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Select Board votes not to call Special Town Meeting on controversial Israel resolution, defying state law

A Town Meeting session in November 2023. Photo by Artemisia Luk
November 29, 2023  Updated December 27, 2023 at 2:51 p.m.

The Brookline Select Board voted Tuesday against scheduling a Special Town Meeting to debate a controversial resolution in support of Israel, breaking state law in the process.

Massachusetts law require a town’s Select Board to hold a Special Town Meeting if it’s requested by 200 registered voters.

Over the last few weeks, several Town Meeting members successfully gathered enough signatures to put forward a resolution standing with Israel during its ongoing war with the terrorist group Hamas.

The resolution stated that Brookline’s Town Meeting would condemn the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 and stand with the people of Israel. It also said that the town of Brookline “rejects anti-Semitic propaganda claiming that Israel is a terrorist or apartheid state, and/or that the attacks by Hamas terrorists are somehow justified because of past actions by Israel.”

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Read the full proposed resolution here.

One of the main petitioners behind the resolution, Town Meeting member Dan Saltzman, told Brookline.News that he had changed his mind since filing it, after speaking to “many community members.”

“They almost universally made it clear to me that the division this could cause within our greater Brookline community, and the trauma this could cause Jews, through a painful debate process and otherwise, would be significant,” Saltzman wrote in an emailed statement. “The last thing I wanted to do was inflict any more pain in a community already grieving.”

But filing the petition with the town had set off a series of events that ultimately forced the Select Board to take an uncomfortable vote on Tuesday night.

In the end, three members — Paul Warren, Miriam Aschkenasy and Mike Sandman — voted against a motion to call the meeting, and one, John VanScoyoc, voted in favor. Chairman Bernard Greene abstained.

The outcome of the vote went against the advice of town staff and the town’s top attorney Joe Callanan.

The members who voted no said they believed that calling a Town Meeting to debate the resolution would harm the community, leading to the possibilities of a toxic debate, protests and even physical violence.

“I strongly believe that by scheduling this Special Town Meeting, we open our town to more division, more attention and … more harm,” said Aschkenasy. “When what we desperately need is more unity, more understanding, and more compassion.”

Greene said that the risk of holding the meeting would be “a heated circus that brings disrepute and ridicule on the town of Brookline from a world-wide audience that is whipped into a frenzy by Fox News and right wing politicians.”

In a memo, Town Moderator Kate Poverman had asked the board to schedule the meeting remotely, if they chose to call it, citing the possibility of “violent clashes” at an in-person meeting.

Board member VanScoyoc, the lone vote for calling the meeting, said that his decision came out of a sense of duty to “obey the law.”

“We are also bound not to pick and choose because suddenly a petitioned request for a town meeting done according to the law now seems to be for a debate that we are not all that thrilled to be having,” VanScoyoc said at the meeting. “We should not assume the discretion to pick and choose when to have a Special Town Meeting that has been properly petitioned, whether or not we think it’s controversial.”

Board member Sandman said that “setting a precedent that we’re not going to follow the law is not attractive,” though he ultimately voted not to call the meeting.

The law does not lay out any penalties for violating it, although it does state that if a Select Board refuses to set a Special Town Meeting, a justice of the peace can do so after a written request from 100 registered voters.

Town Administrator Chas Carey told Brookline.News that the town does not comment on “potential or pending legal matters.”