Thursday, January 28, 2016

Town Meetings, Massachusetts

MASSACHUSETTS - Why the state requires town meeting as a form of local government.

This year's annual town meeting will be Maynard's 145th. That's nothing. Pelham has been having town meetings in the same building since 1743. Stow started the practice in 1683. Sudbury has copies of town meeting records dating back to 1640. Dorchester, with claims to be the oldest, started in 1633. That first meeting was held to decide on a form of self-government, which turned out to be, well, you know, town meeting.

Blame the Puritans. Unlike Virginia, this was not initially a Crown colony. (It became one in 1692.) Puritan settlers were adamantly against England's established church - meaning a church recognized by law as the official church of a nation. Instead, each new community built its own meeting house, which was also the place of worship. Community rule was by direct democracy, with voting rights going to land-owning men who were members of the church. These men were referred to as 'freemen.' Hired help and indentured servants did not have voting rights (nor women, nor slaves). 

Vote-collecting baskets readied for a Maynard town meeting
The process of conducting town meetings became codified in 1715, when the Great and General Court of the British Crown Colony of Massachusetts passed Article 244 “...for the better regulating of town meetings, because of the disorderly Carriage of some Persons in the Meetings, and because the Affairs and Business thereof is very much retarded and obstructed.”  Ha!  Key provisions, in place to this day, were the establishment of a Moderator and also limiting town meeting actions to decisions on articles previously published in a warrant.

Town meetings became cumbersome as towns increased in population. Attendees had a hard time hearing speakers from the podium or questions from the floor (remember, no microphones). Rules were amended to allow towns an option to establish districts, with each district electing a representative. These representatives would then be the only ones with voting power at town meetings. A town can elect as few as 45 or as many as 240 representatives. The state has an online brochure explaining all the complexities of the town meeting process:

Present day, Massachusetts law requires that towns with a population under 6,000 must use open town meeting. Up to 12,000 must use either open or representative town meeting. Above 12,000, communities can chose open or representative town meeting, or else declare themselves a city and elect a mayor instead. Massachusetts is divided into 351 communities. Of those, 55 are designated cities. That list includes large cities such as Boston and Worcester, and also small ones such as North Adams, population 14,000. Representative town meetings are held in 36 towns, including Framingham (pop 68,000). The remaining 260 communities are governed by open town meeting. Locally, Stow, Acton, Concord, Sudbury and Maynard use open town meeting. A complete list is at

Click on photos to enlarge
Each town adds its own nuances to town meeting rules. Stow does not require a minimum number of people to be a quorum, whereas Maynard requires 75 (lowered in 2009 from 100). Maynard allows up to 30 minutes for a voted article to be brought back to the floor for reconsideration, while Stow allows two hours. In both towns, any voter with a question must state their name and address. People used to add how long they or their families had lived in the town, but that practice has fallen into disuse.

Maynard officially became a town on April 19, 1871 and had its first town meeting eight days later, selecting men to be Selectmen, Treasurer (Lorenzo Maynard), a school committee and constables, also now obsolete posts, such as fence viewers and field drivers. The former were paid to identify fences that were not tall and strong enough to contain horses, cattle, sheep and pigs. The latter were charged with rounding up farm animals that got loose, to be returned to owners only after a fine was paid. Caught animals were held in a pound until reclaimed.

One problem apparent across all communities in the state is declining attendance at town meetings. "All Those in Favor," a book by Susan Clark and Frank Bryan, addresses the issue head on. Their data shows that on average, just 11 percent of registered voters attend open town meeting. Factors include the fact that people often do not have long-term roots in the towns of their current residence  

Not in the newspaper article:

For Maynard, population estimated at 10,100 of which approximately 8,100 are older than the voting age of 18, and roughly 75% of those are registered voters. Rule of thumb is that ~90% of registered voters will vote in a Presidents' year election, fewer in non-Presidential years and fewer still in local elections. The Presidential vote total for Maynard in November 2012 (Obama versus Romney) was 5,788.  In contrast, the Town of Maynard annual election, held every May, draws 1700-1900 voters. Someone running for Selectman can win a seat with 300-400 votes. 

