Chairman says town manager legislation defeated by vocal minority, ‘scare tactics’

by susan on April 11, 2012

Budgets may have taken center stage at the second night of Town Meeting last night, but both before and after the official business at hand, the talk in the lobby and aisles of the Trottier auditorium was all about the previous night’s vote to postpone the town manager legislation.

Surely it’s a decision that will reverberate throughout our community for months to come, and for the committee of volunteers who spent countless hours drafting the legislation, the outcome was particularly disappointing.

Committee Chairman Joseph Laning took to the blog last night to share his thoughts on the vote. I’m reprinting his comment here in its entirety (paragraph breaks added by me) in case you missed it.

I have resisted on numerous occasions over the past months to write something for the blog or the newspaper and while I stand by that decision, I also regret not voicing information more frequently that may have helped motivate or inform the residents of Southborough to come to Town Meeting and act on the Town Manager Legislation Article. To all those who came to support the Drafting Committee’s work, I thank you. For all those who helped us with interviews, research, and related activities, you have my gratitude.

That being said I cannot stress strongly enough that the night’s result on Article 4 is disappointing. The resistance to change and the seeming need of the vocal few to remain firmly affixed in the past is truly puzzling. It was and is my firm belief that by changing to this type of government; (1) the sky was not going to fall, (2) we were not going to give up our right to self-govern, and (3) this was in the best long-term interest of Southborough. Most of the comments to the contrary simply amounted to scare tactics.

To supporters I am sorry that it couldn’t get done and I do feel somewhat responsible in that maybe there was something else that could have been done. This personal engagement and commitment is probably why I resist getting further into Town politics (not enough Tums). The more I and the majority of my fellow committee members researched and learned the more convinced we became of the validity and necessity of this type of governance change, both now and especially in the future.

In addition I am particularly concerned that the vocal minority can so significantly influence the operations and development of Southborough and for the most part the majority of residents either don’t realize it or don’t care. I do hope and encourage any continued efforts to make needed changes to the way we govern ourselves however yours truly will be taking a break.

Joseph Laning
Chairman, Drafting Committee for Town Manager Legislation

1 Dissenter April 11, 2012 at 12:29 PM

I feel that this is a grossly inaccurate characterization of what went on at town meeting regarding this issue. To say that ‘scare tactics” were used implies that uninformed voters showed up and gave in to a small vocal group. This is not the case at all. On the contrary, many residents who would like to see a modified, more efficient form of town government took a great deal of time to read and analyze warrant article #4 and found that it reached too far. Despite the long presentation by Mr. Rooney that would have had us think that the article was solely for the purpose of freeing the BOS from “minutia,” the article was drafted to give way too much power to a single individual. Do you call hiring and firing of our police chief and fire chief “minutia?” I do not. Do you feel that making such impactful decisions behind closed doors is in the best interests of our town? I do not. I felt the propaganda was all on the other side and was pleased that the vote will give the town more time to come up with a proportional response to our organizational problems. This article was throwing out the baby with the bath water.

2 SB Resident April 11, 2012 at 1:09 PM

I completely agree with Mr. Laning on points 1 and 2, but the most important point number 3, was never discussed. The world wouldn’t have ended if we made this change, but it feels like we were “crossing the road just to get to the other side”.

The only information I ever found distrubited by the commitee regarding the legistlation was the plan, but equally as important is the rational. It seems that all the committee members were so immersed in this, their opinion of a need for change became second nature to them, thus they didn’t realize that they needed to sell the plan.

As an outsider, I still have yet to hear one valid argument as to why we needed this change. From where I sit, the town is functioning as well as I would expect any town to function, no major corruption, controversies, mismanagement etc. have occured that show that our current government is broken.

If a time comes when we can’t find three selectmen willing to fill the role as it is currently defined or the best town administrator we can find proves incompetent, then I’ll admit we need some change, but for now ‘it ain’t broke enough to warrent fixin’.

