PROVINCETOWN — In advance of Provincetown’s online forum about the Nov. 9 town meeting, voter Thom Cusack made a plan.
He had only recently found out that the town’s $75-million proposal to provide sewer access town-wide included a new wastewater treatment substation on the soccer field at Route 6 — only 600 feet from his home near the cemetery. Cusack is a hydrogeologist who had just retired from a municipal water and wastewater consulting firm based in Connecticut, and he believed a treatment facility so close to homes was guaranteed to create noxious odors that would affect the quality of life and property values in his neighborhood.
For two days, he prepared for last Wednesday’s online forum. He read all the town’s online materials about the sewer expansion, watched the slide shows from prior forums, and wrote his questions out by hand on a legal pad.
When he logged into the Microsoft Teams meeting early and saw that the “raise hand” feature that allows users to indicate they wish to speak was disabled, he called the town manager’s office. He was assured he would be able to raise his hand and ask his question himself during the question-and-answer period.
As it turns out, not all town forums work that way.
At Wednesday’s sewer session, voters could not raise their hands or ask their questions aloud. Instead, participants had to submit their questions to the town staff members running the forum; staff selected the questions to post into the publicly viewable chat. Town Manager Alex Morse read those questions aloud, and he and sewer consultant John Goodrich answered most of them, with occasional assists from some other town staff members and from AECOM, the engineering firm consulting to the town on the project.
Cusack was disappointed. Then, when his first written question was approved for the public chat, Morse’s spoken version of it was truncated: “We’ve gotten some questions about odor at the treatment facility,” Morse said. The town’s sewer engineers could see and respond to Cusack’s written version. They gave a relatively detailed response about air scrubbers at the new facility.
“Everything is going to be enclosed within tanks and within the building,” said Matt Ribiero, a contractor with AECOM. “The air that is exhausted from the building will be passed over activated carbon scrubber beds to scrub out the noxious odors.”
Ribiero added that methane should not be produced by the facility because there is continuous mixing in the tanks to prevent anaerobic conditions from developing.
Cusack was skeptical about this answer, but he did not get to ask any follow-up questions. And his other questions were not chosen for discussion. His boyfriend, Troy Wood, also submitted a question about the wastewater substation that was put into the public chat but never discussed.
“This forum is just one way of communicating and interfacing with the public,” Morse told the Independent. The town has held three in-person forums on the sewer expansion and it was a topic at many recent select board meetings, all of which included public comment, he added.
“We’ve also visited residents at their homes and in their neighborhoods,” Morse said. “The implication that this was designed in a way to prevent public participation couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Town staff wrote up a 12-page document of questions and answers, Morse said, including many of the questions that were not discussed at the online forum, and posted it to the town manager’s Facebook page on Friday.
Provincetown voter Michael Gaucher was also at the Nov. 2 forum and was also upset that he couldn’t speak. He said he did not find the written answers satisfying.
“The written answers glossed over the real challenges that these questions highlight,” Gaucher said. His question about the financial impact of the sewer project on rental housing, for instance, was met with an answer about a financial assistance program for low-income homeowners — a program that an owner of rental housing would not qualify for.
In the lead-up to the annual town meeting in April, the town conducted an online-only forum on the entire warrant, in which voters did not speak aloud, and an online-only forum on the 10 housing articles, in which participants could raise their hands and ask questions.
In the lead-up to this week’s town meeting, as Morse pointed out, there have been three in-person forums at which people were able to speak in addition to the Nov 2 online forum.
“We’re always looking at ways we can improve upon forums and meetings,” Morse said. “I’m sure we’ll try different formats in the future to see what works best for folks.”