By Mark E. Vogler
Town Meeting Member Ronald Wallace takes pride in the fact that he has never missed a roll call vote for an Annual Town Meeting or a Special Town Meeting vote since he was first elected to represent Precinct 5 eight years ago. “I have never missed – ever. Four terms, perfect attendance,” Wallace told The Saugus Advocate this week.
But Wallace, one of just 14 town residents with perfect attendance in the 50-member body, has been complaining about the issue of attendance since he decided to pull nomination papers for a reelection run several months ago. And he said he’s glad to see it become a campaign issue in some precincts where residents weren’t represented well in Town Meeting deliberations over the past two years. “Several residents running for a seat have mentioned poor attendance as a reason to vote for them,” Wallace said.
“This is possibly one of the most important elections in Saugus history, so voters need to really do their homework. Town Meeting has a long-standing issue with attendance,” he said.
“In my eight years, I cannot remember a meeting with perfect attendance. Your vote should not be a popularity contest. If someone is elected and does not attend an important vote then residents are the ones not being served,” he said.
A Saugus Advocate review of Town Meeting attendance records documented in the Town Clerk’s meeting minutes posted on the Town of Saugus website revealed that:
- A dozen members missed four or more meetings during the current term.
- Half of those members (six) attended just 50 percent or less of the meetings.
- Three of the members attended just six of the 14 meetings.
- Three members missed eight of the 14 Annual and Special Town Meetings that have been held since a Dec. 16, 2021, Zoom videoconferencing meeting.
- Sixteen members were absent at a Special Town Meeting held on June 26th of this year. Among those absent were four of the five members of Precinct 3 and three of five members from Precinct 8.
- Precinct 3 had the worst overall attendance record among the town’s 10 precincts – 64 percent.
- Precinct 8 had the next-to-worst attendance record – 67 percent.
- During the 14 meetings (annual and special) of the Town Meeting over the past two years, there were an average of eight members absent from each meeting.
Reasons why members miss meetings
“I see empty seats at Town Meeting,” Precinct 2 Town Meeting member Robert J. Camuso, Sr., said Monday night (Oct. 16) as the opening speaker during the first of three consecutive nights of Charter Commission forums cosponsored by SaugusTV and The Saugus Advocate.
Camuso, who had perfect attendance at the 14 meetings held by the Town Meeting over the past two years, said he believed residents in a few Saugus precincts aren’t getting good representation. “There’s 50 of us. If we have a constant 38 to 40 (76 to 80 percent attendance) board, if you would like for me to represent Precinct 2 and have a vote for Precinct 2 …. If I’m not there, I let you down,” he said.
So, what should be characterized as “a poor attendance record” for a Town Meeting member? Anything lower than 70 percent?
The Saugus Advocate put those questions to Town Moderator Steve Doherty, a Precinct 4 Town Meeting member who had perfect attendance. “It depends on the circumstances,” Doherty answered. “If someone is in a serious accident and, as a result, misses three or four weeks of meetings, but is otherwise reliable, they shouldn’t be lumped in with someone who misses every other meeting with no excuse,” Doherty wrote in an email to The Saugus Advocate.
“First of all, I understand that there are several legitimate reasons why someone may miss a Town Meeting session. Some examples would be illness, a family emergency or, in the case of a Special Town Meeting, which can sometimes come up on short notice, they may have vacation or other plans that place them out of town at that time and can’t be changed,” Doherty said.
“That said, when citizens vote for any elected official, they have an expectation that that person is going to commit the time necessary to give the position its due diligence,” he said.
Precinct 9 Town Meeting Member Robert J. Long – who served as Town Moderator for 18 years – was one of three Town Meeting members with the worst attendance record: 43 percent. But Long had a reasonable explanation for missing eight meetings. At age 85, he’s had to deal with medical issues that kept him away from Town Hall over the past two years. Otherwise, he said, he would be there.
With his health restored, Long said he welcomes a run for another term on Town Meeting. But he will be running for one of the five seats in Precinct 4.
“At every meeting, after the roll call, the Moderator or Town Clerk will list those members who called or emailed with the reason that they needed to be excused from the meeting,” Doherty said in his email to The Saugus Advocate.
“While an absence doesn’t necessarily indicate negligence on the part of any official, unexplained, unexcused or excessive absences may cause voters, rightfully so, to question that person’s commitment to the duties of the position,” Doherty said.
Town Clerk: The time of the year matters
There are circumstances which contribute to poor attendance by several Town Meeting members. For one, it is a volunteer position which involves a commitment of time. There are many town employees who serve on Town Meeting, including members of the Saugus Fire and Police Departments. When they’re on duty, Town Meeting takes a back seat to public safety.
That begs the question whether a fireman or police officer should be serving on Town Meeting, given a work schedule that could keep them from attending important meetings where budgets are approved and Town Meeting members vote on major zoning changes. But with a paucity of candidates to begin with, barring police officers and firefighters from serving would limit the field of candidates.
Two years ago, half of the 10 precincts had Town Meeting members elected without opposition. When voters go to the polls on Nov. 7, none of the Town Meeting races will be uncontested.
Town Clerk Ellen Joyce Schena noted that the time of the year can make a big difference, too. Some town residents on Town Meeting may not be able to attend because they have already made family plans for vacation. “The ATM [Annual Town Meeting] is always the first Monday in May so the attendance for the ATM is high because TMM’s [Town Meeting members] already know the date(s),” Schena wrote in an email to The Saugus Advocate.
“It is the STM’s [Special Town Meeting] where the attendance [might] be lower because these come up with shorter notice time. Many absences for STM usually [are] due to work schedules. There were a few absences in the past due to illness and of course some for personal matters. Sometimes life can get in the way,” she said.
It should be noted that there are pockets of perfection clustered in several town precincts. Eight of them have at least one member with perfect attendance.
Precinct 2, with an overall attendance record of 97 percent over the past two years, has three members with perfect attendance: Christopher P. Riley, Robert J. Camuso, Sr. and Peter A. Rossetti, Jr. Town Meeting members Christine M. Moreschi and John Joseph Vecchione IV missed just one meeting apiece.
Precinct 4 had the second best attendance record in town, at 96 percent, featuring two members with Perfect Attendance: Town Moderator Steve Doherty and Town Meeting Member Glenn R. Davis. Town Members William L. Leuci, Robert C. Northrop and Maureen Whitcomb just missed perfection with one absence apiece.
Precinct 10 finished a close third place overall, with an attendance record of 94 percent. They had two Town Meeting members with perfect attendance: Martin Costello and Peter Z. Manoogian, Sr. Members Darren Ring and Carla A. Scuzzarella missed just one meeting apiece. Member Peter A. Delios missed two meetings.
Precinct 6 finished fourth, with an overall attendance rate of 91 percent. Jean M. Bartolo had a perfect attendance record. Member Kevin D. Currie missed one meeting. Members Elisa LeBrasseur, Allen V. Panico and William S. Brown missed two meetings apiece.
Precinct 1 finished with an 87 percent attendance record, with Mark J. Bell the lone member with a perfect attendance record. Members Susan C. Dunn and Sue Palomba missed just one meeting apiece.
Precinct 9, with an 86 percent attendance record overall, had two members with perfect attendance over the past two years: Daniel Kelly and Judith Worthley.
Precinct 5, with an 83 percent attendance record, had two members with perfect attendance: Brenton H. Spencer and Ronald Wallace.
Precinct 7, with a 79 percent attendance record overall, had one of its members achieving perfect attendance over the past two years: Robert A. Palleschi.