HARVARD -- Some articles expected to be controversial sparked discussion but still passed muster, while one was passed over by request on the second and final night of Annual Town Meeting.
With 261 registered voters signed in and 10 articles left on the 53-item warrant, the meeting ended with most motions passed in the two successive sessions.
As on the previous night, the linear progression of the meeting was sidetracked when a couple of articles were taken up out of order.
Article 38: Picking up where he left off the night before, Town Moderator Bob Eubank was set to launch with the proposed dog bylaw amendment when resident Paul Green made the first motion of the evening.
To keep a predictably long and potentially contentious conversation under control, Green moved to limit debate on the proposed dog bylaw amendment to half an hour.
Eubank declared the motion had passed by a majority vote but later called for a count. The motion was defeated, 115 to 76.
"This is not a leash law," Eubank said. But it defines the responsibilities of owners to control their dogs and when there's an incident, lays out actions and remedies the dog officer can take on his own. State law provides recourse to victims via the Board of Selectmen if a person is harmed or property damaged by a dog, he said.
Briefly, the amendment highlights the difference between declaring a dog "dangerous" or a "nuisance" and ups fines for offenses, Eubank continued, with numbers of incidents recorded cumulatively. And if an owner does not comply with an order after a dog hearing, the beefed-up bylaw describes next steps the selectmen can take.
Acknowledging that Harvard is a community that has no leash law and "likes our dogs," Selectman Lucy Wallace said the purpose of the amendment was to ensure safety and avoid neighborhood confrontations. "I hope people understand this is to give people recourse" via clearly stated rules and to "telegraph" to dog owners what those rules are, she said, as well as the penalties for breaking them.
Under the new bylaw, the dog officer has more enforcement power and can impose stiffer fines than before. Dog Officer Paul Willard said that despite "some confusion in this proposal, it's a step in the right direction." But the town doesn't need a leash law and he hopes never to have one, he said.
But resident Lynn Cook referenced a dog officer's report that might suggest otherwise, with 102 complaints, 10 restraining orders, six dog bites, 141 lost dog calls and three dogs killed by cars, among other recorded incidents. "The town is growing too rapidly for dogs to wander free. Better control is needed," she said. "This article is way overdue."
The main motion passed.
Resident Billy Salter made a motion for a "friendly amendment" to consider articles 47 and 48 next, both seeking home rule legislation.
The issues are too important to relegate to the latter part of the meeting, when some people have gone home, he said, particularly Article 47, which could "limit collective bargaining for town employees," Salter said.
Article 47 sought authorization for selectmen to submit a home rule petition to the state legislature aimed at managing the town's post employment benefits (OPEB) liability.
That is, how much the town pays in health insurance benefits for retired employees via agreements made while they were working for the town. The so-called OPEB liability is a burgeoning problem in towns across the Commonwealth, in part due to promises made when health insurance costs were much lower and in part because the promises were not backed up with money in the bank.
Explaining the purpose of the article, Selectman Stu Sklar said it was to provide the town with "latitude" to work out fair and equitable deals the town could afford. He insisted it would not eliminate collective bargaining, as Salter contended. "We couldn't if we wanted to," he said. Instead, proposed changes in eligibility and other parameters would give the town "tools to work with" as it attempts to tackle the situation now or face an untenable situation in the future. The town would "impact bargain" with the "handful of employees" now working for the town who would be affected, Sklar said.
But Salter said it's not right to "change the rules after the fact." He wasn't the only one with that impression.
But resident Bruce Nickerson said his reading of the home rule bid was that it won't affect current retirees, only adjust the rules for future ones and thus wouldn't take their (retired employees) current health insurance benefits away.
Debate continued for quite a while. The motion on the article passed.
Article 48: Inserted by citizen's petition, this article sought authorization for a Home Rule bid to exempt "community solar gardens" from local taxes.
Karl Schwiegershausen explained that property owners who installed solar panels as part of the "Solarize Massachusetts" program were exempt from local taxes but the same perk didn't apply to those participating as shareholders in a communal "off-site" solar array. The article up for consideration sought to change that, he said. "We only expect to receive the same benefits."
As for the LLC label, Harvard Solar Garden shareholder and HSG founder Worth Robbins said it did not make the shareholders group a business, which it is not.
The way the set-up works is that share holders get credits on their energy bills rather than direct power supplied to their homes and thus must live within the National Grid "load zone."
While many spoke in favor of the proposal, a few strongly opposed it.
There were provincial objections, suspicions that the solar garden would, in the end, be a moneymaking proposition rather than a grassroots effort for the plant and questions about why town taxpayers were being asked to "subsidize" out of town investors.
In response, Robbins and other HSG members reiterated that all they are asking for is the same tax break homeowners got for their solar arrays.
Besides, they tried to sell as many shares as possible in town before spreading a wider net. The aim, Robbins said, was to cut the cost share for each owner, which, unlike home-based installations, includes site preparation and maintenance.
But the owners are still neighbors, although they might live in a town other than Harvard. And the solar movement isn't about any one area anyway, members said. It's a green initiative that benefits everyone in the state, the nation and ultimately the world.
After a "friendly amendment" to put a 20-year time limit on the credit passed, the main motion on the article passed.
With the two home rule bids polished off, the line-up went back to Article 39. Inserted by the Board of Health, it called for participation in the Central Massachusetts Mosquito Control Program, which includes town-wide spraying and other, more targeted, measures for a cost to the town of $55,000.
But when it came up, BOH Chairman Tom Phillipou moved to "take no action," effectively withdrawing the article from the warrant.
Basically, the board brought it up to generate interest in solving the problem, Phillipou explained. Mosquitoes breed and carry disease and it's time to talk about the issue, he said. "We can creatively solve this problem."
For a similar amount of money, the town could contract with a private group or university to study the mosquito problem -- ticks, too, he said. The aim would be to determine how effective existing preventative measures were and offer alternatives if they are not, Phillipou said.
When the question came up at previous Town Meetings, it was always controversial. This year, residents made their case to the health board well in advance. "Maybe next year, we'll have a plan," he concluded.