping in support of each other. Isn’t this a town meeting? Don’t we come out to support each other? We probably added a whole 2 minutes clapping. As for the O’Brien property.. I agree with Karen Smith 100%. And as far as I’m concerned. WHY is anyone supporting his business?

    1. Peter says:

      @Frank, re: Property purchase – – Thank you! Please do anything you all can to help this neighborhood & these residents. No one else cares about them. Not at least for the last 20+ years.

    2. Steve Farina says:

      Thank you for the kind words Frank. Honestly, I waited until later purposefully. I carry a vast amount of knowledge on the subject in my head. I did not bring notes or a computer presentation. My intention was to see all the information laid out and address is with the facts. In my neivity I thought we were ready as a community to move beyond the “call the question” crap, and let everyone speak. I actually heard the gentleman who issued it shout it from his seat and realized I needed to get in line in before he did. And, I did. He proceeded to cut to the front of the line. I have no doubt in my mind that he knew what he was doing. There had not been two lines for some time at that point in the meeting and he knew it.
      I am frustrated and upset that I did not have a chance to share, and that others were robbed of the opportunity too. You and everyone there would have heard some things I have shared here on The Edge, as well as information which would likely be new to many. Oh well.

  7. Craig Okerstrom-Lang says:

    From my view in the audience last night, you lost control of the town meeting; very disappointing.

    I’ve attended most town meetings since moving here in 1990 and they were all moderated by Ed McCormick. You are a relatively new moderator for our town and it has been nice to see a change.

    I attended last night’s Town Meeting and you let it get out of control. It was very disappointing to see how you handled things.

    Firstly your idea of having those for or against the bottle ban warrant article stand on either side of the microphone, immediately divided the audience even more.

    One of the owner’s of Guidos, who lives in Richmond, was in line to speak (you gave him permission ahead of time) but you embarrassed and disrespected him by declining him to speak. You allowed people to “cat-call him” and told him to “sit down”. Apparently you did not make it clear to him that he could speak AFTER any voters spoke.

    While you let about 15 people speak who were standing in line, you allowed a man to jump from the line to the front and make a motion to move the vote. That stopped the 15 or so people who were patiently waiting their turn to speak.

    You as Moderator have control the town meeting room and floor. We had police officers right there and they would have confirmed that he jumped the line. It would have been very easy to say to that man that he was out of order and to await his turn to speak. Steve Farina was correct in saying “that was out of order”.

    So the bottle warrant article went to vote and voters filed out.

    You did not encourage the crowd to stay for the remaining warrant articles. You lost so many potential supporters of the O’Brian property warrant article who simply walked out of the room. I believe that article would have passed if the voters stayed in the rooom.

    Hopefully you can learn from this and have control of future town meeting floors.

    1. Jan Wojcik says:

      I would agree … The incident with the guido’s owner was an embarrassment to the town.
      He was right in calling it like a Trump rally.. all crass and no class.

    2. Michael Wise says:

      Craig: I did not realize you had made this an open letter, when I responded a moment ago to what I thought was a personal e-mail.

      The reason to set up alternating speakers was to be sure that all sides would be heard. At the May meeting, the debate led off with series of coordinated presentations. Only one opponent had managed to get to the microphone by the time the question was called. The two-line idea was an experiment intended to prevent that lopsidedness, which I thought worked reasonably well last night for about a half hour but then did not. The speaker who made the motion to call the question last night was not technically “out of order”, that is, acting inconsistently with the rules of procedure for the meeting; rather, at his position to the right side of the microphone, he appeared to me to be the next person in line to speak as a proponent of the motion.

      After the May meeting, I heard concerns that people who weren’t Great Barrington voters were prominent presenters yet several actual voters were cut off from speaking. In response to that concern, I said that at this meeting I would recognize Great Barrington voters first to be sure they had a chance to be heard. Five non-voters asked for and were given permission to speak, and they were told before the meeting about this order of presentations. Last night, I thought I told the speaker from Guido’s that he could be recognized after the GB voters in line had spoken. That certainly was the intention, and I believe he stayed in the line waiting for that chance.

      Speaking personally, I would have preferred that the meeting had heard everyone out. But the town meeting has the power, and the right, to decide otherwise, and it did. There are several things I wish I had done better last night, some of them involving trying to control too much, others, too little. As I said in my response to Carl Stewart’s comment, I am open to advice; I’m still learning this job.

  8. Shawn says:

    boycott O’Brien services?

    1. Frank Bolson says:

      Yes indeed. It SHOULD Of started there a long time ago. His behavior towards the town and it’s citizens is reprehensible.

  9. W.C. says:

    A few observation. First, I have done pro bono work for the Town before never again. However the pollution issues on the site are far more then a little spilled gas, its heavy equipment leaking all finds of fluids for decades I say this with 30 years experience in construction remediation, the costs could be well into 6 figures regardless of the disposition of the property. The “23 residents” should be ashamed of themselves for dragging everyone into this, the Town should enforce the orders and fines do your job. But of course as a couple have said its all Trumps fault, get a life, get over it. Move on to something important like Housatonic water.

    1. Jan Wojcik says:

      We have a town government to maintain rules and regulations for all. that is why we pay taxes. They have failed miserably and It is they who should be ashamed.
      The “23 residents” are requesting that the town own up to it’s failure and address them and we will never apologize for that.
      I suppose that you would advocate that we bail out a private water company instead and let GOB,LLC flaunt the laws and merrily create another toxic site.

      1. Frank Bolson says:

        Bravo Jan. The residents HAVE gone about this the correct way. The town should be helping them. Isn’t there a thing called cease and desist? The Housatonic water issue is disgusting. Another thing our “elected” officials have dropped the ball on.

      2. John says:

        The site has been in use since the 1930’s, before the expansion of laws and now frivolous litigation.
        The residents of the area are obviously trying to change the landscape, and attempt to improve their property values by bullying both a business and a town, at the expense of all residents.
        So glad a little common sense prevailed and the town residents did not vote to spend everybody’s tax dollars.
        Let’s face it 35 residents, you bought a house and didn’t do your homework. Let’s face it, 35 residents can simply ban together, buy your neighbors property for 11500 each, and make it whatever you want.
        This is like buying a house next to a fire station, and then trying to stop a sirens….

      3. Paul says:

        @John The POV you express is woefully inadequate and lazy.

        It in no way addresses the majority of the residents in this neighborhood that bought and have lived there since the 70s, 60s, 50s (and even earlier). At that time there was a family residence at 11 RR with a family “business” that had a, one! pickup truck. This matter and that property was inadequately managed to and end where this family, residential neighborhood has been held hostage by in inactive, failing approach by Town (historically) and a scofflaw Business owner. What kind of people think that type of land use is appropriate/legal for a residential environment??!

  10. Stephen Cohen says:

    It is always better to let everyone speak on a particular warrant article, if possible. Comments can be limited in time to make sure that everyone gets a chance. After voters (and in Egremont, non voting property owners), have spoken, it is appropriate and probably useful for others who have asked the moderator for permission to speak to be allowed to do so. Those individuals should tell the moderator the details of their proposed remarks and the moderator should determine if their comments are useful for a full debate on the warrant article. If so, they should be allowed to speak. Of course, Egremont is a lot smaller than Great Barrington and the number of citizens who wish to speak at meetings is a lot less.
    The crucial element in town meetings is that everyone walks away feeling the issues were fairly and fully discussed and all points of view were considered. Controlling the meeting, and insuring civility is the job of the moderator.

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