The fate of the Marion Town House is as unclear as ever after two-thirds of the voters at the May 14 Marion Annual Town meeting rejected via secret ballot the appropriation of nearly $7.9 million to renovate the historic building.
Once Article 14 was introduced, the chatter began amongst the people packed into the Sippican School resource room while Selectman Norm Hills read the article and then sped through the reading of a prepared statement explaining the article.
Hills said the decision to exclude an article proposing a new $5.1 million town house construction from the warrant and allow only the Town House renovation article was “the selectmen’s responsibility to take action,” calling the Town House renovation article the only “reasonable, well-considered plan.”
Town House Building Committee Chairman Bob Raymond gave an encore presentation of the one he offered at a Board of Selectmen meeting in January to a room packed with many of the same faces that night, overviewing the proposed renovation and breaking down the costs.
Raymond pointed to accusations that the committee was biased in its preference to renovate the existing town house, saying, “We are biased, based on years and years of studies and, eventually, that this was the best [option] for the town.”
The process to explore Town House construction and renovation options began almost a decade ago in 2009 when 12 options were considered, vetted, and whittled down to four. The committee chose this particular renovation project that was poised to move ahead until the Town acquired the old VFW building and property at 465 Mill Street, prompting some to form a subcommittee to explore a new town house construction option for that site.
With the original Town House Building Committee’s option and the subcommittee’s option both set to go before Town Meeting voters, the two remaining selectmen – Jody Dickerson and Norm Hills – jettisoned the new construction article from the warrant on March 20 and brought forward only the Town House renovation article for a Town Meeting vote, a move that angered some residents.
Former town moderator of 35 years David Titus was the first to rise and take to the town meeting floor, making it clear that his decision to step down as town moderator was based solely on his desire to speak on the Town House matter as he did that night.
“I was shocked, disappointed, and very angry … that the selectmen at the last minute deleted [the new town house construction article] from the warrant,” said Titus. “And they did this at the last minute to avoid the possibility of a citizen petition to reinstate the article.”
Titus called the move “self-serving and underhanded,” accusing Hills and Dickerson of being “single-minded in pursuing the option that they have preferred.”
Titus advocated for a single-story town house construction at the ball field between the Town House and Sippican School, a suggestion that Susan Grosart, the sitting chairman of the School Committee during the Sippican School renovation, later said was impossible due to an agreement between the Town and the state to keep the field intact as a condition of the state’s reimbursement of renovation funds.
Titus that night said Elizabeth Taber herself would roll over in her grave if she knew the town was about to spend $7.9 million to renovate an old outdated building, being the shrewd business woman that she was. Others along the way felt Taber would roll over if she knew the town wasn’t prepared to spend the money to save the building.
Resident Dana Anderson said there was no doubt in her mind that renovating the Town House was the right decision, as the Town House is “the cornerstone of our village.”
“This is a plan put together by a blue ribbon committee composed of experts,” Anderson said. “I do not want to see the Town House handed over to a developer, even with restrictions on construction, and I do not want the building to sit and further deteriorate.
“We have kicked this can down the road far enough,” Anderson continued. “The time for us to rebuild is now. Yes, we will be making an investment, but the soul of our town is at stake and I believe it is well worth it.”
The applause Anderson elicited was slightly less rambunctious than Titus’, an ominous sign of the results on the ensuing vote.
Ray Collum, a member of the Marion Master Plan Subcommittee, said that although he was not against renovating the Town House, he felt the project should be spread out over time – an option he said was a more “planned fiscal approach.”
“It just doesn’t make any sense to me … that we’re not looking at our priorities,” said Collum. “We’re not understanding our priorities…”
At that point, one impassioned resident suggested a motion to implore the use of a secret paper ballot to vote on Article 14, acknowledging the divisive nature of the Town House and the precarious position of some residents – namely business owners and friends – who may feel inhibited in openly expressing their vote, a notion that Finance Committee member Alan Minard, who was also co-chair of the subcommittee exploring a new town house construction on Mill Street, upheld.
Candidate for Board of Selectmen William “Dale” Jones said he was willing to “stick his neck out” in public support of Article 14, “…And I think the other people should be able to do that too.”
“We should respect the views of the people who are concerned about whether they will be subjected to pressures,” said Rob Lane, who also co-chaired the new town house option subcommittee.
A resounding ‘aye’ followed in favor of a secret ballot, and Minard brought the discussion back to Article 14, lamenting the absence of what would have been Article 15 for a new town house construction.
“We will not learn about, discuss, or have the chance to vote on [another option],” said Minard. “[The two selectmen] disenfranchised thousands of voters in Marion, forcing you to vote this article down if you wanted to have a voice…. That to me is a travesty.”
Minard urged voters to reject the article, saying, “This country was founded on the principle that every person gets a vote…. We will send a message that we will not accept that … action [by elected officials].”
Minard again said Marion was ranked No. 7 in the Commonwealth for highest debt per capita and that accruing further debt would bring down the Town’s AAA bond rating, prompting Marion’s Finance Director Judith Mooney to refute Minard’s claim.
Mooney said Minard’s source of information was inaccurate, and Marion ranks 131stamongst the 351 municipalities for debt per capita.
“We’ve increased our revenue, our reserves … they’ve gone up actually forty percent since 2014. Our OPEB liability has gone up two hundred fifty percent. Free cash … reserve stayed steady…. I don’t foresee any downgrading (of the bond rating) at all.”
Speakers that followed said Titus had stolen the words out of their mouths, upholding that the selectmen essentially took the right of the voters away when they struck Article 15 from the warrant.
“The process is an embarrassment, folks,” said Andrew Santos. “It’s our citizens’ right to govern our future and to govern our community. This right was taken away from us.”
As this point, some had tuned out the discussion as they crocheted, played solitaire on their phones, and browsed store catalogs.
Resident Lee Vulgaris motioned to table the article, which failed 185-142 after a hand count proved less than the two-thirds required vote.
Candidate for Board of Selectmen Joseph Zora proposed putting aside the Town House project until the financial conundrum of the wastewater treatment was solved.
“We don’t have to do this cost right now,” Zora said.
Voters were given an orange paper – the word ‘Yes’ was printed on one half and the word ‘No’ was printed on the other half. Voters tore the paper in two and placed their answer into a cardboard makeshift ballot box. An ‘X’ was drawn onto their orange registered voter cards so that no one could vote twice.
Residents mingled as the lines slowly lessened in length. Many cast their ballots and left the school before the results were announced – 120 in favor, 214 opposed.
Being 10:00 pm, the moderator adjourned the meeting and continued it for the following night.
In a follow-up, Dickerson said that when it comes to capital projects, the Town has only ever put forward one option on the warrant, citing the Sippican School renovation and the police station projects.
“As elected officials, we have to make some tough decisions, and this was a tough decision,” Dickerson said. “We’ve never gone with two plans, and with the information that we received, we believed that this one was in the best interest of the town.
“The people have spoken and I one hundred percent respect their decision.”
By Jean Perry