Falmouth councilors find wider bridge over rules bog

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FALMOUTH — The Town Council voted 5-1 Monday to construct a 10-foot-wide bridge at River Point Conservation Area, essentially reversing an earlier decision to build a narrower structure. 

The decision did not come easily, however, with two councilors calling the motion a violation of council rules and others suggesting that governmental bodies must revisit issues when new information casts old decisions into doubt.

The dust-up was rooted in a similar discussion on April 21, when the council voted 6-1 to build a 6-foot-wide pedestrian bridge at the conservation area. Much of that discussion debated the merits of a $450,000, 10-foot-wide bridge, as originally proposed, versus a $400,000, 6-foot-wide bridge to replace an aging wooden structure that spans the railroad tracks and provides pedestrian access from a parking lot at West Falmouth Crossing.

The costlier 10-foot bridge would allow emergency and maintenance vehicles to access the site, but councilors in April amended the order for the lower amount. Councilor Karen Farber argued at the time, for instance, that providing emergency vehicles access to the recreation area would have been inconsistent with other town properties, where woods and steep terrain prevent access, and thus unnecessary.

At the next meeting on April 28, Councilor Sean Mahoney suggested that the council revisit the issue. Mahoney originally voted for the smaller bridge, but said the wider bridge was necessary because of new information provided to him by the Falmouth Land Trust. The council, however, disputed the timeliness of the information and declined to revisit the topic.

Two weeks later, the matter appeared on a council agenda again, but the meeting was adjourned before it could be discussed.

Then, on Monday, nearly a month after the original decision, it came up once more during a special meeting.

Before discussion began, however, Councilor Russ Anderson called a point of order, calling the agenda item a “clear violation of council rules.” Anderson cited Section 16 B, which says reconsideration of council votes must take place at “the same (meeting), or the next stated meeting, but not afterwards.”

Chairwoman Teresa Pierce agreed with Anderson and ruled against the discussion.

The ruling didn’t last long, however. Councilor Karen Farber called for an appeal, which was seconded by Councilor Claudia King. That triggered a philosophical debate about steadfast adherence to rules, versus the need to adapt to new information.

Farber argued that council rules are established and enforced by the Town Council to provide direction to the councilors.

“I don’t believe the rules are meant to keep us from processing new information, to having additional discussions and to inhibit us from making good decisions,” she said.  

Anderson countered that rules are not to be taken lightly.

“The rules are not guidelines,” he said. “The rules are what the rules say, not what we want them to say or would like them to say for the convenience of the moment.”

Anderson suggested that the council follow the procedure for changing the rules, if necessary.

Goldberg argued for considering additional information.

“We’re all sitting here because the residents of Falmouth have entrusted us to make good decisions for the town,” he said. “I would much rather debate the merits of the $50,000 spending than the merits of whether or not we’re living by the letter or the spirit of the law,” he said.

Eventually, the council repealed Pierce’s ruling, 4-1 (Pierce recused herself from the vote), which paved the way for a discussion on the bridge, more than 20 minutes after Anderson lodged his point of order.

The discussion centered around new information provided by the land trust, specifically that it is willing to contribute $5,000 toward the wider bridge and accept the bridge in easement, which would prevent the structure from being used by motorists or as a means to develop the property. The group also offered to pursue other fundraising efforts.

The council voted 5-1 to appropriate $45,000 to fund the larger bridge, bringing the total cost of the town’s contribution to $445,000. Anderson voted against it. Councilor Chris Orestis was absent.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter:@BenMcCanna.