3 Jim Hegarty April 11, 2012 at 2:33 PM

Regardless of whether one supported or opposed Article 4, Mr. Lanning is absolutely correct when he wrote “… and for the most part the majority of residents either don’t realize it or don’t care.”

That’s the unfortunate truth. The overwhelming majority of Southborough residents just do not care enough to come to Town Meeting and vote.

Article 20 was decided by just 102 voters! And many of those 102 voters are people who volunteer or were elected town officials. I’ll bet there were less than 50 non-volunteer/elected board town residents at the meeting last night.

Additionally, the majority of the audience were AARP eligible (myself included) so how can we engage the younger town voters? We really need to come up with some way to get the average person interested enough to attend town meeting. That would make for a much healthier democracy!

Susan – this would be a terrific topic for discussion!

Thank you to the Drafting Committee for Town Manager Legislation!

4 Frank Crowell April 12, 2012 at 10:39 PM

Mr Hegarty – When the future tough budget decisions come along with real choices, that is when the non-AARP crowd will show up. I am speaking about the school budget. If, for instance, parents were to be required to pay a fee for busing, there might be a few more people there. There were no tough choices in the school budgets this year.

As for me, I was on the road looking out for possible ways to vote on line. Sorry to hear the town manager legislation went down in defeat. I am sure it will pass next year. It makes too much sense.

5 John Butler April 11, 2012 at 2:46 PM

Both Joe and Dissenter make some fair points here. However, recriminations are not warranted from either side of this sincere discussion.

To Joe, I’d say it is entirely reasonable to want to proceed cautiously, as Town Meeting decided. The Committee should not feel bad about that debate or attribute it to “a vocal few”. Even though I voted in favor the proposal, I thought the debate, the back and forth, was basically healthy and well-meaning from all points of view. Critics who pointed out that the proposed text was “very fresh” were right, the schedule had been tight. There were plenty of legitimate concerns voiced, as there have been all along through the process. I think we should be pleased with the debate.

To Dissenter I’d say, only a few realize how terribly hard the Drafting Committee worked on this and how that inevitably produces a sense of personal loss at this point. The proposal they made, characterized as “way too much power” is modest by standards of Massachusetts. We have few refugees from tyrannical Northborough or Sudbury arriving at our borders. So the Committee is feeling frustrated now and we can’t blame them for feeling that way.

Overall, having Town Meeting consider this kind a change a few times, and re-crafting the proposal to reflect the debate, is a fully reasonable way to proceed. We do have some issues we need to address as a Town. We can disagree along a path to compromise and problem solving, usually without getting mad at one another.

During the debate some portion of the charter text from 1727 was shown, I believe. It is worth reflecting that, humanity never changing very much, some process like our current one, of give and take, debate, disappointment, delay, compromise no doubt produced it, and can get us through our current issues.

6 Dissenter April 11, 2012 at 5:52 PM

“only a few realize how terribly hard the Drafting Committee worked on this and how that inevitably produces a sense of personal loss at this point.”

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement and I am one who does realize this. I have been on the losing side of this type of battle myself and know how disappointing it is.

I do appreciate the time the committee put in and am sorry for their disappointment, but I still disagree with the implication that many residents were manipulated by a small minority into voting the way they did.

I also agree with Mr. Heggarty that the small number of residents who turn out for Town Meeting is a problem. One evening a year doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Maybe the rec department could organize a huge babysitting fair at Trottier for the night of town meeting so that more parents could attend? Algonquin students could earn a little money, parents could attend Town Meeting and the kids could have a fun night, maybe in their pajamas? Could a teacher’s day be scheduled for that Tuesday so that a late night wouldn’t be a problem?

7 John Butler April 11, 2012 at 11:36 PM

Dissenter, I agree with you, in that I also do not believe that people were manipulated. This is large, complex and new. It is natural that people have different points of view. It has been an attempt to do a lot fairly quickly, and this is hard to do, for good reasons.

8 Al Hamilton April 11, 2012 at 4:15 PM


You may not want to hear this from one of the opposition but I really do appreciate the time and effort you and the committee put in. Thank you.

