Needham voters will have quite a few decisions to make come November, including whether or not to lift the town’s longstanding “dry” status.
With the state ballot already full, selectmen voted Tuesday, Sept. 18 to hold a special election on Nov. 6 that would include the alcohol sales question.
The question—which asks if the town should be allowed to grant licenses to businesses for the retail sale of wine, beer and liquor—received state approval in August but was not placed on the state ballot because the slate was already full, Board of Selectmen chairman Jerry Wasserman said.
Instead, if the town chose to proceed, selectmen had to authorize a special election and a second ballot would be drafted. In addition, a separate table of registrars would operate at each polling location to manage the second ballot, Wasserman said.
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He asked the board Tuesday if they wanted to proceed or to hold off on the question.
Selectmen said they felt asking the question in November would ensure the greatest turnout and the best sampling of public opinion.
“This is one of those issues that has been going around and around, and I think it’s time we came to a settlement of the issue,” Selectman Matt Borrelli said. “I think it’s something we can manage, and we’ll get a broad range of people to answer this question.”
Selectman Dan Matthews said the town had prior experience with two-ballot elections and that the board had known from the beginning that the Nov. 6 ballot might be too full. He said he was disappointed that the Secretary of State’s Office couldn’t find room on its ballot for the local question but that he understood it was a busy year for them.
“This is the process that we’ve been discussing using all along,” Matthews said. “I think both the voters and the Election Commission can handle it. This gets the widest possible participation in making this decision for the town, and that’s a good way to do it.”
Wasserman pointed out that the April Town Election—the next opportunity to vote on the question—had an unfortunate history of lower turnout and that there was no state election scheduled for 2013.
“I do agree that there could be some confusion, and we have to do as much as we can to publicize it,” Wasserman said.
The extra election also creates “a lot more work for the town clerk’s office, in addition to the expense, and I think we all need to appreciate that and do anything we can to help our town clerk in this matter," Wasserman said.
“All that being said, this is the right election to do it,” he concluded.
Selectman Moe Handel also felt November was the best time to vote.
Selectman John Bulian said he was concerned that the extra ballot would cause confusion at the polls during a day with traditionally heavy turnout—and that the confusion and possible long lines might discourage some residents from voting at all.
But Bulian agreed that a Nov. 6 ballot question would have the widest reach and said he would support the other members.
The vote was unanimous.
Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick said the additional ballot would mean more expense for the town and that if the cost could not be covered within the town clerk’s existing budget, she would approach the Finance Committee to authorize a transfer. She said Tuesday she was not yet sure what the additional cost would be.
The ballot question, which was approved as a home rule petition at the April 10 Annual Town Meeting, will be a yes or no question and reads as follows:
Shall the licensing authority in the town of Needham be authorized to grant licenses for both the sale of all alcoholic beverages in packages not to be drunk on the premises and the sale of wine and malt beverages in packages not to be drunk on the premises?
If approved, the town could issue up to six licenses for retail sale of beer, wine and liquor through 2018. After that, the town could issue up to eight licenses, with the final two limited to wine and malt beverages.
Needham has been “dry” since before Prohibition. After the federal repeal of Prohibition, Town Meeting members voted throughout the 1930s and ‘40s not to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages in town. Later, the town voted to allow alcohol to be served in Needham restaurants with more than 100 seats, and for wine and beer to be sold in smaller restaurants.
The Sheraton Hotel currently offers the only true bar in town, which is authorized under a hotel exception approved in the 1960s.