TRURO — At the annual town meeting on April 30, Raphael Richter plans to approach the microphone on the Truro Central School ballfield and air his frustrations with the town’s elected planning board. He will be asking voters, once more, to support a citizen-petitioned article to amend the town’s charter.
This year’s article mirrors the one he presented last year, which was postponed indefinitely and referred to the charter review committee, where it fizzled out. Richter wants the planning board to be appointed by the select board, which, in his view, serves as the “one policy-setting body in this community.” Other boards and committees would then be charged with carrying out goals set by the select board.
“This town meeting body has voted with strong majorities to support affordable and community housing,” Richter said at last year’s town meeting in June. “Unfortunately, despite that being a goal of the town for quite a long time, the planning board continues to undermine that effort.”
He was referring to the lengthy process the board had undertaken to review the Cloverleaf affordable housing project. Nearly a year later, his grievances remain, and at the March 29 select board meeting Richter called the planning board a “shadow policy-setting board” that has been wielding its authority to “slow down, delay, and potentially kill important projects that the town wishes to take on.”
The select board voted 3-1 to recommend the charter change.
Kristen Reed, vice chair of the select board, was galvanized by the town’s mounting housing crisis. “I feel like we’re way past crisis,” she said. “We have an override for firefighters. We are hemorrhaging staff. We’re having retention issues. We’re having recruitment issues. We’re going to potentially offer signing bonuses, and so many of the issues related to our staffing challenges and our businesses not being open this time of year — all is connected to housing.”
Dying in Committee
After Richter presented the charter amendment last June, three members of the charter review committee — Bob Panessiti, Cheryl Best, and Brian Boyle — urged voters to table it until their committee had “the opportunity to look at all the data,” as Best put it. A 114-83 vote indefinitely postponed Richter’s article, and the charter review committee took up the matter.
The 2021 annual town meeting also featured articles that would have changed the status of the zoning board of appeals and the board of health. These were presented by Joan Holt, who urged voters to turn these select-board-appointed committees into elected ones.
“Those articles were directly reactionary to the planning board article,” Richter told the Independent. “They never appeared on the horizon until the planning board articles were submitted.”
Those articles were also indefinitely postponed, and the charter review committee considered them all. But in November, those discussions ended when the committee, in a 4-3 vote, decided to maintain the existing manner of filling seats for all three boards.
That Nov. 22 meeting was divisive. Nancy Medoff, the vice chair of the charter review committee, said there had not been adequate discussion of the merits of an elected versus an appointed planning board. “I would rather see us talk through it before we do anything,” she said.
Best insisted that the discussion was, in fact, underway. “We’re having it now,” she responded to Medoff, “as part of the motion.”
Panessiti asked other members to think about what further data they needed before making a recommendation. “Actually,” Best replied, “it’s not that we don’t have data. We’ve done a lot of work with data. I don’t feel that any of the data is conclusive enough to make these decisions on these committees.” She later added, “I don’t think there’s other data out there that we could gather, frankly.”
Medoff pointed out that Richter’s petition was submitted for a reason. “Why wouldn’t we want to find out why?” she asked.
Boyle said that the committee had held a public hearing, but that event yielded little further information “other than somebody sat down and signed their name to it. That’s a relatively low hurdle,” he said. “So, I have to conclude there’s not a strong feeling about that, which makes me even want to take less action.”
Best wondered if the initiative was fueled by a “personal reason” or a “vendetta” against the committee. “Or did the ZBA not give you the waiver you asked for?” she said. “I don’t believe we should be using the charter as a political instrument. It’s about running the town.”
Boyle, Best, William Golden, and Meg Royka voted to maintain the status quo in the charter. Medoff, Panessiti, and Chris Lucy dissented.
At the March 29 select board meeting, after Richter’s presentation, chair Bob Weinstein said he was disappointed in what he called “the inaction of the charter review committee.” The committee, he said, had promised to address whether the planning board should remain elected or become appointed. “They simply didn’t do it,” Weinstein said. “They were getting into weeds about things that were totally inappropriate or cumbersome.”
“The charter review has had two years to have a discussion and come up with something substantive for the select board,” said Reed. “And they have not delivered that.” She added that she also wanted “a planning board that works in harmony with the select board’s goals and objectives.”
Brian Boyle, chair of the charter review committee, reiterated that he and his colleagues “didn’t have enough information at the time” to recommend a change regarding the planning board.
As for the planning board, Weinstein strongly supported Richter’s article. “We’re all in a lifeboat,” he said. “Right now, what’s happening is we have half the crew rowing toward Boston and the other half rowing toward Portugal. I think it is now time to move forward and have the planning board discontinued in its present form as an elected body.”
Select board member Sue Areson agreed that the planning board had made some missteps, but she said the select board was “unfairly chastising them” to the point of saying, “Oh, we’ll just get rid of them, and we’ll appoint them rather than elect them.”
Weinstein, Reed, and select board member Stephanie Rein voted to support Richter’s article at town meeting; Areson was opposed. The fifth member of the board, John Dundas, was absent.
The measure will appear on the town meeting warrant as Article 50.