You may also be surprised to learn that I think you did extremely well. While we have talked in the abstract about a Town Manager and a 5 person BOS this was the first time that someone put a real detailed proposal for substantial change in front of Town Meeting. It was a carefully crafted, well thought out piece of legislation. This is a big change and Town Meeting is cautious. It often does not say yes the first time it is asked if the matter is something unusual. Consider the following:

John Butler and the Advisory lost the first two times it tried to convince Town Meeting that we should CUT our taxes by using excess monies in the Stabilization fund. Both times the loss was by less than 5 votes. The third time was the charm. Sometimes the reality of the change need time to be socialized.

I believe that something very close to your committees proposal will pass in the next year or so. If it does you and your committee will deserve the lions share of the credit (together with the Town Government Study Committee).

Please don’t give up, back up the battering ram and head for the gates again.

9 southsider April 11, 2012 at 4:39 PM

I thought the overall discussion was enlightening and helped craft the final vote of many in the hall. It seemed clear to me that the overwhelming majority of members present were in favor of a stronger Town Administrator/Manager but also wanted to maintain controls over how strong that position would be. I think the vote to postpone indefinitely was the result of concerns that we couldn’t easily divide the Article with such short notice. Personally, I believed Al Hamilton when he said that he would show up at a future meeting with two warrant articles: one to ask the State to ok 5 Selectmen and one to ask TM to build more responsibility into the Administrator/Manager role. And I think both of those warrant articles would pass easily. My one regret: that the Committee who did all the work was so disappointed in the voting results that they are allowing someone else to finish their fine work. I hope they reconsider.

10 John Rooney April 11, 2012 at 6:31 PM

Dissenter, My presentation at TM was not meant in any way to mislead anyone into believing that Article 4 was simply an effort to deal with the “minutiae” of town government. Article 4 presented TM with an opportunity to define the role of the BOS in such a way that provided a greater opportunity for the BOS to concentrate on long-term issues facing the town. At the same time, Article 4 offered a much more efficient and effective way to operate town government. If I gave any impression beyond that, then you correctly call me on the carpet.

I think Mr. Hegarty has hit the proverbial nail directly on the head. A theme in opposition to Article 4 was that we have been doing a good job governing ourselves at open TM for hundreds of years. There is a saying that the only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery. Times have changed. Resistance to change merely for the sake of preserving the status quo is not a virtue to be celebrated and promoted as an end to itself. The syllogistic argument that “TM is working properly because TM says that it is working properly” does not necessarily instill confidence. We are fooling ourselves with the belief that open TM is representative of our town. The collective “we” in attendance at TM has nothing to do with self-governing in any realistic sense.

Stepping into full-bodied armor, let me offer the suggestion that, even if the voting result on Article 4 was reversed, open TM is failing us as a town. Citizen apathy is a common charge against town meeting government and cannot be denied if attendance is a barometer of such apathy. The gravitational pull of the town meeting has nearly been lost, and for a variety of legitimate reasons an exceptionally large percentage of the registered voters in our town voluntarily abdicate power that is rightfully theirs Low attendance results in decisions being made that are not representative of middle-aged and older voters or even younger voters. Low attendance allows a group of voters with a special interest to attend in disproportionate numbers and “pack” the meeting to influence the outcome on specific issues. This small group represents the interests of all citizens, although no one has elected them to do so, and they are accountable to no one. This is exactly the problem that caused our Founding Fathers to reject this form of government and opt instead for a representative form of government.

Everyone aims to work in concert to do what is best for the town. It is easy to relax in the comfort of known surroundings and criticize something and not offer any suggestions or solutions. A central question the community probably should address is whether the town should consider moving to a representative town meeting. In such a scenario, the voters would go to the polls and elect members to attend TM and vote on their behalf. These members would represent a relatively small area of town and thus are accountable to the people who have elected them. This should result in a representative body at TM that is much more consistently and truly representative of the residents as a whole than the representation that occurs presently. Those residents who wish to attend the meeting may still do so, of course, and may speak if they choose, thus helping to keep their representatives informed and preserving the opportunity for citizens to observe and participate in the debate. The alternative, i.e., the status quo, is not representative democracy but simply direct democracy of the attendees.

