Walpole tackles football bleachers and the Patriot Act

WALPOLE – “I know some people don’t want to hear this, but I just don’t see the greater benefit to the entire population of the town,” says Lee Ann Bruno, a lifelong Walpole resident and a thirtysomething mother of two, on a Tuesday evening in early May. She’s talking about new bleachers for Walpole High School’s Turco Field, and her bluntness provides a break from nearly an hour of talk about building codes, attendance at football games, and other relevant but mundane data. Most of the articles on this year’s town meeting warrant are noncontroversial – a new coat of paint for the water tower, the correction of a few typographical errors in the town bylaws – and are passed with unanimous or near-unanimous votes after little discussion. But two issues stand out for the passion they engender among Walpole town meeting representatives. One is a proposal for new bleachers; the other, a move to register opposition to the USA Patriot Act, concerns national security and civil rights. Though very different, they each say something about the town’s priorities – and its identity.

he bleachers at Turco Field were obtained from a now-defunct Norwood racetrack in the early 1970s, and were assembled by football boosters, high school students, and other residents. They have become something of a landmark, but after 30 years of football games and graduations, they have also become a safety hazard; four children have been injured on them during the past few years. After a year of research, a special committee recommended last fall that the town spend $310,000 from its stabilization fund on a new set of bleachers. But the town finance committee, demurring at the expense and the town’s long list of looming capital projects (including a new police station, library, and senior center), instead recommended razing the bleachers for $10,000 and postponing their replacement. That suggestion was quickly withdrawn amid an outcry from residents, including some on the finance committee.

“We cannot have a football team without stands,” said one member at a meeting in late April. “That’s not Walpole.”

So the bleachers ended up on the warrant for the annual town meeting held at the high-school auditorium, which this year has an especially crowded agenda (80 articles instead of the usual 50 or so). Indeed, the issue doesn’t even come up for discussion until the second night, May 4, which begins with a unanimous vote to separate the bleachers from the rest of the capital budget. With the bleachers set aside, that spending plan is presented, debated, and passed in all of 15 minutes.

Then comes a set of parliamentary moves that leaves everyone confused, including town moderator Jon Rockwood. The upshot is that two substitute motions are filed to replace the recommendation of the finance committee that the town take no action on the bleachers. Two selectmen resurrect the special committee’s proposal for new bleachers, but two members of that committee introduce a second proposal, to renovate the existing bleachers at a cost of $298,000.

A wireless microphone makes its way around the auditorium as the debate begins. The first few speakers ask straightforward questions: What will happen to the press box? Will the stands on the visitors’ side be replaced as well? But the discussion soon expands to include more than just the bleachers. Some town meeting members, the finance committee’s misgivings notwithstanding, suggest an even bigger project. “Has anyone looked into the total cost of bleachers, a track, and an all-weather field?” asks Pat Grant, a resident of 25 years who joined town meeting a decade ago, when his children were in the school system. In a wide-ranging monologue, Grant notes that Walpole has “a great tradition that runs out of Turco Field,” one that includes “one of the best football programs” and “the worst track in the Bay State League.” He suggests that the town could save money in the long run by grouping those three projects together and concludes, “I’m not sure I can vote for this [new bleachers] if it isn’t part of a total program.” (He does, ultimately.)

On the opposite end of the spectrum is town meeting member Doris Foley. “We’re talking about what the people want,” she says tersely. “How about a referendum question in June?”

That would mean an override vote. In the weeks leading up to town meeting, the finance committee discussed the possibility of an override to finance the bleachers with a property tax increase above the limit imposed by Proposition 2 1/2, but decided against it. An override for new bleachers would have little chance of passing, they reasoned, and if it failed the committee and town meeting would be back where they started.

“Override,” moreover, is an especially charged word in Walpole, as the town has experienced several heated override debates in the past decade. Two overrides were voted down in the early 1990s, but a $3.1 million measure was approved narrowly on September 11, 2001, of all days. When Foley raises the possibility of an override this time around, Rockwood looks at finance committee chairman Ron Ardine, who looks at Rockwood, who turns the floor over to special committee member Terri Thornton.

