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Westford Town Meeting approves $128 million operating budget

Concerns raised over electronic voting

Westford Town Meeting approves $128 million operating budget
Westford Town Meeting approves $128 million operating budget

WESTFORD — Residents gathered at the Westford Academy field on Saturday for the Annual Town Meeting, where they approved all but one article for the next fiscal year.

The town appropriated a total of nearly $1.5 million in free cash for the rehabilitation of the Blanchard Middle School wastewater treatment plant, to replace school and town computers and to conduct a feasibility and redistricting study, among other projects.

The Cameron Senior Center will also receive $1.1 million to fund an HVAC energy conservation project and related building improvements, and the Water Department is approved to replace the Depot Street well for $275,000 and the Forge Village water treatment plant dehumidifier for $150,000.

Voters also approved the fiscal 2023 operating budget of about $126 million, a 2.87% increase, according to the Finance Committee report.

The meeting was kickstarted by a lengthy discussion on electronic vote tabulators, as the town attempts to move away from manual vote tallies.

The town had passed a resolution to “look into the possibility of electronic vote counting” at Town Meeting in 2019, said Town Moderator Angela Harkness, but voters did not support the motion when a new system was presented months later in October.

Harkness said electronic vote tabulators have since become more popular and are used in dozens of towns in the state. And last year, the Select Board called for further information on voting clickers and their use in other town meetings.

Despite Harkness’ assessment that the tabulators are “affordable, simple to use, reliable, secure and anonymous” and that hand-counted votes take much longer, several residents voiced their concerns

Resident Kathy Lynch asked how the votes would be accurately counted using the clickers and expressed her hesitation to “rely on blind trust” for votes, especially contested ones, in the future. Lynch added she is also worried about mobile device tracking, but Harkness said the system is closed and only uses radio frequencies, so it is not connected to the internet.

“I’m concerned about electronic vote tabulators, because electronic systems are hackable and trackable,” Lynch said. “In a close vote, I’m more comfortable with paper. Electronic votes are hidden from all of us, as opposed to using paper ballots, seeing who holds up a card, hearing the voices shout out ‘aye’ or ‘nay’ or doing a visual count.”

A representative from the vendor spoke to the security of the device, which was verified by the federal government.

Another resident raised questions about the anonymity of the new system, and Harkness said the names of those using the clickers are only recorded in the event one of the clickers goes missing.

Several other residents spoke up to oppose the motion, with one person commenting, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” After further public input, the article to authorize the use of electronic vote tabulators at Town Meeting passed with a simple majority vote.

The town voted to dismiss a motion to amend the zoning bylaw by adding 483 Groton Road, the site of a single-family home, to an industrial zoning district to the Town of Westford Zoning Map.

Town Manager Jodi Ross introduced a number of new and promoted town employees, which includes the first Community Wellness Coordinator, Nicole Laviolette, as well as Recreation Director Michelle Collett, Health Director Rae Dick, Facilities Director Jeff Goodwin and Water Superintendent Mark Warren.

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