The retort that open TM allows every registered voter to attend and therefore provides participatory ability, ignores the reality of non-attendance. The problem of low attendance does not go away by allowing attendance. The ability to attend does not result in representative attendance.

Of course, to be in favor of such a suggestion presupposes two conditions: (1) Two hundred registered voters is not representative of our town; and, (2) change should be discussed. While I believe everyone would answer in the affirmative to number (1), I would anticipate strong resistance to number (2).

The small number of voters who actually showed up at TM voted down an opportunity for progress that would benefit the entire town. While sour grapes might appear to be the most appropriate idiomatic metaphor to describe my thoughts on the outcome of Article 4, let me assure you that undoubtedly it is at least partially the case.

11 John Boiardi April 13, 2012 at 7:58 AM

Mr Roony,

At what attendance level at town meeting would you feel that resident taxpayers are
properly represented? We had approximately 200 at the meeting voting on Warrent 4. What number do you feel would suffice? 200, 500, 1000 ? If we went to a representative town meeting with three precincts how many would we have per precinct. 50, 100?
Keep in mind we have 437 congressman and 100 senators representing about 300 plus millions.
The quorum requirement for TM is 100. If your not comfortable with that number, lead the charge to increase it to a number that satisfies your need for proper representation.
Framingham has a representative town meeting. Their town meetings drags on for MONTHS!!!!!!! They have difficulty deciding anything. Hudson on the other hand has a similar number of warrants and they finish their town meeting in three hours in one night.
What would you recommend?

12 Jerry C April 11, 2012 at 6:58 PM

Joe, I think that you and your committee did an outstanding job. I attended your library meeting a few weeks back, and town meeting, and you had me convinced. I voted for the Town Manager, and I was also disappointed with the result.

I spoke to several people at work about this, and I was told, by all three people, that big changes in town government NEVER pass the first time.

So, anyways, I sincerely appreciate your hard work and excellent presentations. I don’t think this issue is going away….. it may take a few tries but eventually we’ll have a Town Manager. I only hope the next person that drives this issue will be as good as you.

13 southsider April 11, 2012 at 10:47 PM

I completely disagree with Mr Rooney’s comments. When the town has faced significant issues, representation at TM has been incredible. The overflow crowds during the ‘abolish the regional school relationship’ is probably the most recent example. It seems to me that the general populace must be content with how the town runs itself and TM’s rather slow resistance to change indicates how rarely any particular ‘side’ is staked out by a minority who then work to stuff the ballot box of TM. That just does not happen without the opposition also mustering its proponents to offset such a tactic. The most recent well-attended TM included a number of parents of school-aged kids who were sensitive to that year’s opposition to squeezed school budgets and they were able to prevail at the TM ballot box. But I think they represented an equivalent majority of the town’s population. This is a great town and it runs itself well enough for most of us. Low attendance simply means that there is little in terms of controversial proposals and the majority in town understand that warrant articles supported by both Selectmen and Advisory will pass with or without their attendance. Methinks Mr Rooney doth protest too much.

14 John Boiardi April 12, 2012 at 7:41 AM

Comment: Southsider.

You are correct. Issues drive attendance at town meeting. When the issue is whether Southborough should break away from Northboro the town meeting overflowed. When the issue is how much we spend to replenish the amount of road salt the DPW needs I am content to let 100 residents who attend town meeting decide. Remember there was an effort several years ago to reduce the town meeting quorum to 50. Regarding the age component of the quorum when the issue involved schools there were plenty of soccer moms that attended the meeting.
Regarding representative town meeting, be careful what you wish for. Look to Framingham which has had representative town meeting. As bloggers have mentioned before, do we want to be like Framingham ( my home town). Check out their tax rate history. I think not.
Again I think 100 at town meeting to represent 10,000 residents is fine. We have roughly 300 representing 300,000,000 at the federal level and I’m not happy.

