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Understanding the Process

by Dave Atkins

As I have listened to people talk about the issues around the whole alcohol license controversy, I find the terms and procedures thoroughly confusing. I will try to summarize some of the key terms and procedural issues below:

Petition has two meanings. The "Home Rule Petition" is the legislative mechanism by which the town of Westwood can obtain the power to grant a license for a business to sell alcohol. Currently, the town does not have the legal authority to authorize a store to sell alcohol for off premesis consumption. To obtain that power, they must apply to the legislature through a bill that must pass both houses and be signed by the Governor.

The second meaning of petition in this context is that of a "Petition Article."Article 2 is in the warrant (on the agenda) for the special town meeting as a matter of right because David Feyler obtained enough signatures and presented those signatures to the Board of Selectmen during the time the warrant was open (about 15 minutes). The petition article is fundamentally different from Article 1 because it came "from the people" directly--it cannot be taken off the agenda or modified.

There are three Home Rule Petitions potentially in play here. First, Article 18 from the spring town meeting is now before the legislature in the form of a house bill to authorize the home rule petition. Second (and third), if town meeting approves one or both of the articles to be voted on on October 21, they will proceed to the legislature to follow the same route. Let us not speculate what speed bumps could still be ahead...

The only reason the current home rule petition is stalled is because the House is in "informal session." If the legislature were back in session tomorrow, then we could just have a simple up or down vote and it would likely pass. It is a much larger digression topic as to why this business could not have been taken care of during the regular session and why there is such a thing as an "informal session." But the House will not be back in session tomorrow. Or next month. Maybe in January. Probably not until a new (at least in theory) group of Representatives starts the next session. The home rule petition would most likely die on the scrapheap of unfinished business.

State law regulates the number and type (e.g. on-premisis restaurants, off-premesis stores and "packies") of alcohol (wine, malt beverages (beer), and "full liquor") licenses that can be granted by a town--so there is an upper limit to what the town can do. The state also limits businesses to a maximum of three locations. That's why until recently, the nearest Costco that sold beer, wine, and liquor was in Waltham, while the Dedham store was dry.

In this discussion, the fairness issue often leads to an observation that Roche Bros. is in no position to request a license in Westwood anyway because they already have 3 stores that sell alcohol. So they would have to stop selling in another store and then apply for a license here. I can see how many would view the fairness issue as "moot" because Roche is asking for the right to obtain a license he cannot legally have as things stand right now. But that could change quickly, whereas the law and licenses granted would not.

The procedural dynamics of this town meeting are a continuing education project for me:

The Finance Committee vote does not change anything. They voted to recommend adoption of article 1 and indefinite postponement of article 2. Indefinite postponement means "rejection." So what happens at town meeting is that the town first votes on whether to accept the recommendation of the Finance Commission. By voting to support article 1, this clears the path for adoption; the town can vote yes and the article is adopted. But to adopt article 2, the town must first vote down the recommendation of the Finance Commission, then move to adopt the article, then do so. It is somewhat a procedural technicality--presumably if there were strong public support for the article, the Finance Commission could be overruled quickly and we would move quickly on to adoption. But it is a hurdle to overcome and a sort of default presumption that must be overcome, so it makes adoption harder.

Reconsideration is usually the last, desparate hope of the losers on an issue who believe that some magical event will cause the majority to come to their senses and correct their errant ways. Procedurally, the motion must be made by a person who voted for the original measure and it must obtain typicaly a 2/3 or more majority. Once a motion to reconsider has been defeated, the issue can never be raised again. It is typical in parlimentary practice to offer a motion to reconsider immediately after passage of a measure so it can be defeated and the hopes of opponents perpetually extinguished.

At the FinCom meeting, this issue was very briefly addressed, but not in the context of thinking anyone would want to reconsider the merits of the issues at hand. The idea was the anger and frustration that we as a town have been bullied and coerced by political gamesmanship and procedural technicalities--to put it bluntly, that Rich Roche through his ally Representaive Scaccia are using the political process to get a second shot at an issue that was debated and lost at town meeting. That they have deftly flipped the magical trump card of town politics known as "Westwood Station or Bust!" into something that will compel the town to support their own agenda or face the cataclysmic disaster that would be if Westwood Station failed but for this one thing. So, if we find ourselves "double crossed" and the Wegmans bill still blocked while Town Meeting votes to approve the 3 new licenses, the motion to reconsider would be a way for FinCom to throw a monkey wrench into the whole town meeting process. Perhaps FinCom would never get around to actually opening the Town Meeting, allowing the whole thing to die. People like to believe there is a nuclear option when they feel they have been betrayed. But then again, that's probably a lot like how Roche felt when this whole thing blew up back at the spring town meeting...

I hope this summary is helpful and accurate. I sense a lot of frustration--not just with the feeling of manipulation and unfairness, but the uncertainty. It seems there is no end to the process and once we feel we have made a hard decision...it just keeps going. But it was very encouraging to see a relatively large group of reasonable, concerned, committed people last night talking about the best interests and future of the town. The conversation will continue...