Advisory Committee: Actions for town to improve transparency

by beth on June 26, 2014

This week, the Advisory Committee, spurred on by recent events dug into transparency of town government. In the discussion, member John Butler accused the Board of Selectmen of using police to intimidate residents on issues that were “political”.

Butler shared drafts of four potential bylaw proposals. Several Advisory members deemed the bylaws unnecessary and/or outside of their scope. 

The topics covered were:

  • Disclosure with Appropriation Request
  • Public Access to Public Information
  • Public Discussion Permitted at Public Meetings
  • Police and Constable Delivery Limited to Operation of Law

The committee chose not to support any but many agreed with some of the sentiments. Instead they discussed how Advisory and the town should handle related issues going forward.

Selectmen John Rooney and Bill Boland argued against the fourth proposal and related charges. (Scroll down for more details.)

Butler explained he brought these to the meeting to get feedback from some fellow Advisory members, without violating open meeting laws. They are drafts of ideas he has been “floating” and may pursue. 

Disclosure with Appropriation Request

This was to follow up on the scandal caused by Public Works’ elimination of the cemetery supervisor soon after Town Meeting.

Member Karen Muggeridge used the discussion to revisit the changes to budget caused by rehiring the cemetery supervisor. She shared the email received from Finance Director, Brian Ballantine.

As you know there is a cost differential in what was originally planned and what is now planned with the reinstatement of the Cemetery Supervisor position. This differential comes to an additional $76,000 – however it is “offset” by some various other items that were budgeted in line with the original plan. (Click here to read more)

Butler’s draft bylaw focused on Departments disclosing with budgets:

Any planned or reasonably foreseeable changes to the level of service or employment. . . and any other information . . . that may affect the value or benefit of the appropriation.

Advisory members and some attending selectmen stated that they would always be sure to ask those questions going forward. Selectman Paul Cimino furthered that he plans to instruct the Town Administrator and department heads of the expectation to disclose such information.

Former Advisory member Al Hamilton also argued against unnecessary bylaws. He told Advisory that they have the responsibility and power already. He pointed to a “really big hammer” suggested in existing bylaws. Hamilton claimed that if Advisory doesn’t issue a report on a budget line item, town meeting can’t vote on it.

Butler cautioned that it may be a mistake to rely on members’ intentions:

“it seems impossible but everybody in the room does change after a while and things get forgotten. . . surprisingly quickly.”

Related to layoffs, Jim Hegarty suggested that if a department manager stated services would be level despite the layoff, that should be their call. Desiree Aselbekian agreed with his point.

Aselbekain stated that her campaign waged to reinstate the cemetery supervisor was never about that one employee. It was about knowing the level of service her tax dollars were paying for.

She said that eliminating or outsourcing the department was something voters should have known about. Then they could have decided.

I would certainly never go on a rampage or get petitions. . . if town meeting voted against my personal wish.

Public Access to Public Information

Butler stated that making documents and communications more transparent across town government will reduce perception of “skullduggery” which erodes public confidence.

Members urged that improved technology for better access is the right direction. They were concerned about implementation difficulties and cost.

The board agreed to discuss the ideas with the Municipal Technology Committee when it meets with them.

Public Discussion Permitted at Public Meetings

Butler explained that the idea was triggered when it seemed that the Board of Selectmen might not allow Aselbekian to address them at a recent meeting. [Note: In the end, she was allowed to speak.] But it was also due to his disapproval of the School Committee’s policy.

Text proposed that the public must always allow the public to speak and no rule would be adopted to prohibit discussion between the committee and public unless the topic is “unlawful”.

The board had mixed feelings, but agreed it was outside their scope. Member Sam Stivers opined that the public is allowed to be heard at all boards. He argued that even at the school committee people are allowed to publicly state their views.

Police and Constable Delivery Limited to Operation of Law

Butler referred to two instances* of what he considered misuse of the practice by the BOS. He stated that using police to deliver “a political message” is intimidation.

Some members seemed disturbed by the BOS’ practice.

Rooney defended the letter sent this spring to former Selectman David Parry. He believed that stopping someone from misrepresenting himself as a town official who is seeking an appointment with the state was serious enough to warrant the action. He explained that they needed to ensure the letter was quickly and undisputedly received.

Boland explained that “in hand service” requires a sworn court officer.

