Jayne Miller, Town of Reading Business Administrator, gave a presentation of the results of the board of selectmen’s override survey at a special Board meeting held on November 14 at the Reading Memorial High School Library. There were 2,488 survey responses, which is 13% of the registered voters in town. Most of the surveys were completed on the Internet, though 81 were filled out on paper and manually entered into the system. For purposes of presentation, the results of the survey were divided into three groups: those who said they voted yes on last year’s Proposition 21/2 override ballot question; those who voted no, and those who said that they did not vote.
Of those who voted yes, the single largest driver for that vote was historical and future cuts to the schools. For those who voted no, most indicated that either the amount of the override was too large, or that town leadership did not justify the need for additional funds, or that town leadership did not explain how additional money would be spent. Most of those those who said they did not vote stated that they could not get to the polls.
When asked what it would take to get a yes vote on an override, 58 percent of respondents desired more clarity on how additional funds would be spent and 43 percent needed to be convinced that costs had been cut as much as possible. The overwhelming number of respondents said they got their information about town affairs from neighbors and friends or from social media platforms. An overwhelming number of respondents listed the library as the municipal service that they use the most.
Miller then presented conclusions that she was able to draw from the data. The first conclusion was that there appears to be a trust gap between the leaders of the community and the residents that needs to somehow be bridged. Selectman John Halsey recognized this saying, “There is a trust issue . . . that is pronounced.” Miller also suggested that in order to bridge the gap, more clarity about how funds will be spent is key to a successful override vote. Vice Chair Barry Berman commented, “We are not out there talking to the voters.” Selectman Dan Ensminger chimed in, “We need to articulate the needs in public safety.”
Miller suggested that the data indicated that a $500 per average household override could be palatable to the people who took the survey, though several residents in attendance questioned this notion given that there was no context to the question in the survey. “We went from a $9 million request to a $7.5 million request, boy were we off.” Chair John Arena observed. The $7.5 million represented between $900 and $1,000 per average household in town.
Miller’s final conclusion was that about half of those who filled out surveys would change their vote in the other direction if convinced to do so. Resident Mark Dockser pointed out, “Town departments need to show that we are together to be successful.”
The survey also gave opportunities for respondents to give written comments on the questions. There were over 2,000 comments made through the entire survey, 1,022 of them were general comments that were asked for by the 13th question. The Board agreed that the text of these comments would be made public after Thanksgiving, giving time for people to absorb the data first.
To open the meeting, Arena addressed the issue of an open meeting law complaint filed against the board because four of the members attended the financial forum on October 11. Arena stated why he felt that there was no violation. The first reason being that the board did not deliberate during the forum. Second, the members in attendance did not sit together, and third, they only participated when called upon by the finance committee chair. The board will issue a formal written response within the time required. Berman apologized, suggesting that the complaint may have originated because he spoke right after Arena at the meeting, which could be construed as drifting into deliberation, though it was not intended to be. The board in the future will mitigate the issue by posting for any public meeting that more than three members intend to attend.
The meeting adjourned at 9:36 PM.