LEE — Townspeople will finally get their say on whether Lee should host a toxic waste landfill.
Town meeting representatives voted 31-8 on Thursday night to allow local residents to vote on the controversial waste dump. The decision was made during an hourslong annual town meeting that went late into the evening at Lee Middle and High School football field.
The nonbinding referendum will ask the Select Board to rescind its approval of the Rest of River agreement to clean up the Housatonic River of PCBs — or polychlorinated biphenyls — that General Electric’s Pittsfield plant pumped into the waterway for decades. The deal calls for a landfill in town that would contain some of the PCB-laden sediment dredged from the river.
“Stand up against the dump, we’re stronger together,” town meeting representative Andrea Wadsworth said under the moonlit sky.
The town meeting vote comes more than a week after Select Board members Sean Regnier and Patricia Carlino rejected Selectman Robert Jones’ request begin the process of rescinding its decision without first finding out the ramifications of backing out of the agreement.
Jones had said the board had a mandate from last year’s annual town meeting to back out of the deal Lee and four other river towns signed in February 2020.
Those town meeting representatives opposed to the ballot question said the citizens fighting the landfill should put all of their energy into supporting the legal battles.
In March, four citizens filed a lawsuit in Berkshire Superior Court claiming the Select Board at the time of Thomas Wickham, David Consolati and Carlino had no right to sign off on the deal without voter input. One of those residents, the newly elected Jones, has since removed himself as a plaintiff.
In a separate case, the Housatonic River Initiative has appealed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's permit for the Rest of River cleanup to the Environmental Appeals Board.
“HRI is in the best position, has the best chance to defeat the Rest of River agreement,” said John Coty.
The town meeting approved two other Rest of River–related items. One warrant article would establish a bylaw banning PCB landfills in Lee, a local regulation that requires final approval from the Massachusetts attorney general. The other measure would require all PCB-laden sediment dredged from the Housatonic be hauled out of town by rail transportation.
Meanwhile, town meeting representatives caught municipal officials off guard by backing a return to an open town meeting.
“To say this is highly irregular is an understatement,” said Lee/Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen.
By a count of 23-21 with one abstention, the legislative body called for the town to petition the state lawmakers to approve special legislation allowing all Lee registered voters to make decisions at annual and special town meetings.
“We are asking to vote ourselves out of office,” said town representative Deidre “Dee Dee” Consolati.
Proponents have tried several times in the past 20 years to revert back to an open meeting last held in the late 1960s, only for the representatives to reject the notion.
After some lengthy discussion, town meeting representatives OK’d all money matters before them. They adopted a $20.8 million operating budget that takes effect July 1. An increase of 2.2 percent above the current $20.35 million spending plan, the biggest line item was funding public education.
The single biggest line item was the taxpayers portion of the Lee Public Schools budget for fiscal 2022. The education assessment of $9.78 million is up $281,000, or 2.97 percent, from the $9.45 million for fiscal 2021.
To close the gap between the overall proposed budget of $10.6 million and the assessment, the school district will spend $725,000 in school choice money and an additional $100,000 in so-called circuit-breaker money.
Among the special money articles that passed include:
• $1.1 million toward buying a new fire engine, ambulance and associated first responder equipment.
• $1 million to pay for the design, repair and paving of town roads.
• $525,000 to fund nine capital improvement projects.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that the HRI is appealing the EPA's permit for the project, and that a separate lawsuit by four town citizens has also been filed in Berkshire Superior Court.