Butler pointed to the fact that the letter also addressed stakes placed as part of a public argument over the Main Street project. Between that and the fact that one of the three board members was running against Parry, he deemed the use of police delivery inappropriate.

Hegarty argued that it was up to selectmen to use their judgement, poor or not. He said “at the end of the day” voters would decide whether or not to re-elect members based on their actions.

To read the drafts of Butler’s proposed bylaws, click here. They are under the heading Public Participation Bylaw Drafts.

[*Note: Full disclosure – The other incident involves a letter sent to Susan when she ran this blog. I think that it’s an issue she’d rather see put to rest. So I’m not going to revisit that at this time.]

1 Resident Charlie June 27, 2014 at 12:01 AM

Mr Butlers personal ideas are just what they are, HIS. Mr Bultler has been the towns self appointed police officer for way to long. Now he’s using his position as an Advisory Member to dictate policy and self promote his ideas that are not under the roles and responsibilities of the Advisory Committee. My hat is off to the rest of the committee for not allowing his personal views nor his personal agenda to be acted upon. And, as far as Mr Hamilton statement, he must have a different copy of the Towns Bylaws than I, because, I see nothing about a big hammer. I assure you if someone else did what Mr Butler just did, he’d be the first one to call them on it. Time for the moderator to appoint someone new. Wait….. Maybe someone who doesn’t have time to write big long posts and dazzle us all with his fancy words. Not impressed.

2 Al Hamilton June 27, 2014 at 10:12 AM

Charlie

I actually agree with you (and John Wilson) about Advisory sponsoring legislation. However, I believe that any citizen should feel free to bring proposed legislation to Advisory for discussion. Advisory is a legislative sub committee and discussing proposed legislation in any form is reasonable.

The open meeting laws prevented Mr. Butler from discussing this with advisory members in any other forum. If he chooses to get the required 10 signatures to put these items on the Warrant then he would have to recuse himself in the required discussions with Advisory.

As to the Big Hammer. I was specifically referring to Section 41-17 of the Town Bylaws :

“Whenever the report of a committee contains a recommendation for the appropriation of Town funds, the committee making such recommendations shall submit a copy thereof to the Advisory Committee at least six days before the Town Meeting at which said report is to be considered by the Town; and no such recommendation shall be acted upon until a report thereon has been made by the Advisory Committee.”

The section that starts after the last semicolon is clear on the following:

1. Town Meeting cannot act on a money matter until after Advisory makes a report on that matter. I hope we can agree on that.

2 I believe that Advisory could, as a matter of policy, establish standards of information and timing that are required for it to make a report. If those policies are violated then Advisory could choose to not make a report. No report, no vote.

That was the big hammer I was referring to.

3. There are other smaller hammers in Advisory by laws and in State law. (For example the DOR says that the BOS has no role developing in the budget presented to Town meeting other that requesting appropriations for the departments under its control.)

3 Al Hamilton June 27, 2014 at 8:43 AM

While I think there is some question about whether it appropriate for Advisory to sponsor warrant articles since they are charged with reviewing and recommending them several of Mr. Butlers ideas are worth pursuing.

I believe that Advisory already has the authority to require full disclosure and the tools to enforce it but have not done so to date.

The public discussion at meetings is a good idea but probably trespasses to far on the privileges of the executive authority. While the school committee is infamous for stifling discussion from citizens I have seen other committees behave in similar fashion. It is bad government but that is a matter for the ballot box.

I wholeheartedly support the idea of making all electronic documents that could be subject to public records request available on the town web site. This could actually be a real productivity enhancer rather than a painful expense. These documents belong to the people of Southborough and we should make every effort to make them readily available.

Finally, the Constable idea bears considerable merit. It is in response to 2 events, both of which I think were quite bad.

The first was the harassment and attempted intimidation of Ms. Fitzgerald which, in my opinion, was the most despicable thing I have seen in my experience in town government. Yes, there was a backstory but Town Counsel and the BOS should have known better than to ask a member of the 4th estate to reveal her sources and to try and stifle her free speech and freedom of the press rights.

Mr. Parry’s letter is slightly more nuanced but non the less troubling. The letter delivered to him clearly referenced his putting of stakes on St. Marks Land (which he did with permission). This was an overt political act. The sort of active political engagement for which 100’s of thousands of Americans have died to protect. The BOS had no business complaining about this completely legal activity let alone sending a uniformed and armed representative to Mr. Parry’s door.

