New Town Meeting member Erhardt Graeff/ Credit: Erhardt Graeff

At the end of April, the Observer profiled five Town Meeting rookies before the annual meeting. Follow-up interviews revealed that all of them — now seasoned by three long nights in hard chairs and more than 50 warrant items — were duly impressed with Needham’s version of democracy in action.

All said they were inspired by the level of dedication and knowledge displayed by Town Meeting members and the other town officials who guided the meeting. 

“You realize how many hours they put into it for no reimbursement, just wanting to do the right thing,” said Mike Cooper of Precinct A.

“I love order and structure and formalities, so that whole piece of it was amazing to me,” said Magda Schmalz from Precinct I.

Despite adjourning past midnight on two of the three meeting nights, the rookies noted the efficiency of the deliberations. “In the end, it’s a body that’s quite rational,” said Frank Flynn from Precinct J. “It regards informed opinions favorably and is polite to uninformed opinions.”

“There was more consensus building than contention, and that felt right,” said Erhardt Graeff of Precinct D. 

The rookies took their duties seriously and prepared for the issues they would vote on. Cooper attended a League of Women Voters meeting and a meeting about housing issues beforehand. Between sessions, Graeff researched upcoming issues.

Charly Nanda from Precinct H was surprised by how much happened away from the meeting floor. “In between the meetings, a lot of members did work to get people’s questions answered, and then things passed,” she said. “I was surprised at the work that was done between meetings and on the fly.” 

All of the rookies said they became more aware of the critical role Moderator Michael Fee plays. “I hadn’t understood the role of the moderator, and we really have an excellent moderator,” said Cooper. “He really needs to understand the issues thoroughly, and he has a good sense of humor.”

“Fee commands a lot of respectful comportment, and he gets it,” said Flynn. “And he does it in such an unhurried way.” Graeff said he appreciated the history of Town Meeting that Fee presented to new members. 

Of the five rookies, only Graeff spoke from the floor. He asked a technical question about the Linden-Chambers housing project, which was quickly answered. Nanda put a lot of effort into preparing a statement in support of the theater and lighting warrant for performance spaces at the schools, but the article passed by consent. 

New Town Meeting member Charly Nanda (L) and Kum Rae Lee/ Credit: Charly Nanda

Similarly, Graeff was prepared to support capital items for the library, but they also passed without debate.

Several of the rookies pointed to the passage of the Linden-Chambers revitalization as the meeting’s biggest accomplishment. “It was a huge win,” said Schmalz. “We ended on Monday night in the middle of the conversation, and there was definitely opposition. Because we had Tuesday and Wednesday to educate people, it turned around and passed by a wide margin.”

The rookies said the overwhelming majority of votes went in what they considered to be the right direction, but there were some frustrations with outcomes as well. Flynn said he was hoping for progress on Needham’s tennis court shortage. “I was disappointed that for some mysterious reason the whole tennis court project didn’t get discussed. We have about four, maybe eight tennis courts if you count the ones with pickleball lines. Newton has 72.”

Three of the five rookies were concerned with how Joe Matthews’ citizen’s petition to limit house sizes was sent back to the Planning Board. “That was a hard one for me,” said Nanda. “Even until the moment of the vote I wasn’t sure how I would come down on it.” She decided to vote in favor of the amendment because otherwise, she thought, the issue would be defeated. Nanda, Flynn and Schmalz expressed hope the issue would not be buried for too long and that it would make its way back to Town Meeting.

All of the rookies said they learned a lot about procedure and how a large group functions best. “Sometimes people spoke just to say their opinion, not to sway anyone, but that didn’t happen too much. Once it got close to 1 a.m., I was ready to keep moving,” said Schmalz.

“‘I got the sense that when you stood up to speak, you were definitely stalling the process,” said Nanda.

The rookies were all aware they were there as representatives of their precincts, and their personal stories were not necessarily the best things to share. Schmalz heard from many constituents before and during the meeting about how they felt about a certain warrant article.

The class of 2024 looks forward to the fall Special Town Meeting and those in 2025 and 2026. All said they would consider running again when their terms expire in 2027. 

“Absolutely, I would do it again. It’s my cup of tea. It was a really powerful experience,” Schmalz said. 

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