Again, Southsider you are correct, the issues drive town meeting attendance. This year it AARP, next year it may be soccer moms.

15 Jim Hegarty April 13, 2012 at 5:13 AM


I disagree with the portion of your comment “Again I think 100 at town meeting to represent 10,000 residents is fine (emphasis added).”

Those 100 voters did not represent anyone but themselves. And that’s the crux of the problem! The town decisions are being made by the tiny group of people who do attend. Granted, the vast majority of voters chose not to attend, but democracy works far better with greater involvement.

Let’s use the attendance figures that Susan posted and assume that of the roughly 140 voters (I looked at the town’s web site and tried not to double count anyone on two or more boards) who currently serve as either elected or appointed officials, assume that 50 were in attendance. Since they already participate in town government decisions, subtract those 50 people from Susan’s total attendance figures and now take a different look at those numbers:

227 voters in attendance on night 1 means 96.7% of voters did not attend.
94 voters in attendance at start of night 2 means 98.6% of voters did not attend.
The 52 voters who voted on Article 20 means that 99.2% of voters were not represented.

I may be off a bit on my estimate there were 50 elected and appointed town officials in attendance, but I hope you can see my point.

How can we call this a successful Town Meeting when roughly 98% of the voters chose NOT to participate?

And I don’t think we can simply say, that the roughly 98% of non-voters are just hurting themselves. That level of non-participation really means we do not have a representative democracy and that hurts us all.

The questions is how can we fix this problem.

16 John Boiardi April 13, 2012 at 11:24 AM


That’s my question ( how do we fix the problem?). Framingham has 18 precincts with 12 representatives elected per precinct or 216 members. The represent probably 80,000 residents. Their town meeting drones on for months ( check their website). The attendance record for the representative town meeting members is far from 100%. The town meeting does not require 100% of the 216 to conduct business, again , check the attendance records of the elected town meeting members on Framingham’s official website.
My point is that 100 ( the official quorum) or 200 residents drawn to town meeting depending on the issues, is representative. The bigger the issue, the larger the attendance. Don’t forget the function of the BofS. Their job is to craft the warrants for town meeting and define the dollar limit of the particular warrant. Of course, town meeting members to introduce their own warrant. Advisory and the BofS make their recommendations and the town meeting members vote on it. The ultimate would be for every warrant be subject to town ballot vote ( impractical ).
So the question reverts back to how many town meeting attendees would satisfy you as to representative of the townspeople. If you apply your percentages to any level of government I suspect the representation would be more dismal.

17 Neil Rossen April 12, 2012 at 9:27 AM

I concur in full with John Rooney’s remarks. Town Meeting is broken. After a completely superficial and misleading presentation (with so much appreciation repeatedly expressed by Gobron for the “partnership” with the townspeople) on the School Budget, it was passed as presented with barely a dissent. Attendance was pitiful. A representative form of town meeting may stop the School juggernaut. Al Hamilton made a compelling presentation about declining enrolment and increasing costs. No interest at all. The unions and teachers win again.

18 Tim Martel April 12, 2012 at 10:06 AM

I thought it was very telling that one attendee (a school rep??) made an attempt to shut down Mr. Hamilton’s presentation via point of order. Thankfully, the town moderator allowed Mr. Hamilton to continue – kudos to him.

19 Annette Flaherty April 14, 2012 at 9:05 AM


If someone has interest in a more in-depth presentation and discussion on budgets with Dr. Gobron, I would suggest instead that they attend one of the three public school budget meetings scheduled prior to town meeting. Dr. Gobron is able to discuss these issues with much greater detail during those forums. He spent nearly two hours at the one I attended at Woodward. Every issue brought up in these forums was on the table. So yes, in comparison the presentation was superficial at town meeting in comparison due to the limitations of the forum. However he highlighted the key issues and factors behind the budget at town meeting.

Realistically there is no length of discussion that could address a fundamental mistrust.

