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AVON

Big issues, little interest

Town Meeting sees apathy

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / November 24, 2011

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Cellphones saved this month’s Town Meeting, but barely.

Despite an agenda packed with potentially controversial issues, fewer than the 75 people required for a quorum showed up initially for the Nov. 15 special meeting. So Moderator Frank P. Staffier asked everyone there to whip out their cellphones and call for reinforcements.

“We had people calling their wives, their neighbors; we spent more than an hour calling to get people,’’ Staffier said. “Fortunately, we were able this time to drag them in.’’

Staffier, who has been moderator since 1988, said Avon has had trouble for years getting people to attend Town Meeting. But even he was surprised that so few people came out to vote this time on such important things as spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, changing elected town positions to appointed, and studying school regionalization.

“The apathy is unbelievable,’’ Staffier said. “It’s frightening because I don’t want to see the town meetings eliminated. It is the purest, truest form of democracy.’’

Town Meeting isn’t the only forum in Avon that’s suffering from lack of interest. In the town of approximately 4,500 people, a dearth of candidates for local office is a perennial problem; for the second year in a row, the polls in Avon didn’t open until noon for last spring’s election, because there were no choices on the ballot.

Staffier said he’s been unable to find volunteers for appointed committees, as well. “We have boards that have been empty for years; and we have tried everything,’’ he said.

In fact, a town history says “apathy and disinterest were the rule rather than the exception’’ as far back as 1885 - although it refers to parents and students, not voters or candidates.

“The numerous absent and tardy scholars were a sore trial to the teacher, and he sought by personal visitation at their homes, to awaken more interest among the parents,’’ the Avon history reads. “Disappointment was his reward.’’

The callers summoning bodies to the recent Town Meeting had better luck. About an hour after the meeting opened, 82 people finally arrived, according to Town Clerk Jean Kopke.

And once there was a quorum, the meeting took care of business quickly, adjourning in less than two hours, she said.

In that time, voters decided to spend an extra $221,000 on schools, with the money coming from unanticipated surplus funds, Kopke said. The expenditure failed earlier this year in an override vote.

Town Meeting also approved putting $600,000 from the stabilization fund into a special account - seed money that will be used eventually to build a new public safety building, she said.

Voters rejected a proposal to form a committee to study regionalizing Avon’s public schools. Selectmen, concerned about increased school costs and declining school enrollment, had endorsed the idea as worth exploring.

The proposal generated the most debate during Town Meeting, Kopke said.

“The main discussion was that people think Holbrook would be the partner [in a regional school system] and they don’t think Holbrook would be a good partner,’’ Kopke said. “It’s a hot button issue in Avon.’’

Avon last looked into regionalizing its schools in 1987 and opposition was fierce, according to Staffier. “It was so bad they voted all the people on the School Committee out of office. And to this day there are neighbors who don’t speak to neighbors,’’ as a result, he said.

In another contentious issue, Town Meeting also turned down a proposal to create one full-time, appointed treasurer/collector position. Currently the treasurer and collector positions are part-time and elected. Voters expressed concern that the electorate would lose a say in town government.

Kopke holds the treasurer position now, and also is the elected part-time clerk. She supports combining the treasurer and collector jobs and having a separate town clerk to give more time to get the work done in the clerk’s office.

In other business, voters agreed to make repairs to the fire and police station, put aside money for the town’s upcoming 125th anniversary, upgrade computer software in the treasurer’s office, replace a dump truck, fix fencing at town tennis courts, build a new handicapped ramp at the Council on Aging, install some new fire hydrants, and build a veterans memorial park.

Kopke said the new expenditures are possible because the town ended the fiscal year with more free cash than anticipated, a total of about $900,000. The fiscal 2012 budget was about $18.8 million.

Some of the extra money came from a reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for winter storm cleanup, and some from a settlement of a tax dispute with Brockton over a piece of property, she said. In addition, the town had more new development than expected, and more revenue from the water department as a result of a water rate hike.

Staffier said he hopes the next Town Meeting will have an item that will make it easier for future Town Meetings to conduct the town’s business. He plans to ask selectmen to reduce the number required for a quorum - from the current 75 to 50 people.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.