Maynard's annual town meetings, also held every May, draw 600-1000 voters. Special town meetings draw only 100-150 unless there are controversial articles. For example, May 19, 2013 was the Special Town Meeting to consider rezoning of 129 Parker Street (the old Digital property) for stores and a residences. A 2/3 majority was needed to approve the Article, which was recommended by the Selectmen and the Finance Committee. Voters numbered 989, divided 264 YES and 725 NO. A revised (much smaller) plan was approved at Special Town Meeting on January 11, 2016. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Banning Microbeads in Skin Care Products

Unless disposal practices change, experts predict that by 2050 
the amount of plastic in the oceans will outweigh the fish
- World Economic Forum, January 2016

On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed into law the “Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015,” which prohibits the manufacture and introduction into interstate commerce of rinse-off cosmetics containing intentionally-added plastic microbeads. "Rinse-off" in this context means stuff like body scrub products, but also toothpaste. The legal process was remarkably fast, as the bill was introduced in March, passed by Congress in December and signed into law ten days later. This bill amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to ban sale of cosmetics that contain synthetic plastic microbeads beginning on January 1, 2018. The two year delay allows companies time to reformulate products and sell off existing inventory.

Microbeads are itty-bitty pieces of plastic. Most often polyethylene, and less than one millimeter in diameter. Once in fresh or salt water, plastic is consumed by small creatures which mistake the plastic for food. The problem passes up the food chain, so that shellfish, fish, amphibians and birds end up with plastic in their digestive tracts. And us, too - a disquieting thought the next time you order clams or mussels. Plastics can contain or accrue persistent organic pollutants, which in turn can be absorbed from the beads' surface when consumed.    

Why not just use sand, or ground up walnut shells?  When solids are mixed into liquids the solids tend to float to the top or settle to the bottom. The plus for plastics is a density very close to that of water, so batches of product, once mixed, will stay blended during the process of filling containers and also while on the shelf in a store or after being bought. It is exactly this neutral buoyancy that causes problems at the wastewater treatment plant. Once in the treatment tanks microbeads will neither float nor settle, and so cannot be separated from wastewater that way. And the beads are too small to be retained by standard size screens.

Locally, this means that the four wastewater treatment facilities on the Assabet River are discharging microbeads into the river. Ditto two on the Sudbury River and two on the Concord River. 

Many companies were already acting to reformulate. According to Beat the Microbead [], Unilever started the process by announcing in late 2012 that all of its products would be microbead-free by 2015. Johnson & Johnson, which currently has many bead-containing products in the Nutragena brand, promised to be done by 2017. BTM's website lists products that are already microbead free.

What is striking here is how fast the path was from invention, to commercialization, to environmental detection as a pollutant, and finally to a regulatory ban. Elapsed time was about 15 years. Different stories can be told about chemical compounds commercialized around a century ago, which then experienced widespread use before being discontinued or banned decades later.

In 1921,chemists at General Motors discovered that addition of tetraethyllead (TEL) to gasoline prevented "knocking," i.e., faulty timing of fuel ignition in internal combustion engines. Before leaded gas was discontinued in almost all countries, estimates were that greater than 300,000 tons of lead were being added to gasoline - and thus to the atmosphere and worldwide soil contamination and water supply - every year. We humans took billions of pounds of a known brain toxin out of the ground and spread it everywhere for decades! Usage began to taper off in the 1970s, followed by country-by-country bans in the 1990s. By the way, house paint could be up to fifty percent lead until 1955, when the limit was changed to one percent. Later even lower.

Circa 1928, chemists at Frigidaire, a division of General Motors, invented chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The most popular one was branded as Freon and used as a 'safe' coolant compound for refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners, and as compressed gas in fire extinguishers and aerosol products. Only in the 1970s did it become clear that Freon was damaging the atmosphere's protective ozone layer. Freon and other polluting CFCs are still in the process of being phased out worldwide.   