20 Carl Guyer April 12, 2012 at 10:26 AM

As others have said, I would like to thank the members of the committee who worked so long and hard on the proposed town government reforms and offer my condolences on the defeat of the warrant article. I came to the town meeting indecisive on the proposal. I voted for the article because I after listening to the discussions, I thought the benefits outweighed the risks. My specific moment of decision occurred when I realized a Town Manager would have a similar role to the Superintend of Schools. That realization convinced me that your reform was well intended and should be implemented.

As I left the meeting I felt disappointed. Disappointed that a majority of the attendees did not have the faith to trust your committee, the Board of Selectmen and the Advisory Committee who after many hours of work on behalf of the town supported this proposal. I thought there was a bit of irony in the next warrant article. This article was intended to be a plan from the Capital Budget Committee. The plan could not be presented because the committee does not have enough members. I am not sure there is real linkage here, but it was ironic.

21 Tim Martel April 12, 2012 at 2:18 PM

Mr. Guyer,

Could you please explain that last comment, about “the plan could not be presented because the [capital budget] committee does not have enough members”? Thank you.

22 Kelly Roney April 13, 2012 at 11:41 AM

As I understand it, because the CBPC couldn’t reach a quorum, it couldn’t legally approve a report to be presented to Town Meeting. According to the 2011 Annual Report, there are five seats on the CBPC, but two are vacant, which means that all three members are presumably required to establish a committee quorum.

Corrections welcome…

23 Al Hamilton April 13, 2012 at 12:59 PM


I think you are correct there were not enough members to make a quorum. I served on this committee and chaired it for a while. I think it should be disbanded. The intent is good but the reality is that when it comes to money issues the voices of Advisory, BOS and School committees drowned out the Capital Budget Committees recommendations.

24 Resident April 12, 2012 at 2:31 PM

Article 4 was one of the most important articles this town has faced for as long as I can remember, and I’ve lived here for 40 years. To say that the town will turn out when a big issue comes up is simply not accurate. Isn’t a change in the form of government a big issue? To have only 200 voters present is pathetic. I am surprised Mr. Butler believes 100 voters out of over 7000 registered voters is a good ratio. That is less than 2%. So less than 2% is a good representation for the 7000? I disagree.

While Mr. Rooney may not have support asking for us to consider a representative town meeting, he is spot on in having the guts to point out the problem and putting out a suggestion. Lets not kid ourselves for a minute. Less than 2% of 7000 is about as bad as it gets.

25 southsider April 12, 2012 at 4:27 PM

Not sure that I completely agree with your analysis, Resident. I have seen much larger crowds at TM when something important and controversial has been considered. The Southborough High School debate drew huge crowds. The discussion over accepting Northborough’s proposed compromise in lieue of the current lawsuit over school building reimbursement funds drew big crowds and created much debate. To some, a change in town government policies and procedures would seem a big deal but to others who have abdicated their opportunity to participate in the town’s governing, I can easily understand a lassez-faire attitude about it. Most residents are more than content with how the town runs itself now and it follows that they’d be equally content to allow those who have been running the town to make decisions on how to modify that process. As for all the other business of TM, I’d suggest that the non-attendees realize that in an overall $50million budget, all our time and attention is about the last 1- 3% of the spend. The town can’t run on $0 and they trust the appointed and elected boards to insure nothing critical falls through the cracks. TM’s role is to make decisions on the fine tuning of those final few percents and many simply don’t want to be bothered. That said, i don’t understand why the town doesn’t do a better job of organizing some centralized child care service for those couple of evenings. maybe attendance would increase a bit….

26 Neil Rossen April 13, 2012 at 8:22 AM

A possible way to encourage resident participation is to simply put significant budget or strategic (e.g. Manager) issues to a town-wide vote via the ballot box shortly after a televised town meeting. This approach can of course be significantly refined.
I am hopeful; that spending would then be brought to an appropriate level.

27 Tim Martel April 13, 2012 at 11:39 AM

I’ve taken a shot at splitting Article 4 into two distinct pieces of draft legislation.

