Andover division on display at special town meeting

Mike Meyers, a 69-year-old resident of Andover, found a way to use town meeting to voice his displeasure with the way his community is being run.

Meyers gathered enough signatures to call a special town meeting Tuesday night where he put forward six articles to rein in the power of town officials, particularly Town Manager Andrew Flanagan. Two of the articles passed, despite warnings from town officials that they were illegal, and four went down to defeat.

Still, Meyers felt he successfully used New England’s quirky form of direct democracy to make a statement. He was upset that Flanagan in 2021 fired Bill Fahey, the town’s youth services director, for what Flanagan called improper conduct with a young woman who worked for him. Fahey has denied any impropriety, and he was never charged with anything.

Meyers said the allegations against Fahey were rubbish. He says Flanagan has also forced out others who work for the town and created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation at town hall. Meyers said the six articles, which covered a wide range of issues, were intended to send a message to Flanagan and other town leaders that they can’t run Andover like a fiefdom.

“They don’t want any public input into what they’re doing,” he said.

Hundreds of people gathered at Andover High School to vote on the articles. Town officials, sitting at a raised dais, had the upper hand as they were allowed more time to make their case than the articles’ proponents. But Meyers also had a few tricks up his sleeve. 

One of the articles directed the town to give $800 stipends to educational support professionals, including instructional assistants, cafeteria workers, and custodians. Meyers said the article was a good idea on its own, but it had the added benefit of enlisting a large chunk of town residents to his side.

Town officials said the $800 stipends were illegal because the collective bargaining process was the only avenue for providing compensation to town employees. 

Andrew Flanagan, the town manager in Andover. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

Several town residents who supported the stipends said they didn’t know if it was illegal or not, but they urged a yes vote anyway to send a message to town officials to listen to what residents want. 

The measure passed 250-231.  

Meyers said he wanted the stipend article to be considered at the end of the night, but town officials moved it to the first item of business. Meyers said many of the town’s workers left after the article passed, which made passage of the other articles more difficult.

An article calling for the town to hire a firm to anonymously survey town workers on the performance of the town manager and school superintendent went down to defeat 280-127.

A third article prohibiting the use of non-disclosure agreements promoted a spirited debate. Town resident Mary Lyman, a proponent of the measure, said there had been eight non-disclosure agreements but no explanation of what they were for.

“We want transparency. We want accountability. We want to know how our tax dollars are spent,” she said, 

Flanagan said the town offered to release the agreements in seven of the eight cases, but the former workers who signed them wanted them to be kept secret. He said none of the non-disclosure agreements involved financial settlements.

Town meeting passed the prohibition on non-disclosure agreements by a voice vote. 

The other three measures, all of which were defeated, called for using $1 million of the town’s free cash on additional mental health services, releasing details of all no-bid contracts or agreements greater than $10,000, and scrapping the town’s plan for spending $10.9 million in federal COVID relief funds and starting the process over with more public input. 

Flanagan said after the meeting that he appreciated the nature of the debate over the articles. “It’s clear the community is passionate about a number of different things. The burden is on us to continue to inform and engage residents in the areas where they feel they haven’t been engaged. There’s a lot we can learn from that,” he said. “For the people that did vote against the articles, I appreciate the faith they have in what we’re doing. And those that passed, we’ll review and look at next steps.” 

Meyers was disappointed with the outcome, but he is not giving up. He says he may gather enough signatures to hold another special town meeting in the fall.

BRUCE MOHL

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

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OPINION

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