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Town Meeting preview: Pierce, guns and ranked choice voting

May 21, 2023  Updated May 23, 2023 at 8:13 a.m.
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Town Meeting members will make decisions on the Pierce School project, a ban on carrying firearms in town, and much more over the next few weeks.

Starting tonight, Brookline’s 255 Town Meeting members will gather to hash out decisions on the 26 items before them. It is the first time they are meeting in person since the pandemic.

Brookline.News is highlighting several of the most significant warrant articles below.

To see the full text of each warrant article, and the recommendations of various committees and boards, visit the town’s website.

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The Budget and Pierce School

Each year, Town Meeting has to sign off on the town’s proposed budget. There are always items, big or small, that become the subject of heated debate. This year, there’s one particularly contentious issue that will dominate the conversation: the rebuilding of the Pierce School.

Town Meeting will vote whether to appropriate $209,915,958 to rebuild the Brookline Village K-8 school. Brookline voters narrowly passed a ballot question authorizing the town to take on debt for the project, but the associated warrant article requires a two-thirds vote by Town Meeting members.

Opponents of the ballot question have shifted their advocacy from the ballot box to town government. Select Board Member John VanScoyoc, for example, has filed an amendment to the warrant which would limit the funds approved for the project to $135 million.

Town Meeting has never rejected a school project which was supported by a majority of town voters, but advocates for the Pierce project are nevertheless lobbying and counting votes to ensure they can get the 175 ayes needed to get over the last hurdle.

A ban on carrying firearms

Brookline currently has a bylaw, General Bylaw 6.6, which bans discharging a firearm “within two hundred feet of any street in the town of Brookline or on any private grounds,” with some exceptions.

Three Town Meeting members want to take that a step further, filing a Warrant Article to be considered in a separate Special Town Meeting on May 31 that would ban carrying firearms in Brookline all together. Under the proposal by Anthony Ishak, Janice Kahn and Petra Bignami, firearms would be illegal in all public places in the Town of Brookline, including libraries, parks, schools, sidewalks and more, with exceptions for law enforcement.

The amendment also increases the fine for carrying or discharging a firearm from $100 to $300.

The Select Board recommended that Town Meeting approve the bylaw, but warned that a court might find it unconstitutional, given the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on gun law restrictions.

Reproductive and Gender Health Access & Equity

Town Meeting members will vote on whether to amend a bylaw passed in 2019 that provides free menstrual products in public buildings. The author, Rebecca Stone, said she’s proud of that first-in-the-nation step, but wants to go further.

Warrant Article 20 would amend the bylaw, aiming to protect access to reproductive and gender-health care in Brookline.

After the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to revoke the constitutional right to abortion, Governor Maura Healey signed an act to protect reproductive rights in Massachusetts. Stone says codifying these protections at the local level is vital.

Among other things, the proposal, now titled “Reproductive and Gender Health Access & Equity,” would protect out-of-state patients and providers in Brookline from being prosecuted under other states’ laws that target them. Stone wants Brookline to become a safe haven for those seeking reproductive health and gender-affirming care.

“We decided to create a bylaw that would have local penalties should someone in Brookline knowingly attempt to circumvent the laws” that guarantee the right to abortion in Massachusetts, Stone said.

Fossil fuel-free building pilot

Brookline has led the way in building electrification policies in Massachusetts, and if passed Warrant Article 15 would bring the town one step closer to being able to ban gas and oil hookups in major renovations and in new construction.

This warrant article puts in place the bylaw changes needed for the town to participate in a state pilot program which lets 10 communities prohibit fossil fuels in new buildings.

“Passing WA15 so we can enter the state’s fossil fuel-free demonstration project finally allows Brookline to lead on mandating all-electric construction and move to cleaner, healthier buildings,” said Lisa Cunningham, a Brookline resident, architect and director of ZeroCarbonMA.

Office of Housing Stability

Warrant Article 13 would create a new Office of Housing Stability. The office would cover a wide range of responsibilities, including advising and informing Brookline residents about housing issues and advocacy with landlords or housing agencies to resolve disputes.

“The last few years, tenants have really gotten hit hard,” said Chi Chi Wu, one of the proposal’s authors.

In her professional work with the National Consumer Law Center, Wu said she’s come across other towns and cities with offices of housing stability, and she believes Brookline needs one as well.

The warrant article has not been met with enthusiasm from other parts of town government, including the Select Board and Advisory Committee, which both voted to send it off for further study. They raised concerns about the cost of the proposal, and whether the responsibilities described in the warrant article are already covered by existing town offices.

Town Meeting members often consider such referrals to be a way of discreetly rejecting policy proposals, according to Wu. “They really didn’t want to vote no,” she says, “but they really don’t want to pass this warrant article.”

Ranked Choice Voting

Since a Town Meeting in 2020 created the Ranked Choice Voting Study Committee, ranked choice voting (RCV) has been an open-ended question in Brookline. Now, the study committee is bringing a warrant article that would move toward implementing RCV voting in Brookline’s elections.

RCV is a method of voting where voters rank candidates in order of preference. Votes are counted in successive rounds, and in each round, candidates with the fewest first choice votes are eliminated. The counting continues in rounds until a candidate receives a majority of the vote and is elected.

C. Scott Ananian, a Town Meeting member and chair of the study committee, said that if passed, RCV could revolutionize voting in Brookline. “This is very much Brookline being on the vanguard of change here,” he said, arguing that RCV “better captures the voter’s intent.”

Advocates also argue that RCV lets voters vote for third party candidates, and encourages more people to run for office.

“We often have candidates discouraged from running because it’s felt they would be a spoiler,” Ananian said. “Unless you feel like you can actually win, and winning sometimes takes a lot of resources in this town, folks are actively discouraged from being on the ballot because they’ll steal votes from someone else who is aligned with them.”

The Select Board was split 2-2 on this warrant article, and the Advisory Committee recommended against it, citing concerns about whether RCV is necessary in Brookline or would cause confusion for voters.

According to minutes from its meeting on the subject, Advisory Committee members argued that Brookline does not experience the type of problem that RCV is often designed to address: elections where “two similar candidates split the vote and allow an extremist from another party to win.”

If passed, Warrant Article 22 would authorize the Select Board to file a home rule petition asking the state legislature to allow Brookline to use RCV in municipal elections.

Town meeting will continue on May 24, 31 and June 1, 6, 7 and 8, each night at 7 p.m. in the Brookline High School auditorium. Members of the public can attend in person or watch on Brookline Interactive Group’s channels.

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