Leverett still measures its campaign seasons in minutes not months
LEVERETT—It’s the only municipality in the US named Leverett, and residents of this small Massachusetts town like to think it’s unique. Leverett was one of the first places in the country to officially call for the repeal of certain provisions of the 2001 USA Patriot Act. As one of the state’s most liberal communities, it gave Democrat Shannon O’Brien her third-highest percentage of the vote in the 2002 gubernatorial election and produced the third-highest share of the tally in favor of preserving the state’s income tax. There is a petition on this year’s town meeting warrant asking the United States and other governments to support nuclear non-proliferation.
Leverett Quick Facts
“It seems like Leverett is a community that doesn’t follow the pack in one way or another,” says Leverett Board of Selectmen Chairman Fenna Lee Bonsignore, a retired pharmacist who has served on the board for 18 years and was on the school committee before that.
Still, the selectmen are mulling whether to hold public meetings this fall to discuss adopting what has become the usual way of electing town officers in Massachusetts. “Our procedure of nominating people from town meeting floor is antiquated,” says Selectman James Perkins. “I think we need to change it.”
Residents elect people to about a dozen offices at every year’s open town meeting. The board of selectmen has three members, each with a three-year term, so one is up for election or re-election every year. The town’s assessors, moderator and assistant moderator, members of the board of health and the finance committee, library trustees, town clerk, and tree warden also serve various terms, with some posts needing to be filled each year.
For most positions, elections are uncontested. But if more than one person for the same office receives nominations from the floor, the town clerk writes out a ballot by hand, drawing a box next to each nominee’s name, then runs off as many photocopies as needed in the school’s administrative office. At the same time, residents line up in the school gymnasium, where election workers check off their names on a voter registration list. When the clerk returns, the ballots are distributed and residents cast them.
This all makes Leverett elections very neighborly, almost quaint. The problem is, residents come to town meeting not knowing for sure who will be running for the various offices, since not all candidates announce beforehand. Residents who want to research a candidate’s views or qualifications before casting a vote are at a disadvantage. Furthermore, it’s impossible to provide absentee ballots to anyone unable to attend town meeting, since no one knows who the candidates will be.
In a recent community newsletter, Lisa Stratford, town clerk for the past six years, warned of “stealth candidacies,” residents who hide their intention to run for office until the town meeting is underway.
“The atmosphere at town meeting is very casual and relaxed,” says Stratford, in an interview. “There is a lot of chatting going on. It’s not the way I would run an election at Town Hall.” In every other community, campaigning within 150 feet of the polling place is prohibited, as is wearing campaign pins or buttons inside the polling place. “The town can’t enforce a lot of these rules because we have not accepted the Town Ballot Act,” says Stratford. As a result, she says, “I think some people have figured out how to manipulate the system.”
“We are thinking that maybe it is time to conform,” says Stratford. “As much as the way we vote in town is unique and it’s fun most of the time, I think it can be very hurtful at times, as it was this year. One candidate was caught off guard. He didn’t realize there was an organized effort to oust him.”
Once a working-class mill town, Leverett began to change in the 1960s, gaining a student population, thanks to the rapid expansion of the University of Massachusetts in bordering Amherst. Soon afterward, pioneers of the back-to-the-land movement, including artists, craftspeople, and organic farmers, also settled in Leverett and surrounding Franklin County. Now the town has a striking mix of homes, from trailers to Yankee Candles founder Michael Kittredge’s mansion, which includes his own health club and Olympics-size pool.
Leverett claims to be home to first Japanese Buddhist “peace pagoda” built in the country, and the town has an array of religious institutions, including a Congregational church, two Baptist churches, a Quaker meeting house, a Cambodian Buddhist Temple, and the Gura Ram Dass Ashrum Community. (Leverett’s Catholics go to church elsewhere, however, mostly in Amherst.) The police chief, who is on disability leave, is an American Indian who favored an all-black SWAT-team-style uniform to patrol the woodsy town. The acting chief, Kelson Ting, is a Chinese-American, and his part-time deputy is Cambodian.
But as inclusive as the town considers itself to be, politics here can turn ugly. The intensity of some recent contests—especially those involving the board of health—have led some to argue that the town needs a more structured process to keep elections fair.
A few years ago, the five-member health board split over how much asbestos abatement and radon testing should be done at the elementary school, which was then undergoing an extensive renovation and expansion. There were also conflicts over installing carpet in the school (some residents were wary of the chemicals carpeting is treated with) and over where to locate the septic system’s leach field. At the time, the board of health’s chairman was Glen Ayers, a soil scientist who advocated the strictest possible environmental standards in renovating the school. For his troubles, he was the victim of what he calls “a slimy smear campaign” in 2001.