I regret that at least as troubling is the fact that the BOS appears to have voted unanimously to do this. Mr. Kolenda, in my opinion should have recused himself as he was running against Parry (as was I). I think the Chief of Police must also come under some criticism in these matters. We have a strong Chief law to permit him to say no to just these sorts of inappropriate political shenanigans.

When a uniformed officer bearing arms (no matter how professional and polite) shows up at your door with a letter there is a element of intimidation involved. The BOS is not a police force. If in either of these cases inappropriate things were done they should have been referred to the police for proper investigation period with no further interference with from the BOS.

4 Frank Crowell June 27, 2014 at 9:41 AM

Al – two points if I may with regard to the BOS “harassment”

The attempted intimidation of Ms Fitzgerald was not allowed by the courts and the voters dismissed the BOS member who advocated for it in the next election.

In regard to other matter, if I were a BOS member and I had evidence that someone was misrepresenting himself as a BOS member, I am fairly sure I would look to take similar action whether in the middle of an election or not. That sort of thing needs to be remedied quickly. If the voters thought differently, they had an opportunity to fix it within weeks.

Just my two cents.

5 Resident Charlie June 27, 2014 at 3:55 PM

Al,

The Advisory Committee can only give said report if a “committee” is requesting funding for something. Such as, example, the Community Preservation Committee seeks approval from Town Meeting to authorize a specific amount of said funds for a specific project. Then, it’s within the role of the Advisory Committee to give a report to Town Meeting as you have pointed out. That ” big hammer” can only be used on other committees requesting funds. Like anything else, subject to legal interpretation.

It’s appropriate for anyone to request our Board of Selectmen to act opon someone’s idea, concern or request. Mr. Butler should take his issues up with the Selectmen for their consideration at one of their meetings, under public comment, and not be the guy who’s trying to use his position on advisory for his own personal agenda.

6 Al Hamilton June 28, 2014 at 9:10 AM

Charlie

I don’t read the sentence the same way you do. It is the sort of poorly written sentence common to the legal profession designed to create ambiguity and thus work for lawyers. I read everything after the last semicolon as separate from the rest of the sentence but I freely admit that it is less than clear.

Mr. Butler could have brought some of his proposals before the BOS and the BOS could act on some of them as a matter of policy. But, that policy could be changed by future boards and in any event would not cover other executive bodies like the Planning Board, Assessors, Clerk, Library, or schools. The Selectmen cannot make policy for those bodies. Taking the legislative route would more firmly embed his proposal and would dictate broader coverage. Of course we regularly ignore some of our by laws so the entire thing might be moot.

There is no requirement that the Selectmen sponsor legislation. That privileged is held by any Town Meeting Member and any Town Committee.

7 Butler for Selectman June 27, 2014 at 6:50 PM

Mr Butler should run for the BOS next year and then attempt to improve things from INSIDE the Board. BTW, I would not call his efforts a “personal agenda.” His proposals cannot be characterized as benefiting him personally. Sounds to me like he is looking our for the good of the Town based on a series of very serious problems that have arisen in recent years. I don’t always agree with Mr. Butler, but his many years of service, and the nature of that service, rule out the idea that he acts only in his own best interests.

8 Resident June 27, 2014 at 11:03 PM

Resident Charlie, You have said what many others have been saying for years, just not as clear or direct. Advisory has NO role in matters unrelated to revenue. None. In other towns they are called the Finance Committee. They should keep their eyes trained on finances, and not on policy. Hand delivery of letters, access to town information, the town’s computer system, the right to speak at meetings, have nothing to do with finance, and Mr. Butler is way out of bounds. He uses his position on Advisory to put forth his personal agenda, how else can you explain his recent attempts to create new by laws? I would recommend a by law to change the name of the Advisory Committee to the Finance Committee. Mr. Butler thinks he is allowed to advise on everything. If we called it the finance committee like they do in most other towns, any effort to go beyond finances should be ignored. Lets face it. He is hiding behind Advisory and does not have the toughness to enter the world of voter accountability. Mr. Stivers is following in Mr. Butler’s footsteps and the moderator needs to pay attention. Plus, no one should serve on any town committee for as long as he has. How long has he been doing it? 10, 20 years? Lets get some new blood in to look at our finances.