The download is a zip file ( that contains two Word documents:
1. 5-Selectmen-BOS.docx (a Special Act for a 5-member Board of Selectmen)
2. TownManager.docx (a Town Bylaw to create a Town Manager position)

Both documents include the full content of Article 4, with Track Changes turned on. I modified language only for the following reasons:
1. Separating content as per the purpose of the split.
2. Modifying the nature of the process (i.e. TownMgr now being a Bylaw Article, not a Special Act) and associated dates.
3. Assuming the Town Manager legislation is reviewed first, I updated Section 9(a)(1) in the TownManager.docx file to reflect that the BOS will still be a 3-member board.

If you have trouble with the download using Internet Explorer, try using FireFox. Thank you.

28 John Rooney April 13, 2012 at 7:43 PM

Tim, Your enthusiasm is infectious. However, a town manager cannot be created by by-law.

In 2007 the town of Topsfield sought an opinion from the Attorney General with respect to the scope of duties assignable to a town administrator. The attorney general responded and stated “A town manager form of government is created by either a home rule or special act charter.” Further in the opinion the attorney general noted that “town meeting action, by either by-law or vote, to create a town manager position would be in conflict not only with G.L. c. 43B, sections 10 and 13, but also with the Home Rule Amendment itself.”

Any thought that we can simply draft a by-law to invest a town administator with town manager responsibilities is not viable.

We are back at square one.

29 Tim Martel April 13, 2012 at 10:18 PM

Thanks for the feedback, John.

Chapter 43B Section 13 forbids the following from being changed by Bylaw: composition, mode of election or appointment, or terms of office (which I don’t think we’re contemplating – what is the term for the current Town Administrator position?)

Chapter 43B Section 10 seems irrelevant as it deals with amendments to a previously established charter (which we don’t have).

The Home Rule Amendment has Nine Sections, none of which seem in conflict with the current legislation. Unless Southborough previously enacted a Special Law (not Bylaw) in regards to town government structure, in which case we’d need an official charter to reverse it.

Also note there is no legal definition of “Town Manager” or “Town Administrator”.

Section 23A of Chapter 41 seems to permit the changes that our legislation is contemplating for a Town Admin. I wonder if the germane point is that a “strong” TM (i.e. one with scope beyond the traditional BOS’s purview) might not be viable by Bylaw whereas a “moderate” one (i.e. scope within BOS’s purview) might be.

Chapter 41, Section 23A
“[snip]…[The Town Administrator] shall act by and for the selectmen in any matter which they may assign to him relating to the administration of the affairs of the town or of any town office or department under their supervision and control…[snip]”

As an alternative, we could split Article 4 into three documents – a skinny Special Act moving the BOS from three to five members, a skinny Special Act creating the position of Town Manager (and nothing else), and a detailed Bylaw defining the Town Manager’s responsibilities. That would be easy to put together in draft form.


30 southsider April 14, 2012 at 7:46 AM


I like your original thought of splitting Article 4 into the two pieces you have suggested and further, agree with the logic in your rebuttal to Mr. Rooney’s negative reaction to your proposal. I think your idea mirrors what Mr. Hamilton also promised to provide at a future TM and reflects what was the thinking of the majority at the recent Town Meeting. Thanks.

31 John Butler April 14, 2012 at 9:22 AM

My first thought is that this topic is somewhat too large and technical for this mode of communication, but perhaps people are interested.

The Attorney General’s office in the case of the Topsfield Bylaw made a distinction between delegation of powers vs. (what I would describe as) alienation of powers of the Board of Selectmen. The BOS or Bylaw can do the former, not the latter. In the former, someone, of whatever title, is able to act in their stead, but the BOS can always intervene and countermand. In the latter, they cannot intervene. So if the Town Manager does something they don’t like, but it is within the Town Manager’s authority, BOS can’t swoop in and change it. According to the Topsfield AG letter, alienation of BOS power is the essence of a Town Manager and can only be done by an Act or a Charter. (Note that presumably a BOS can retain the power to remove a Town Manager whom they are dissatisfied with.) Further, it may be that since we have adopted the Strong Chief’s Law, neither the BOS nor Bylaw can even delegate the appointment or reporting relationship of the Chiefs without an Act or Charter.

