Charter change, rental rules on Yarmouth ballot

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YARMOUTH — Voters on Nov. 6 will face two referendum questions that made it to the ballot by way of petition. 

One is a proposed amendment to the Town Charter that would prohibit town and school employees from serving on the Town Council.

The second is an ordinance that would establish a Rental Housing Advisory Committee and require landlords to give tenants 75 days’ notice for rent increases.

The council on Sept. 17 held a public hearing on the charter amendment, where residents expressed support for and opposition to the proposal.

Former Councilor Jim MacLeod, whose term on the council expired earlier this year, said he and a group of residents calling themselves Yarmouth Citizens for Responsible Government gathered more than the 526 signatures required to send the charter amendment to a referendum.

“(We) support reasonable policies that represent the community as a whole and which promote honesty, transparency, integrity and accountability in the decision-making process of local government,” MacLeod said Monday. “… In our view, separating employer and employee roles and responsibilities (does this) … and reasonably removes foreseeable threats to a potentially impartial or biased decision-making process.”

Councilor Meghan Casey, who teaches Latin at Yarmouth High School and was elected to the council in June, recused herself from Monday night’s discussion, but later said she could understand why, “at first blush,” people would think the amendment makes sense.

“But what it is asking is that we ban an entire class of people from serving on Town Council because some people think, incorrectly, that the Town Council supervises school employees,” Casey said, noting that “hiring, supervising, or establishing compensation for school employees,” are all under the purview of the School Committee and not the Town Council. 

David Ray, Facilities Committee chairman and a former School Committee member, agreed with Casey and called the proposal “ill-conceived,” “unnecessary,” and potentially “unlawful.”

Todd Abbott, an elementary school teacher, said it was “personally insulting” and a mechanism to “(silence the) speech of … a broad class of taxpayers.”

“This is one more way to close the doors to representation of a class of people you may not agree with,” Abbott said. “… This isn’t broken. We don’t need to fix it.”

Others were concerned that “employee” is not clearly defined and wondered who exactly the amendment would impact. 

“I receive a stipend from the town of $600 a year,” Leslie Hyde, a former councilor, said. “I was a town councilor for three years and I loved it and have considered running again. Does that mean now that I’m disqualified?”

Other residents, such as Ted Westerfield, spoke in favor of the proposal and on behalf of those who signed the petition.

“A lot of people think this is a legitimate issue,” Westerfield said. 

Deborah Delp, who helped gather signatures, said the number of signatures does not reflect the support they had throughout the petitioning process “for fear of retaliation.”

“This petition is not anti-teacher … or anti-schools and is certainly nothing personal against Councilor Casey. It’s about a conflict of interest,” Delp said. “We had over 675 signatures on the petition in the end. They’re not here because there is a stigma … attached to speaking in any perceived way against the school or the teachers even if good is meant.”

Still, where opinions will matter most will be at the polls. 

Vice Chairman Andrew Kittredge stressed the hearing and a subsequent council vote on the petition are formalities since the charter requires the amendment to go before voters.

“There is no other outcome tonight,” Kittredge said. “We can’t shoot it down, we can’t approve it.”

Some residents urged the council to wait to send the question to voters so residents have more time to become informed. Town Manager Nat Tupper suggested the council seek a legal opinion on waiting, but said it was his understanding that if the council does not schedule a referendum within the mandated 30 days after holding a hearing, a special election would have to be held or the question would be put to voters in June.

In the meantime, the town would have to grapple with the possibility of other school or town employees running for council.

Councilors on Monday said they thought there was plenty of time for residents to make an informed decision and unanimously voted to put the referendum on the ballot. The council is scheduled to ratify the warrant for the referendum on Sept. 20. 

The warrant will also include the Rental Dwelling Ordinance proposal. Because this is an ordinance, and not a charter amendment, the council could have adopted it without voter approval.

Still, on Sept. 5, they voted 5-1 to send it to the polls. Councilor Pat Thompson opposed the motion.

In July, the petition drafted by Councilor April Humphrey with input from members of the Yarmouth Tenants’ Association was submitted in support of an ordinance that would establish a Rental Housing Advisory Committee and require landlords to give tenants 75 days’ notice before rents are increased.

The proposal has garnered criticism from many who say it unfairly targets Taymil Properties LLC, which owns Yarmouth Pointe, Yarmouth Green, Yarmouth Place and Yarmouth Landing, as the ordinance would only impose the notice restriction on landlords with 10 or more rental units. 

On Sept. 5, most councilors opposed the proposal, or aspects of it.

“(It) very well may not pass,” Shannon said. “Even if it does, we have the opportunity and, I think, the duty to take a look at it … and amend it.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

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