“A phone tree was established making a lot of phone calls, talking to people who really did not know that much [and saying] that I was trying to stop the school project,” Ayers says. There were allegations that he was trying to stop the renovation and expansion project in its tracks. “There is nothing farther from the truth,” he says. “But I would not compromise on children, period.”
At the time, however, Ayers had no idea of the extent of the campaign against him. At town meeting, Paul Bourke and John Prebis were nominated from the floor. Neither candidate had made public statements about their intentions to seek elective office prior to town meeting. Bourke won, and Ayers learned a bitter lesson about small-town politics.
“It turned out to be a total blessing,” Ayers says. “I’m sure there are weeks when I put in 40 hours a week, in a volunteer job. You accept the grief when you take a small-town public office.”
The health board has also been torn apart over septic-tank regulations. Leverett doesn’t have a public water or sewer system, and there has been ongoing conflict over whether to scale back the town’s unusually tight regulations on septic tanks so that they conform to the state’s standards, known as Title 5. Bourke, who is a home builder, and others argue that the state standards are stringent enough, and that the town is risking lawsuits from developers by going beyond them.
But at town meeting this past April, the balance of power on the health board shifted again. Bourke was ousted by Chris Kilham, an adjunct soil science professor at UMass. Kilham, who was supported by former board member Ayers, is opposed to changing the town’s standards because he fears the contamination of the groundwater. (Ayers concedes that some people don’t want to change the standards simply “because they don’t want to see any more houses built.”)
Some people complained that a letter in support of Kilham, sent to everyone in town, was deliberately timed to arrive the day before town meeting, catching voters, not to mention Bourke, off guard. The mailing was anonymous—which would be illegal if Leverett were bound by the Town Ballot Act. Stratford says that, as far as she knows, it was the first time during her 10 years as town clerk that such a mailing was sent to voters.
It’s still far from clear whether the necessary two-thirds of voters will approve a proposal to change the way elections are held, which could be put to town meeting October 26. Moderator Gary Gruber, for one, wouldn’t support it.
“I don’t think you’re going to know your candidates any differently if they are nominated two weeks before or if they get up at town meeting,” says Gruber. “If someone wants to become known in town, it’s relatively simple. If you’re really serious, you spend two consecutive weekends at the transfer station and you get to meet most everybody.” After all, that’s where sixth-graders hold bake sales to raise money for class trips, calling their makeshift eatery the Dump Days Café.
Gruber says nothing that has gone on with the board of health is any reason to revise Leverett’s elections. There is always tension somewhere in town government, he says, usually having to do with schools or public works, which together account for most of the town’s budget.
“Is there going to be less tension if you have an election or if you have the nominations off the town meeting floor?” Gruber asks. “I honestly don’t know.”
But others think it’s time to make a change. Though she says she never would have run for selectman if she had had to file nomination papers and run a campaign, Bonsignore thinks that having elections separate from town meeting would be more democratic. Longtime residents wary of approving costly projects don’t go to town meeting, she speculates, because they know they’re outnumbered.
“They feel they’re going to be outvoted anyway,” she says. “Don’t forget, our tax rate is very high. Everything we vote at town meeting is reflected in our tax rate.”
Clifford Blinn, 87, agrees. Born and raised in Leverett, Blinn was a tree-cutter before he went to work at the now-shuttered Greenfield Tap and Die works, and he served as a selectman 40 years ago.
“Town meeting today is different than it used to be,” Blinn says. “Most of the people don’t want to come and stay all day waiting for things to come up. So, really, the only ones that come are the ones that want something passed. I don’t think it makes for good representation.”
He says more people might turn out for elections if it were a simple matter of casting their votes and going home. As it is, he says, residents who go to town meeting don’t necessarily know who they’re voting for, or what they stand for. Blinn says he used to know almost everyone in town; now he figures he knows 10 percent of a more transient population.
“They’re here for a few years and then they’re gone,” he says. “They come and they want city ways, and then they go.”Twice before, there have been pushes to change Leverett’s voting ways, the last time in 1990. “This is Leverett’s only claim to uniqueness,” then-town administrator Jane Davis said at the time.
“People were just against it. They wanted to keep it the way it was,” says Blinn. “In the past, I’ve been 100 percent against it, but the way things are going now, I’m not sure.”