We have in fact been plagued in the past by what can only be called meddling by the BOS in the day to day affairs of Town Hall. (Remember I go back a long way, so don’t take it as an accusation against any particular board.) So without some alienation of powers we don’t accomplish what we need. In a “healthy” organization this could be accomplished by tradition, a tradition of leaving the Town Manager / Administrator to do their job and not interfering. We have the opposite tradition.

Recognize that electing even one member of the BOS, who eventually rotates in as chair, and is of the meddling mindset, produces a year of agendas filled with meddling topics. For the sake of hiring a quality Town Manager/Administrator who believes they can do the job they were hired to do, and for the sake of being able to attract and retain members of the BOS who don’t want to see their job as approving the grade promotion of every employee, or all the other minutia Mr. Rooney detailed, we need a law that is closer to an alienation than a delegation of powers.

It is unclear to me at this point, the degree to which an Act can lay down the broad terms, and a Bylaw fill in the details, of a Town Manger form. That sounds sensible, but this is Massachusetts and the legislature, may have decided that we need to be protected from ourselves by the intervention of their rubber stamp. We need a clarification of that before we can do what you are attempting in your draft. That said, I’m very glad to see you are engaged with the task.

32 Al Hamilton April 14, 2012 at 12:31 PM


I read the opinion, thanks for sending it. I am not sure there is a real problem. Let me see if I can summarize the issue as I see it:

1. There are a set of authorities that are vested in the BOS. Some of those authorities are granted by the State and some by Town Meeting.

2. The BOS has very broad authority to delegate those authorities. Presumably the person delegated to would be the TA. The key is that the ultimate authority still resides with the BOS.

3. The Chair of our BOS is really Primus Inter Pares. He/She has no special powers (other than X Ray vision) that the other Selectmen do not have. By tradition this position has rotated and has to some extent been the BOS’s point person in doing the day to day supervision of town affairs.

4. Starting with the powers granted to the BOS by the State under a TA form of govt.: If the BOS votes to delegate those powers then those powers are delegated until the BOS votes to rescind the delegation. If a Selectman chooses to “meddle” in areas where the BOS has delegated its authority the proper response is “The BOS has assigned me this duty, I would be happy to discuss this at the next meeting” or something to that effect.

If the BOS chooses to rescind an authority (which is their right) that might trigger a vote of confidence in the TA (this could be done by contract). I think the reality is that unless there was a serious problem once an authority was delegated by vote it would be very unusual for it to be taken back.

5. For authorities granted to the BOS by Town Meeting I think we have more latitude. Authorities granted to the BOS might be subject to their delegation to the TA.

I am fairly comfortable with the BOS voting to delegate approach. It meets my principle objection of keeping local control.

33 Tim Martel April 14, 2012 at 2:04 PM

You’d want the BOS after every election to vote on the “Town government structure” to keep it in place? The “town manager” legislation would be only a BOS policy, rather than a Town Bylaw? That sounds cumbersome if I understand what you’re proposing.

34 Tim Martel April 14, 2012 at 2:09 PM

Thanks for the clarification, John.

If its a “delegation vs. alienation of BOS powers” issue rather than a “scope of TM powers”, it seems that the main sticking point would be Section 2(c) of Article 4 from the green handout.

The language could be changed to find a middle ground that satisfies both concerns. If it was written such that the BOS could intervene in day-to-day affairs by majority vote, that would avoid the alienation issue as well as cut back on meddling by lone Selectmen.

Any chance that might work?

35 Tim Martel April 17, 2012 at 2:38 PM

After reading further about the letter from the AG to Topsfield and also the current Bylaws of Topsfield, it seems clear that the Town Manager Legislation could be enacted by Southborough Bylaw with the sole except of Section 2(c).

I’d still like to get an opinion on how far we can push 2(c) – to limit individual Selectman meddling but not the Board itself. Any ideas how to obtain it? I think Mr. Hamilton attempted to gain an opinion from the AG, and was denied such?

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