Thornton, the sponsor of the motion to renovate the bleachers, delivers a lengthy speech, complete with PowerPoint presentation. The main argument against renovation, she acknowledges, is that any repairs in excess of $45,000 (equal to one-third of the assessed value of the existing structure) would require full compliance with current state building codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act, making restoration an admittedly costly and complicated proposition. But Thornton maintains that new bleachers would be inadequate, since they would have only half the seats of the existing bleachers (about 2,000 as compared with about 4,000 today). Attendance at football games is down from the 1970s and ’80s, she admits, but Walpole’s population and high school enrollment are increasing rapidly. The new, smaller bleachers would not accommodate big football games or graduation ceremonies, she says. More significantly, perhaps, Thornton invokes the bleachers’ sentimental value.

“The townspeople feel an ownership of the current stands,” she says. “They remind the town of the great things we can accomplish when we work together for the common good. Many people worked on those stands” – putting them together – “and they really are passionate about keeping them.”

The discussion goes on to cover what seems like every conceivable issue: the width of each bleacher seat, building codes and variances, the space required for a new track, and revenue brought in by football games. Finally, Lee Ann Bruno weighs in with her opinion.

“Sure, the townspeople would probably be embarrassed if we don’t have bleachers,” she says, “but we don’t have a lot of things. We have a police station that’s been leaking for how many years?” Bruno acknowledges that the condition of the bleachers is an important issue – but not to everyone in Walpole. “I do think it’s a safety issue, and it’s unfortunate, but I don’t see that it affects the entire population. If you put it to an override question, I think that’s the result you would get.”

The replacement-or-renovation debate carries on, until Louis Hoegler, a respected town meeting elder and former town clerk, stands to speak for the first time – and to put an end to the discussion. “I move the question,” he says wearily, eliciting sympathetic chuckles.

After some more parliamentary confusion, the first substitute motion, in favor of new bleachers, is put to a vote. It requires a two-thirds majority to succeed, and gets four votes to spare (79 to 34).

By now, it’s 10:30 p.m. The bleachers debate has taken more than 90 minutes, not including a 25-minute recess. The chairman of the board of selectmen, the town administrator, the chairman of the finance committee, the athletic director, the superintendent of schools, and more than a dozen town meeting members have participated.

As important as the bleachers are to the town, some are left feeling that the time and attention taken by the discussion was all out of proportion to what was at stake. Sounding more resigned than exasperated, Hoegler points out that on the previous night town meeting had approved Walpole’s operating budget with relatively little debate.

“On Monday, we spent $54 million dollars in three-quarters of an hour,” he says. “On Wednesday, it took us two and a half hours to spend $310,000.”

nvolved as it was, the bleacher debate was at least civil. That hasn’t always been the case at Walpole town meeting. Beginning in the 1990s, a series of overrides tied to the school budget bitterly polarized town meeting, pitting residents with school-age children (often relatively recent arrivals to town) against longtime residents who did not care to see property taxes rise. Some of the words town meeting members use to describe town meeting during those years include “ugly,” “personal,” and “vicious.” The unpleasant tone of these debates was memorable enough for Lee Ann Bruno to remark that, as of this spring, “There haven’t been any insults for a couple of years, which is really nice.”

The override battles may have been symptomatic of Walpole’s changing character. Once centered on agriculture and small industry, Walpole became more of a bedroom community as young professionals moved in. And the trend has shown signs of speeding up. Walpole’s population has increased by some 15 percent since 1990, to about 23,000, making it one of the fastest-growing communities in the area.

The insults at town meeting have ceased, but the rifts that the town’s changes have brought into relief – “pro-school” vs. “anti-school,” young vs. old, townies vs. newcomers – are now widely accepted as facts of town life, and of town meeting. Although new bleachers do not inspire the same level of passion in town meeting that multi-million-dollar overrides do, some town meeting members see the town’s underlying cultural divides present in the debate all the same. As Hoegler says of the proposal for new bleachers, “I looked around, and we old guys voted against it.”

he only issue to rival the bleachers in generating interest at this year’s town meeting is a departure from the usual fare. The article, which in advance provoked debate in committee meetings and the opinion pages of the Walpole Times, calls for Walpole’s congressional delegation (i.e., the state’s two US senators and US Rep. Stephen Lynch) to seek the repeal of certain sections of the USA Patriot Act, the federal anti-terrorism legislation passed in October 2001, on the grounds that they violate civil liberties. As of early May, 49 cities and towns in Massachusetts, from Cambridge to tiny Heath (pop. 716), have passed similar resolutions.

