Town Meeting/ Credit: Georgina Arrieta-Ruetenik

Of the 80 candidates who won Town Meeting seats in the April 9 election, 16 are first-time members. These residents were drawn to serve the town for a variety of reasons, and they represent a diversity of backgrounds and interests. The Observer spoke with five of these rookies, all of whom shared a concern about housing. 

Michael Cooper, Precinct A/ Credit: Courtesy M. Cooper

Each of the 10 precincts in Needham is represented by 24 Town Meeting members, a third elected each year. This year, all precincts other than A had contested races. Newcomer Mike Cooper from precinct A, who recently retired from primary care medicine, finished eighth of eight.

“I voted for myself and I knew that I was in,” he said.

Frank Flynn, Precinct J/ Credit: Jan Flynn

Precincts I and J fielded the most candidates, with 12 each. In J, Frank Flynn, a retired educator and labor organizer, said he knocked on 220 doors and had 121 conversations. He said he learned a lot by listening to the concerns of his neighbors. 

In Precinct I, Magda Schmalz, who runs a preschool, was proud of her fourth-place finish. She campaigned with lawn signs and said she distributed a door hanger to every address where there was a voter in the last election.

Catherine Charly Nanda, a nonprofit arts administrator in Newton, finished seventh in a field of 10 candidates in Precinct H. She said she distributed 100 solar eclipse glasses as part of her campaign, but claimed, “The three lawn signs were what made the difference.”

Why Now

These members of the “Class of 2024” were motivated to run and serve because of the issues facing the town, a sense of community, and because they thought the experience would be rewarding. 

“It all started about a year ago when I was talking to some people in Equal Justice Needham about housing issues,” Schmalz said. “I was so dismayed and so disheartened by some of the things I was hearing. People said that riffraff would come to town.”

Charly Nanda, Precinct H/ Credit: Miles Nanda

Nanda describes herself as a huge advocate for arts and culture in our community and an avid supporter of the climate action roadmap. She attended Town Meeting last year, watching the proceedings from the visitors’ balcony. To add some levity to the evening, she said some observers played a game of Town Meeting bingo. She knows she’s in for many long evenings in hard chairs, but said she’s fascinated by the process. “I do understand that most of the work happens in committees beforehand, but I love the procedural stuff.”

Erhardt Graeff, Precinct D/ Credit: Leise Jones

Erhardt Graeff, an Olin College professor who teaches about democracy, finished eighth out of nine candidates in Precinct D. “It was important for me to be engaged in Needham, to walk the walk,” he said.

Cooper decided to join his wife as a Town Meeting member. “She’d come home from the meetings talking about the issues and it sounded interesting,” he said. “Until my wife did Town Meeting, I didn’t know it existed.” He would not comment on whether there might be issues on which their votes would cancel each other out. 

Other than Flynn and Cooper, the other rookies have all served on town boards or committees as volunteers. Nanda chaired the Needham Council for Arts and Culture and oversaw the installation of the mural at the corner of West Street and Highland Avenue. Graeff is a library trustee who wants to use his position at Town Meeting to advocate for library improvements, among other concerns. “I have two little kids ages 6 and 4, and I really want to help shape the community that they grow up in,” he said.

Annual Town Meeting

This year, more than 50 articles will be voted on at Town Meeting. Flynn said he anticipates the citizens’ petitions included as warrant items should spice up the meeting. “I’ve come in at a good time when the role’s expanding a little bit,” he said. “It’s probably not just considering and approving line items.”

“Government work was not part of my career, and I’m really looking forward to learning about it,” said Cooper. 

Magda Schmalz, Precinct I/ Credit: Courtesy M Schmalz

Schmalz said she has friends in her precinct that are Town Meeting veterans. “We are going to sit together, and

they are going to show me the ropes.” 

Graeff grew up in central Pennsylvania, which does not have a Town Meeting system, and then lived in Somerville, which has a mayor and a very different form of local government. 

“I’m a democracy geek,” he said, “so I’m really excited to be part of the New England Town Meeting experience.” 

The Observer plans to check in with these same members about their experiences after the Annual Town Meeting.

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