As fate had it, both TEL and Freon were invented by the same person. Thomas Midgley, Jr., a Cornell-educated engineer and chemist, had a productive career at General Motors. He was listed as inventor on scores of patents and won major chemistry society awards. In hindsight, he has been referred to as the most dangerous man to have ever lived, but the real culprits were the leaders of the companies that commercialized and profited from these inventions long after  becoming aware of potential for harm.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Bird's Eye View of Maynard

In 1879 the professional mappers O.H. Bailey & J.C. Hazen drew and published an aerial view map of Maynard. Originals of the printed map are on file at the Library of Congress. The LOC website has more than 500 aerial view maps on file, including South Action and Concord Junction (West Concord). There are no records of aerial view maps ever being made for Stow or Sudbury. See for the Maynard map.   

1879 Bird's Eye View of Maynard, MA by O.H. Bailey
Click on image to enlarge
From the Library of Congress website: “The panoramic map was a popular cartographic form used to depict U.S. and Canadian cities and towns during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Known also as bird's-eye views, perspective maps, and aero views, panoramic maps are non-photographic representations of cities portrayed as if viewed from above at an oblique angle. Although not generally drawn to scale, they show street patterns, individual buildings, and major landscape features in perspective.”

To create one of these, the artist or artists first walked about town sketching drawings of individual buildings. All these individual sketches became information for the hand-drawing of the complete map.

The view of Maynard is as if from a hot air balloon tethered about 2000 feet straight up from the Glendale Cemetery, facing north. The drawing may not be entirely house-to-house accurate, but major buildings are present and identified. What is of interest is what was mapped and what is missing. The Mill, of course, occupies the center of the map: two smokestacks smoking, and a railroad siding between the Mill and the pond. The pond is much larger than at present; the mill complex much smaller.

The Maynard mansions – Amory’s and Lorenzo’s – are drawn in great detail on the hill south of the Mill. A large insert below the main map shows the Mill in more detail, viewed this time from the north, with the Maynard mansions in the background. No surprise here, as the map was commissioned by the Assabet Manufacturing Company, Amory Maynard, Agent (a title akin to today's Chief Operating Officer).

The map shows major streets: Main, Nason, Summer, Parker, Walnut, and Sudbury. And minor streets: Thompson Court, River, Maple, Brooks, Glendale, Pleasant, Percival, Pine, Warren, and Summer Lane (now Summer Hill). The Congregational Church, 18 years older than the town of Maynard, is in place. A school stands where the Library is now. Saint Bridgets Roman Catholic church stands on the site of today’s police station. A sizeable paper mill with its own power plant was downstream from the woolen mill. Glendale House, later renamed the Maynard Hotel, stood at the site of today’s Memorial Park until it burned in 1921. There was no Florida Street bridge over the river.

Oakley H. Bailey, one of the better-known panoramic artists, lived long enough to see his profession become obsolete. He was born in 1843, served in the Civil War, then took up the panoramic map trade in 1871. He retired at age 80 years. The Library of Congress biography cites a 1932 interview in which he said “…airplane cameras are covering the territory and can put more towns on paper in a day than was possible in months by hand work...” He lived until 1947. His life began in the era of steam-powered trains and ended in the age of jet planes and computers.

Today, websites such as Bing (Microsoft) offer map programs that provide choices of map, street level, aerial, i.e., straight down, or bird's eye, meaning angled approximately 45 degrees. For the last, it is possible to rotate the view so as to see the same site from the south, west, north and east. Creating these meant flying an airplane along north-south and east-west lines with cameras on both sides filming continuously.

One interesting observation here is that the images are not always synchronized in time. For example, at one website Maynard's bird's eye image still shows the two-level parking deck facing Nason Street, while in the aerial image it no longer exists.

Copies of the 1879 Maynard map in a range of sizes can be purchased from various on-line vendors. Size options range from as small as 11x14 inches to as large as 30x40 inches. The document can also be downloaded as a JPG file from either Boston Public Library or the Library of Congress.

A version of this column was first published in the Beacon-Villager in February 2010, later incorporated into book MAYNARD: History and Life Outdoors (2011).