WHITMAN – The timing of a debt exclusion vote on the Whitman Middle School building project is still an open question, as the Select Board works through the process of deciding when to schedule a vote and how many ballots would be involved.
The Board on Tuesday, March 21, again discussed whether a separate election day should be set for a school funding vote, or whether it could be included on another voting day, since 2024 is also a state Presidential Primary election year.
The Board is slated to take up the issue again at its Tuesday, April 4 meeting.
“I’m most curious on what the impact would be on your department, either holding a special Town Election before a Presidential Primary – when we’re probably already early voting – or is it possible to have it concurrently with a single, two-ballot election?” Select Board member Justin Evans asked Town Clerk Dawn Varley.
Varley strongly cautioned against scheduling it for the same day as a March Presidential primary election day, because that election always involves more than two ballots.
“You’ve got three parties, then you have absentee/early voting ballots,” she said. “Now there’s six ballots, then you have the debt exclusion ballots, plus, that has to have an absentee ballot, so you’re talking about my office juggling eight ballots.”
A special election in conjunction with the annual Town Election is the simplest, cheapest way to accomplish the goal, Varley said, describing it as a “whole election,” including both ballots. She said if the town can’t wait that long, the best alternative is a special election.
“My position has always been that I think we need to look at what draws more of the voting population out,” Chair Randy LaMattina said. “We have to look at this and say, consistently, we have more voting population brought out during a Presidential Primary.”
Vice Chair Dan Salvucci agreed.
“The voices of as many town residents that we can get on the vote is the main thing,” he said.
Evans said the turnout numbers are certainly higher on the Presidential primaries, but in years where one party did not had a competitive primary, the numbers are more in line with an debt exclusion election.
Member Shawn Kain said the decision should hinge on whether it is the right thing to do.
“I’m not concerned with more work and more money,” he told Varley. “If it’s the right thing to do I think we can find a way to help you out.”
Varley said she was more concerned about confusion.
“The whole process is very confusing,” she said.
“A single day, two-ballot election is disastrous, especially with it being a Presidential Primary,” Varley said. “What happens is, you basically run two elections. You have to have two check-ins … You can’t “sell” the ballot [ask people if they want a school election ballot when a person asks for a primary ballot]. … I would strongly recommend not to do that.”
Presidential primaries generally have a higher turnout – 34 percent in 2000, 16 percent in 2004 – and in 2002, 22 percent of Whitman voters cast ballots in an initiative for the Fire Department. Other override elections have had turnouts in the range of 39 to 48 percent, however.
Varley said that her only requirement would be 35 days’ notice in which to schedule a vote.
“If it’s advertised – which I think it would be – and the interest is there, you would have the voters come,” she said.
Town Administrator Mary Beth Carter said having a single election with two ballots would save the town the cost of a separate election in some ways, and would reimburse some costs, but not for two elections.
The town does not use check-out tables any more. The town also “owns” the school referendum ballot, she said, explaining Whitman wouldn’t obtain state reimbursement for election costs and early voting would also be required because the state permits it for the primary.
Varley said mail-in ballots for absentee voting in the school election would have to be mailed separately with different labels on them. She also has them printed on different colored paper along with the needed instructions.
It would also not be possible to know – or check – to see if the ballots were put in the wrong directions, she said, adding that Town Clerk staff would not be permitted to switch ballots if they believe ballots are in the wrong envelopes.
In the last election using two separate ballots, Varley said she mailed them out separately about a week apart to help with confusion, but early ballot depositing would also necessitate the rental check-in machines to maintain separate voting lists for each ballot.
A person voting in the primary, however, could return to Town Hall to cast a vote in the school vote, because they are separate elections.
Evans asked if it would be possible to schedule the special Town Meeting required before the school project goes to the ballot, in early enough before the MSBA vote in the fall before to capture the remaining excess levy before the tax rate is set.
That would be sometime in late September, according to Building Committee member John Galvin. He and Evans both made the point that the Board could schedule the process early enough to provide the 35-day window to schedule the special election, and permit the special Town Meeting on the ballot question for 14 days before that.
Galvin said both the owner-project manager on the Whitman Middle School project, and the designer said the full financial documents could be available to the Select Board in time for an end of September Town Meeting.
Both would take place before the final MSBA vote.
“We have been told by both the OPM and the designer – the MSBA meeting is on Oct. 26 – but the meeting is pretty much a celebratory meeting,” Galvin said. Whitman would not even be scheduled for that meeting if the answer was going to be no.
Carter said she was not sure if the excess levy capacity could be known by November.
“It is definitely an artistic science,” Galvin said.
Kain said any confusion about the timing of a vote would not be helpful.
In other business, Fire Chief Timothy Clancy gave his regular COVID-19 report, saying the town had only 11 cases out of 227 tests performed, for a positivity rate of 4.85 percent.
“This number is remaining steady … since two weeks ago when it went down 50 percent,” he said. “Overall, we are trending down with our COVID numbers.”
The town has also been approved for the wastewater testing machine, which will help with the monitoring of COVID levels in wastewater.