WHITMAN — With major debates centering on water meter replacement and a marijuana establishment bylaw, voters at the Monday, Dec. 11 special Town Meeting approved 22 articles on a capital projects and union contract-laden warrant.
Turnout exceeded the 150-voter minimum requirement, with 182 participating via electronic voting devices, which were tested with a question on whether Whitman is the home of the Toll House cookie — 95 percent answered correctly that it is.
Moderator Michael Seele suggested the other 5 percent needed to do some research on the subject, suggesting former state Rep. Kathleen Teahan’s new children’s book, “The Cookie loved ’Round the World.”
“It’s available at Duval’s [Pharmacy] if you want to pick up a copy,” he said.
Seele and Town Administrator Frank Lynam gave high marks to the first foray into electronic voting at town meetings.
“It gives us a nice accurate count,” Seele said after the session. “I think there’s going to be some refinement on it going forward. … We’ll do this again in May. We probably won’t use it on every single vote, just because so many do tend to pass by acclimation, but I think this is going to speed things up when we go to standing counts and secret ballots.”
He said the decision to show votes on-screen by percentages, rather than vote totals was intended to help with the math when two-thirds votes are required.
“I think they demonstrated their usefulness certainly with the vote on marijuana,” Lynam said. “People didn’t have to feel they were being scrutinized when they made their votes.”
The most emotional debate of the evening centered on a General Bylaw amendment, which would prohibit marijuana-related businesses in town.
In the November 2016 election, 54 percent of Whitman residents approved recreational marijuana. Because of that outcome, unless voters took action to change that perspective, as of April 1, the town would be “open for business” for recreational marijuana. Towns that rejected the ballot question face a similar Town Meeting vote next year.
Those in favor of a ban had to vote yes, those who wanted to allow recreational marijuana sales had to vote no. Had the Town Meeting voted to permit the sale of recreational marijuana, that would conclude the issue until the Planning Board could draw up a bylaw defining where that sale would be allowed in town.
“If you vote yes tonight, you are saying you don’t want recreational marijuana shops selling marijuana in Whitman,” said Lynam. “The test for this is a Town Meeting and an election — we’re having the Town Meeting tonight.”
Retired South Shore Regional Vocational Technical High School machine shop instructor Donald Visser said he had opposed the marijuana grow site proposed for Bedford Street, and now on hold.
“Now we’re going a step further and are considering whether we would allow marijuana recreationally to come into our town … in various ways,” he said. “I am strongly opposed to having marijuana come into this town in any form.”
Visser said marijuana is a gateway to other, stronger drugs, especially for youths.
“I have seen kids come into that school, occasionally, that are using marijuana,” he said. “That’s a scary thing.”
Sportsman’s Trail resident Lynne Walton said she felt the bylaw’s wording regarding “any other types of licensed marijuana-related businesses” was vague.
“What else are we getting into?” she asked. “We’re not just talking about some small shop selling marijuana. … This is long-term. This affects us now, this affects our future, this affects our children.”
Peter Sumners, an associate in the town counsel’s office said the provision pertained to any business that cultivates, distributes or sells marijuana.
Others voiced support for such facilities.
“Cannabis has saved my life,” said Easy Street resident Jana Martin, who questioned how many in the audience drink alcohol before Seele admonished her to direct comments to the moderator. “I’m not happy to tell you that, in the past I’ve been on medication,” she said of pot’s benefits for her health.
She argued that, while alcohol is responsible for 88,000 deaths per year, “zero” have been related to cannabis.
“That’s not the issue,” members of the audience shouted.
School Committee member Fred Small referred to information Athletic Director Bob Rodgers has imparted to parents and school officials on marijuana’s effect on developing brains.
“My personal belief is we do not need to encourage the sale of marijuana on the street corners,” Small said. “We don’t need it in our shops and we don’t need it in Whitman.”
An Oakwood Avenue resident, on the other hand, advocated the town “defer to capitalism and see what the free market does.”
While not affiliated with a marijuana business, nor planning to be, he said if there were no demand, it would go away.
Voters supported the bylaw prohibiting marijuana establishments by a 75 percent to 25 percent margin.
Lynam amended Article 2 to reduce the $3.2 million appropriation to $3 million for water gate replacement at routes 18 and 14 and routes 18 and 27 intersections as well as the purchase of new water meters. He said the DPW “feels there is work that their employees can do without contracting out.”
A Woodlawn Circle resident Tina Moniz sought an additional amendment to restrict the article to the water gates alone, citing Lynam’s published comments that between 20 and 25 percent of water purchased from Brockton, for which the town is billed is unaccounted for, “and a lot of that is just water going through the meters that is uncounted.”
“In my personal opinion that just seems crazy to me, that a quarter of the water that our town takes in is lost to just meter issues,” she said. “It sounds to me like they have leaks — or multiple leaks — somewhere in town that we need to get fixed before we approve $1.5 million for water meters.”
She suggested the water gate work might catch the unaccounted-for water and the meter replacement can wait.
“We have been reviewing, discussing and considering this project for seven years,” Lynam said. “Every year, when we get our audited financial statements, one of the criticisms we face is our inability to reconcile water purchases to Brockton.”
He said part of the reason for that is that it takes 30 to 45 days to read meters as well as engineering estimates that the loss in metered water is up to 20 percent and has nothing to do with the water gates where there are no leaks. He expects the town can recover “in the neighborhood of $200,000 of unmetered water with new meters.”
Lynam, answering a resident’s question about whether all water bills could see a 25-percent increase, said that is possible for the small percentage of residents whose meter is now performing poorly.
“If your meter is running close to accurate, you’re not going to see a problem,” he said. Hydrant flushing and occasional main breaks in the system also contribute to water loss.
“It’s a simple operation, we expect to change two meters per hour,” said DPW Highway Superintendent Bruce Martin, representing Water Superintendent Aaron Richardson, who could not attend. He stressed the DPW would be able to conduct day-to-day water use comparisons for residents with billing questions.
Resident Nita Sault agreed that the meters were needed, arguing that new meters can detect leaks very rapidly, but Auburn Street resident Rob Baker countered that a neighbor’s experience led to a $7,000 water bill after their meter was replaced.
“They know how to [install it], but they don’t know how to read a meter,” he said. “They never read it right and he’s been trying to fight it for months. … If we change all the meters in town, we’re going to run into nothing but problems.”
Another resident questioned how much was in water/sewer enterprise reserves and why that couldn’t be used for the $3 million in water gates and meter projects.
Lynam said there would be just under $5 million in reserves after affirmative votes on public works articles and there is also “considerable amount of work” to be done in the sewer system for which the town is counting on those funds. The first year’s payment on the $3 million project will likely come from enterprise funds to capture expected earnings from future billings, which would service the debt, according to Lynam.
Moniz’ amendment limiting the work to water gates failed by a slim margin of 48 percent supporting it and 52 opposed, and the town’s amended article for both water gates and meters was approved by a 77 percent to 23 percent margin.
“I didn’t expect as much discussion,” Lynam said of the water meter debate after the meeting. “I expected some questions, because it’s a lot of money, but I was surprised to see a proposal to eliminate the meters from the purchase.”