Last week’s annual town meeting in Provincetown was a doozy — an efficient, productive one-night affair punctuated by a 90-minute tornado that swept over the warrant’s three short-term rental (STR) articles.
In the 23 years since my husband and I bought our part-time residence here, I’ve watched from the gallery as voters have engaged in many emotional, heartfelt debates. Rarely have I seen such a combination of opaque procedural rulings, poor parliamentary explanations, bad draftsmanship, lack of coordination among otherwise well-intentioned advocates, inappropriate foul language, and a bad taste left in so many mouths.
Lest we lose sight of the forest for the trees, town meeting produced several important advances for affordable housing in Provincetown. Nearly $3.7 million was approved for various housing initiatives, as were two home-rule petitions on the issue.
Consensus broke down, however, after Town Moderator Mary-Jo Avellar announced that she — and a group she described as “we” — had decided all three STR articles, petitioned by citizens, would be taken up together but then amended, if needed, and voted on separately. I have been sharply critical of the moderator in the past, but in this instance she was well within bounds.
Town Meeting Time, a parliamentary handbook prepared by the Mass. Moderators Association, recognizes the moderator’s authority to change the order of articles. “There are occasions,” notes the handbook, “when common sense or expediency dictates that articles should be considered in a different order from that specified by the selectmen…. Sometimes a relationship between articles unperceived by the selectmen when they put the warrant together suggests a better sequence by the time of the meeting.”
While Ms. Avellar did not literally change the order of the STR articles, she exercised a lesser power and thus presumably acted within her authority. But Town Meeting Time also advises that such power should be exercised “sparingly and only for good cause, stating the reasons clearly and convincingly.” Regrettably, although the moderator stated that if each article were considered separately debate would have to be confined to the specific article before the body, the ensuing discord suggests she was less than clear and convincing in her explanation of that parliamentary point.
Advocates for the STR articles, however, did themselves no favors in preparing for and conducting themselves at the meeting. As a matter of strategy, it made little sense for them not to coordinate their presentations and withdraw one of the two articles that conflicted with each other. They also failed to prepare for what they should have anticipated would be both substantive and procedural assaults on their efforts.
Faced with a motion to indefinitely postpone all three articles, the moderator gave instructions to the advocates that were contradictory, confusing, and at one point even hostile. But a group of 10 voters could have moved for a division of the question, as provided in section 4-2-5 of Provincetown’s bylaws, seeking separate votes on indefinite postponement of each article. Town Meeting Time states such a motion is debatable, meaning advocates would have had the opportunity to persuade voters at least to allow immediate consideration of Article 18, which would have limited newly issued permits to natural persons and to one per owner. A similar regulation has been adopted by Great Barrington and approved by the state attorney general.
The scene last week reminded me of the late Michigan Rep. John Dingell’s remark: “I’ll let you write the substance … you let me write the procedure, and I’ll screw you every time.” It isn’t enough to have justice and right on your side. It helps to learn the rules.
It’s also worth recalling that despite the controversies that enveloped the moderator in 2020 no one stepped up to run against her in 2021. Running unopposed, she received less than 75 percent of the votes cast. If you don’t like the way she runs town meeting, then unite around an alternative in 2024. Otherwise, stop complaining.
Alan Roth is a retired government affairs professional and former staff director and chief counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee. He lives in Lewes, Del. and Provincetown.