Town Meeting to Welcome New Members

April 25, 2024
• With the Annual Town Meeting around the corner, newly elected Town Meeting members are preparing for their first votes in Powers Hall. Here’s why some of them chose to take on the task.

When Moderator Michael Fee strikes the gavel May 6, he’ll be joined by more than a dozen new faces.

Eighteen non-incumbents earned Town Meeting seats across the town’s 10 precincts in the April election — that’s nearly one-fourth of the winning candidates. Eight of those 10 races were contested. And for some of the newly elected, this won’t be their first time attending the proceedings — among the representatives of Precinct C is Tedi Eaton, who recently retired from her role as town clerk.

Before they weigh in on this spring’s 51 warrant articles, first-term members expressed excitement about the position and signaled the importance of local democracy.

Out of 12 candidates, Magda Schmalz secured one of the eight available seats in Precinct I. The competitive race came as somewhat of a surprise to Schmalz, who recalls past ballots often containing even fewer than eight names. She ended up creating campaign lawn signs, passing out door hangers and mailing postcards before election day.

Prior to her run for Town Meeting, Schmalz joined a group of residents concerned about a housing crisis in Needham. That group became officially known as the Needham Housing Coalition, with whom Schmalz advocates for the Linden/Chambers redevelopment and remains focused on the MBTA Communities Act.

With all that the town will face over the next few years, Schmalz said she knew she had to pull papers, because “Town Meeting is really where change happens.”

“If you want to make a difference in Needham, the way to do that is to be a Town Meeting member,” Schmalz said, “and that’s why I decided to run.”

Charly Nanda spent much of her election day standing outside the Needham Golf Club, holding a campaign sign with her name on it. She successfully ran for Town Meeting in Precinct H, but the former Seattle resident admitted the characteristically New England-style government comes with “a steep learning curve.”

“It’s hilarious. You get elected, and then you get four weeks before the annual meeting for the year,” Nanda said. “Luckily, I’ve been around this municipal government for six years, so I know what I got myself into. I’ve sat in the stands before, but I’ve never sat on the ground and had to read through every piece of the warrant.”

With a background in public art and arts administration, Nanda said she’s passionate about finding and maintaining performance spaces in town. When the town redesigns Pollard Middle School, Nanda said she hopes some additional funding is allocated to its theater. An appropriation for a feasibility study at the middle school is on this spring’s warrant.

Nanda was just 17 votes away from losing out on a seat, which she said epitomizes the importance of small town elections.

“When you talk about government, a lot of times people treat it like ‘the man’ or whatever, but really, it’s your neighbors that are doing this,” Nanda said. “It’s the people in your town who are volunteering for so many hours to make your town better, and to do what they think represents you.”

Before his own campaign, Precinct D’s Erhardt Graeff already preached the virtues of voting — he’s an associate professor at Olin College, where he teaches students about civic engagement and how technology plays a role in a democratic society.

In his words, he’s “a total democracy geek,” so a run at Town Meeting seemed to make sense. Graeff currently serves as a library trustee and has lived in Needham since 2021.

Graeff said he’s noticed a trend wherein national politics increasingly influence local politics, which frustrates him, because he feels “we share more in common than what might divide us.” Local government focuses on more concrete issues as opposed to ideological ones, he said, and there’s more space for deliberation.

Having also run in a competitive precinct, Graeff said he was glad to see more than eight candidates on the ballot. He previously ran for Town Meeting last year.

“I think it’s always better when folks have a choice,” he said. “It forces candidates to clarify their vision for Needham and to share it with their fellow residents, and so I think that’s a win.”

As a trained scientist and engineer, Prerna Bhargava Saluja learned to first identify a problem and then try to solve it, so Town Meeting became an opportunity to learn both how Needham functions and the local issues here.

Bhargava Saluja won an uncontested seat in Precinct A and said she’s excited to work through the warrant. Climate change and sustainability are top concerns for her, and she said she’d like to see more natural native species and trees in town, greener housing and better access to public transit and the town center for pedestrians.

To tackle difficult, complex topics, locals need to collaborate, Bhargava Saluja said. As Needham changes with each generation, she said she looks forward to ensuring those changes are positive ones and believes she brings a different perspective to the conversation.

“I’m just amazed and awed at the community that exists in Needham,” Bhargava Saluja said, “and so I’m really proud to be a resident of Needham.”

Having moved to Needham in the summer of 2020 — at the height of the pandemic — Jim Van Dyk recognizes the “terrible housing shortage here in Massachusetts.” The retired banker and stay-at-home dad moved with his family from Ashland, but he originally hails from the midwest, which he said is not dissimilar to Needham life. Van Dyk, who lives on Great Plain Avenue, will represent Precinct G.

As he approaches four years in town, Van Dyk said he’s “really come to love and care about what happens here,” which encouraged him to get involved. Affordable housing, school funding, climate change and the MBTA Communities Act are “all really big issues” he said he looks forward to tackling.

In Van Dyk’s view, all politics are local, and he wanted a seat at the decision-making table. He advised other residents to participate through boards and committees.

“The democratic process works best when we have everybody involved,” Van Dyk said, “when everybody has an opportunity to make their voice heard and then we have an opportunity to make a decision.”

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