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.]