ROCKPORT — It’s the New England way.
That is, citizen participation is part of the democratic tradition of New England and that notion was evident at Rockport’s Special Town Meeting last week.
Certainly, the work of town boards like the Board of Selectmen and Planning Board as well as the efforts of Town Administrator Mitchell Vieira were all critical to the planning and operation of the meeting.
But the purest form of democracy – Town Meeting democracy – was also evident with resident voters offering up a slew of amendments to many of the warrant’s 18 articles, 15 of which focused on zoning.
Time and time again residents stepped up to the microphone to either voice support for or disdain for specific zoning articles. In addition, about a dozen amendments were offered during the meeting by residents.
Certainly, the many amendments made to the warrant articles under consideration made for a long evening in the gymnasium at Rockport High School.
But for those who love democracy, they would have it no other way.
“It’s not only legitimate but it’s essential to our rights as citizens,” said resident Toby Arsenian, who himself offered as many as six amendments. “If people can’t make the amendments, it’s a choice between what (town officials) have to offer and nothing. I say rough luck.”
Resident Amy Seabrook said the meeting last Wednesday got testy at times. She said the fear exists that the proposed bylaws will possibly open the door for development not suitable for Rockport.
“There was some discourse and some people were upset,” Seabrook said. “But we’re really all neighbors. It’s so fundamental that we have other ways to communicate. I have this goal in my life where we can break through all this vitriol.”
In all, six zoning bylaw articles were approved by Special Town Meeting.
The meeting, slated to start at 5:30 p.m., formally kicked off at 6:01 p.m. when enough voters to meet the quorum arrived. But when a quorum count was called for and not met about 9 p.m., Town Moderator Robert Visnick ended the meeting.
Visnick said the outstanding zoning questions on the warrant would possibly be taken up at annual Town Meeting, tentatively scheduled for April 1.
But the amendments to the articles were part of the reason the meeting lasted as long as it did.
Article F, for instance, was designed to update the definitions of words that appear throughout the bylaws, according to Planning Board Chair Jason Shaw. He said this article helped define the existence of inns in town.
Six amendments were offered to counter Article F, all of which ultimately failed. After much discussion, the Town Meeting body eventually approved the article by 83%, surpassing the two-thirds majority required for passage.
Arsenian said that according to the town’s Code of Bylaws (Section 3: Preparation for Town Meeting), amendments to the articles on the Town Meeting warrant must be submitted in writing 48 hours prior to the meeting.
He said he believes the provision is wrong.
“That doesn’t belong at any Town Meeting,” said Arsenian. “I’m dead-set against that.”
Arsenian said he submitted 11 amendments before the deadline. Of those, he actually offered six at the meeting, he said, before the gathering was shut down.
A number of citizen amendments were ruled out of order by Visnick.
But Arsenian suggested those who want to propose amendments need to be heard.
“Many people lead busy lives,” he said. “At the last moment, you may be inspired to offer an amendment. It deprives of citizens something that ought to be their right.”
Visnick actually proposed the bylaw that calls for amendments to be made prior to Town Meeting, which was approved in 2017.
“The intent was if they really want their amendment acted on, to get it in on time so it can be contemplated by town counsel” Visnick said. “To offer an amendment at that time just makes everybody stop. It’s a discretionary call by the moderator.”
Visnick, who has been town moderator since 2006, said his goal is to encourage participation at the meeting. But sometimes, he said, the discourse at last week’s special gathering became vitriolic.
“That meeting was tough,” he said. “It was hard to maintain order.”
In a Jan. 24 letter to the editor of the Times, Denise Donnelly, a member of the Rockport Select Board, said trying to understand zoning matters is not easy.
“I humbly invite all of you who feel strongly about these matters to attend some Planning Board meetings,” Donnelly writes. “Every Planning Board member is a volunteer who lives in Rockport. They are not professional planners or developers and they have no personal financial or other interest in the outcome of the zoning changes they propose.
“They approach this subject with the same passion for this town that each of you possesses.”
For her part, resident Amy Seabrook suggests that additional discussion needs to take place around Rockport zoning matters, adding panel talks related to housing matters could do the trick.
“The potential is now, before the building has started,” she said. “We all know that deep down we can plan this now. We don’t need legislators to plan it. We need to plan it in our living rooms.”
Stephen Hagan can be reached at 978-675-2708 or at email@example.com.