The sponsors of the article, veteran town meeting members Philip Czacharowski and Paul Peckham, have a long history of involvement in social justice causes and are active members of the Walpole Peace and Justice Group. They brought a similar article concerning the Patriot Act before town meeting last fall, when it was defeated handily, 79-36.

The latest version of the anti-Patriot Act article is the first order of business on the third night of town meeting. Following the Pledge of Allegiance, selectmen Bill Ryan and Joe Denneen – the same men who filed the substitute motion for new bleachers – move to limit debate on the article to 20 minutes. The motion passes unanimously.

The vice-chairman of the finance committee then gives the routine explanation of the committee’s recommendation. It had voted nine to three, with one abstention, to recommend favorable action – but only after revising the article to exclude statements that the government’s anti-terrorism efforts should not infringe on the civil liberties of US citizens and that civil liberties are threatened by “other associated executive orders and rules,” not just the Patriot Act. “We deleted these sections,” he explains, “because we thought it would take some of the emotion out of this.”

Clifton Snuffer – known for his rhetorical flair – strides to the podium.

From his seat on stage, the chairman of the board of selectmen announces the board’s vote on the new version of the article, five for and none against. A hand in the audience shoots up, and a microphone is brought to selectman Bill Ryan. “The report that was just given by the chairman of the board of selectmen is incorrect,” Ryan says, pausing meaningfully. “Would you care to elaborate?” Rockwood asks. “The vote was four in favor, one against,” Ryan replies.

With that, and with the clock ticking, Czacharowski and Peckham walk to a podium at the front of the auditorium. Czacharowski enumerates the sections of the Patriot Act that, to his mind, violate the Bill of Rights, and he reads a quote from Thurgood Marshall. Peckham follows with examples of people who have been detained under the act, then introduces a guest speaker: a Bridgewater resident and college professor named Ray Ajemian who argued successfully for an anti-Patriot Act article at his own town meeting. Ajemian’s time at the podium is limited to a few rushed minutes, in which he manages to note that he is an Army veteran, that members of his mother’s family were victims of the Armenian genocide, and that Bridgewater is an evolving working-class town much like Walpole.

After Ajemian finishes, town meeting member Clifton Snuffer – known, according to several residents, for his rhetorical flair – strides down the aisle to the podium. (Czacharowski and Peckham, sitting nearby, might be having flashbacks at this point. At the fall town meeting, Snuffer waved aloft a thick stack of paper, which he said represented just a fraction of the Patriot Act’s size, to illustrate what he argued was town meeting’s inability to appraise the law’s merits.)

“Just a few short minutes ago,” Snuffer begins, “we were privileged to turn to this flag and to address our patriotism. How many of you can now reflect on the fact that even that is under attack? What type of a country are we becoming? Do we have… terrorists from within as well as the obvious terrorists from without?”

Snuffer, shifting gears, then turns to the moderator and questions whether the article is even valid. When the town counsel affirms that it is, Snuffer resumes his remarks and praises the efficacy of the Patriot Act as a law-enforcement tool. Some town meeting members clap as he returns to his seat.

Czacharowski, who had grown visibly annoyed as Snuffer’s speech progressed, steps behind the podium to respond. “I take that as a personal affront,” he says. “I think Mr. Snuffer is questioning our patriotism, and I’m actually appalled by that. I believe as citizens that we all have the right to question government policy. No one is questioning our country.” By way of a rebuttal, Czacharowski says that adequate laws for fighting terrorism already exist and launches into a comparison of the Patriot Act with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – but he is gently cut off by Rockwood, who has his eye on the clock.

A voice vote is held, and the nays seem to have it. But then again, the nays seem to have been shouted with more zeal than the ayes – one town meeting member sitting in the second row cupped his hands around his mouth – so Czacharowski asks for a standing count. The ayes stand, look around nonchalantly, and are replaced by the nays, clearly the larger camp.

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The final tally is 63 to 45 against the anti-Patriot Act measure. As soon as the moderator announces the result, photos of potholes and asphalt appear on the projection screen above the stage. Without further ado, the chairman of the capital budget committee begins a presentation on street and sidewalk repairs.

The Patriot Act debate over, town meeting resumes its measured pace, which carries over to a fourth and final night. Attendance declines from night to night, as it usually does, but falls sharply the night after the Patriot Act debate. About 115 town meeting members showed up on the first night, but only about 85 are there on the last night, which is dominated by tedious bylaw changes. Those things need to be done, but they aren’t much of a draw.

Ray Hainer is a freelance writer living in Roslindale.