The recent attempt in Norton to pass a $25 million tax increase for a new senior center and town hall died last week when it was overwhelmingly defeated at town meeting. Then the election where it was to be voted upon was abruptly canceled just two weeks before it was to be held. That much is certain.
What is uncertain is whether that death was a suicide, or town officials are guilty of negligent homicide. A case can be made for both.
This plan seemed doomed almost from the start. According to the building committee, they were steered by the town manager and selectmen to only one possible site — a contaminated piece of land formerly occupied by a now bankrupt metals manufacturing company, currently being cleaned up by the EPA and other governmental authorities. Given that, what could possibly go wrong?
But things only got worse. Information concerning additional site contamination was not passed from the town manager to the building committee or most of the selectmen, despite the fact he met with both several times after learning it. He has apologized, but the reason for this failure still is not clear.
When the building committee learned of the additional contamination just days before town meeting, they pulled their support for the site, but not the project. Selectmen did the same. The finance committee, which had previously recommended the article after initially not recommending it, reconsidered and unanimously recommended against — again.
Confused? So were most town officials. But the voters were fairly clear when they gathered and scolded those responsible, then turned down the opportunity to construct municipal buildings on a dangerous site.
After initially maintaining the June 18 election could not be canceled, selectmen reversed themselves based upon new legal advice. They canceled it, away from television cameras at a continued meeting held in the high school gymnasium at the conclusion of town meeting.
It is easy to understand why voter confidence in town government may currently be at a low point. In the end, the selectmen’s action was wise. It saves taxpayers the expense of an election where the question is no longer officially backed by a single town board.
But there still remains considerable public support for both a senior center and a town hall. The need for both buildings is painfully clear.
Now the question is: Will Norton residents and voters have confidence in any future plans presented by a so far disjointed town government doing a great impersonation of “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight”?
Here’s hoping they can. Norton has already proved doing nothing doesn’t work. That’s simply no longer a viable option.
Government has a long way to go to undo the damage. The burden is on the town manager, selectmen, and others to build trust and convince citizens they are proceeding in a competent, professional, and transparent manner.
Norton voters must keep in mind the very real needs of the community and work with their officials to come up with a sensible, long-range plan to help the town as a whole. It can be done. It must be done. But it won’t be easy.