9 Al Hamilton June 28, 2014 at 8:53 AM

Resident

You are not correct about the responsibilities of Advisory as defined in our By Laws and State Law. Advisory has 5 principle responsibilities:

1. Advisory is responsible for making a recommendation to Town Meeting on all matters that come before it in the form of warrant articles both financial and non financial. (Town By Law)

2. Advisory is the custodian of the Reserve Fund (Town By Law and State Law)

3. Advisory must approve any inter departmental end of year transfers recommended by the Selectmen (State Law)

4. Advisory is responsible for assembling the budget to be presented to town meting (State Law and Town By Law)

5. Advisory has broad authority to “investigate the books, accounts and management of any department of the Town,” (Town By Law)

Advisory is a legislative committee, it has no executive authority, only the “bully pulpit”.

It is worth noting that Mr. Butler is a Town Meeting member and, like any other Town Meeting member may propose legislation and discuss that proposed legislation with the Committee appointed by the Moderator to review legislation. He is completely within his rights to put forth his views on what is best for the town. Further, the Open Meeting Law makes it impossible for him to discuss his ideas with other Advisory members except in a public meeting.

If you do not think that Advisory should opine on anything other than financial matters or if you think its members should be term limited then your path is clear. Draft amendments to the Advisory By Laws and get 10 signatures. That will assure that your proposal is voted on by Town Meeting.

10 new resident June 28, 2014 at 10:01 AM

Some of us who have recently moved to Southboro are talking about this too. It makes it difficult to understand what is going on in this town when there are people who are shifting back and forth between various roles and we don’t know what their real agendas are. We don’t know all the decades of back story (nor do I want to know). I would prefer that the people who were democratically elected have more power and the appointed people do not abuse their roles. The Selectmen put their agendas and qualifications before the voters, and that’s why I would trust them more.

11 SouseBro June 28, 2014 at 12:40 AM

Please tell me I’m reading this wrong. Is the cemetery supervisor really making $76K?? To do what? Can’t a funeral home call the DPW director directly to have a grave dug? I’m sure that’s what the supervisor is going to have to do now that cemetery maintenance is out-sourced. The DPW director can drive thru once or twice a week to make sure the hired landscapers are keeping the grounds up to the high standards the cemetery employees have attained year after year. It seems to me that the elected officials seem to think they are running a Big City, with a Big City budget. I thought eliminating the job was a good idea even before I read about the exorbitant salary, now even more so…

12 John Rooney June 28, 2014 at 11:09 AM

While some believe there are many things to complain about in town, Mr. Butler is not one of them. His dedication and commitment to our residents is complete, always intensely concerned about the increasing costs of maintaining municipal services, of protecting the rural character of our town, and insuring and insisting that your town government is working for you. To accuse him of advancing a personal agenda is both unfounded and patently unfair.

There have been many instances where John and I have disagreed, and where we’ve argued those disagreements at board and committee meetings and on the floor of Town Meeting. Despite those differences, there has never been an instance in which I have questioned his motives or believed he was doing something other than what he thought best for the town.

There have also been numerous occasions, and I apologize to Mr. Butler for what comes next, when I have reached out to him for advice and guidance. John has always been available to take my call or answer my email, regardless of the issue, regardless of the time of day. While I take full responsibility for any final decisions and any mistakes, I am confident that my errors would be multiplied in number without his counsel.

No one or group sits as Philosopher Kings, dictating rules or policy in a vacuum. Once decisions are made without regard to residential input, we have lost all we hold dear. Every resident has the right, indeed the obligation, to identify concerns with town governance, because in doing so, there is a much higher likelihood decisions will be made correctly.

Mr. Butler’s service to this town has benefited every single resident, and to criticize his devotion reflects a lack of knowledge and understanding of his accomplishments. I have no hesitation in saying that we live in a better town because of Mr. Butler, and his public service should be honored not criticized.

JR

13 Ann July 3, 2014 at 9:46 PM

By Brad Petrishen
Daily News Staff
Posted Jul. 3, 2014 @ 6:15 am

SOUTHBOROUGH – Calling it “reprehensible,” financial Advisory Committee member John Butler last week called on selectmen to stop its occasional practice of using police officers to deliver letters to residents.
“It’s not reflective of the society I want to be a part of,” Butler said at the committee’s June 23 meeting, referencing a letter selectmen had police deliver to resident David Parry on March 31.

Thank you Mr. Butler. What happened was a travesty of justice.

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