Derry Town Meeting scuttles dam article

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Residents gather outdoors next to the Londonderry Town Hall. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

On a sunny but cool and blustery Saturday morning a little over a hundred residents of Londonderry gathered in the parking lot of Town Hall on Middletown Road to hold their Town Meeting, which had been postponed from early March due to Covid worries. Ironically, they were meeting outdoors because last week several government officials who attended a meeting about the Williams Dam inside the building tested positive for the virus.

Article 22 concerning the future of the Williams Dam loomed large over this meeting too. But while it was in the slot of a “main event,” in the end it became a no decision that most in attendance seemed reasonably happy with.

Steve Twitchell moves to recess the meeting for two weeks

But before any of the 23 articles could be taken up, Steve Twitchell took to the microphone and moved to recess the meeting for two weeks, then hold it back inside the hall, “in the interest of public health.” Twitchell cited hypothermia as the concern, but when an article about the town’s Planning Commission was under consideration, Twitchell noted that it was a member of that body who had asked him seek a recess for the meeing, not feeling comfortable coming to attend. Twitchell’s motion died for lack of a second.

Article 22: The dam future

Moderator Doug Friant explains the options in voting on the dam issue

Moderator Doug Friant opened the discussion on Article 22, by explaining the possible options. He said the meeting could vote up or down on the article and that the article as written only speaks to the engineering costs to study removing the dam, not the actual decision to remove it.

Friant also said the voters had the option to table the article to a meeting at at “a date certain.” But if the article were to be tabled without a definite time to take it back up, then the effect would be to kill it.

He also explained some rules of procedure that could be used in the situation, including reconsideration, in which someone who voted for the winning side could then bring the article back up. He also suggested those attending might take a non-binding straw poll on whether to remove, refurbish or rebuild the structure at the end of the meeting.

And with the article moved and seconded Friant opened the floor for discussion, expecting a lively one.  Instead, he got  “crickets,” then laughter.

Board member Melissa Brown says the select board won’t make any decisions “without the approval of voters”

Compared with the debate of two other articles that addressed policing and traffic regulation (see below), the dam discussion was relatively brief and mostly calm. That may have had a lot to do with those who were for and against speaking to the issue at the information session held on April 20.

While a few people made arguments to keep the dam and were critical of the engineering study done by DuBois & King, many said they felt that there was not enough time or information to make a decision.

Saying that it was premature, former Select Board member George Mora moved to “pass over” the article, which would kill it.

Attendees wondered if killing the article would put the decision on the fate of the dam in the hands of the Select Board. Select Board member Melissa Brown said they “wouldn’t do anything without the approval of the voters.”

Resident Bob Wells speaks for a delay for more information, but not “kicking the can down the road”

Bob Wells said that the community needed more information and cautioned that Londonderry has “a patent on kicking the can down the road.” Wells thought the decision could be postponed for a “sensible” amount of time, but that the town should not do nothing.

Rachel Febbie said the town needed to take the time to do its “due diligence.”

“Once you remove the dam,” said Febbie, “it’s gone.”

“Once you remove the dam, its gone” said Rachel Febbie

Select Board member Vince Anunziatta cautioned that “eventually the state will make us act.”

Resident Dwight Johnson asked what impact waiting would have on the available funding. Ron Rhodes of the Connecticut River Conservancy said that a lot of funding was now becoming available and that a delay could still be well within the time frame for the money.

Toward the end of the discussion, Bonnie Cobb asked, “What happens when there’s a breach…the town’s responsible and the dam is not insurable. We could be out a lot of money.”

In the end, the meeting voted to pass over the article.

Police patrols or ‘driver feedback?’ Or both

Captain Paul Samataro answers questions from those attending the meeting

Two articles – 13 and 14 – asked if voters would 1. spend $50,000 for a 20 hour per week contract with the Windham County Sheriff for policing and 2. put $40,000 toward using a number of technologies to control speeding in the town. This set off a fairly lengthy discussion on what the relative value of each approach.

In response to questions, Sheriff’s Department Capt. Paul Samataro told the gathering that deputies don’t only do traffic stops, but rather provide a full array of police services and split their time between Derry and Jamaica. He noted that meant that if an incident takes place in Londonderry, there is a law enforcement officer available to cover that 40 hours a week even though the town is paying for 20.

Last year, the town voted to spend $45,000 on the Sheriff’s contract and Samataro said that the $5,000 jump in the cost covers increases in many areas including fuel, insurance and health insurance.  Responding to a question about radar speed signs, Samataro said that they are one tool with limited usefulness and that people get used to seeing them. Advocating for his service, he pointed to the visibility of Sheriff’s cars, which are capable of using radar while moving. “We’re not sitting in one place all the time.”

Resident Mike Goodbody said he preferred the Plymouth “shut it down” approach to speeding

The discussion of two articles at the same time is unusual, but Friant allowed it as they were so closely related. Board member Brown said that money might be better spent on “driver feedback” technology like the flashing speed radar signs as well as rumble strips and speed tables which are longer, more gradual speed bumps.

The article states that the use of these technologies would be at the discretion of the Select Board and Brown assured the meeting that the board would be looking for citizen input into those decisions.

According to resident Alexandra Randell having police ‘everywhere’ is very important

Mike Goodbody said he preferred Plymouth’s “shut it down” approach of aggressively ticketing people even a little over the speed limit to Chester’s use of radar speed signs. Twitchell said that such signs help honest people realize they are over the limit and slow down.

An amendment to Article 13 to add $250 to the Sheriff’s contract to gather and analyze crime statistics was defeated.

Alexandra Randell, who said she is new to the area, told the meeting that she feels that “the state police do nothing” and that “the presence of police in town – everywhere – is very important.”

In the end, both articles passed.

Other articles passed, but one

‘division of the house’ in progress

The rest of the articles – including more than $111,000 to support local emergency services, social service and educational institutions and the July 4 celebration — all passed. But a new appropriation to give the Planning Commission $5,167 for an administrative assistant got hung up and gave Friant a chance to flex his parliamentary procedure muscles.

There was a question about why the Planning Commission needed this position. Twitchell – who moved to postpone the meeting at the request of a commission member – moved to table the motion.

Members of the town beautification committee display examples of the welcome signs for which they were asking the town to contribute funds

Friant asked if the motion contained a “time certain” for taking up the motion again or if the postponement would be indefinite. He explained that the indefinite time – if passed – would kill the article and Twitchell said he would withdraw his motion to table. But the person who seconded would not withdraw. The voice vote on the motion was close enough that it triggered a “division of the house” in which people stand rather than speak and the standing votes are counted. This led to some confusion about what a “yes” vote meant. Friant explained that an affirmative vote would kill the article. Twitchell tried to change his motion, but the person seconding would not agree.

A second attempt to vote to table for an indefinite time brought another division of the house and the motion passed 63 yays to 34 nays and the article died.

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