Selectmen to re-evaluate town committees and their roles: Open Space & Public Works Planning up first (Updated)

Last night, selectmen discussed their priority goals for the year. One of them was taking a look at eliminating some Town Committees and clarifying the roles of others.

Top of their list for review are the Open Space Preservation Commission and the Public Works Planning Board. The first is to head off a “repeat of Barn Hollow”. The second is in response to a heated exchange at the September Board of Selectmen meeting.

Other priorities the BOS agreed on were following through on Main Street Reconstruction project and the Public Safety Complex. They also raised the specter of longer term projects looking into merit-based pay for Town employees and more efficient use of Town Buildings.

The idea of eliminating committees was posed in absentia by Selectman Paul Cimino. Cimino wrote that he wanted to “streamline” BOS’ footprint on town government. According to Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf, identifying outdated committees is something the Town Clerk is already working on.

Town Administrator Mark Purple said that some choices should be simple:

Some of these committees were set up a while ago. Nothing has happened. They’ve sat dormant for five years.

In an overlapping priority, Selectman Brian Shea recommended taking a better look at Town committees’ responsibilities. Two he specified were the OSPC and PWPB.

Shea brought up Barn Hollow in reference to a development proposed on Chestnut Hill Road where OSPC has prioritized acquiring Open Space. To avoid another incident, he recommended clarifying as early as possible what everyone’s roles and responsibilities are at the start and throughout development projects. 

Barn Hollow is a neighborhood that was the subject of controversy in 2013-2014. Residents and boards battled over landowners’ use of Town Open Space as manicured and landscaped backyards. In 2013, the OSPC identified the Open Space violations on Nipmuc Lane and Barn Hollow Lane. Homeowners complained that the development was built and sold with Open Space landscaped as part of the yards more than ten years earlier.

The OSPC said that oversight of developers’ compliance with the Open Space designations was outside of their authority and resources. They have repeatedly sought help creating a process defining roles and responsibilities for Open Space, the Planning Board/Department, and the Conservation Commission. It’s something that has been on the Planning Board’s priority list, but which they have yet to complete.

Last night, Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf agreed that the BOS should hold a joint session with OSPC, the Planning Board and Town Counsel to “have a conversation” about OSPC’s charge. She also said “it wouldn’t hurt” to include Conservation.

As for examining Public Works Planning Board’s role, Shea referred to a heated debate at the September BOS meeting. He said that he had recommended that the PWPB be used to prioritize sidewalk projects. But others disagreed, and in the end the board compromised on a separate Sidewalk Committee.

That September vote led to an argument between the board and PWPB Chair Desiree Aselbekian.

Aselbekian accused the BOS of repeatedly dismissing her board’s value. She even posed that if the board didn’t see value in it, she was willing to put forth a motion at a future Town Meeting to eliminate the board.*

Last night, Shea recommended “cleaning up” PWPB’s charge language which he saw as vague and “almost seems that their roles and responsibilities overlap with Advisory Committee’s”

Chair John Rooney agreed. He also encouraged submission of other boards with issues, stating:

I don’t want a chair of a committee coming in here upset that he or she does not feel that they’re being utilized pursuant to the legislative language/intent in the bylaw or statute

One of Rooney’s top priorities was analyzing the use of Town Buildings. The South Union Building houses “2 1/2” Recreation Department employees. And once Southborough Access Media relocates to Trottier Middle School, Fayville hall house only two Youth and Family Services employees. Purple said that some of that is being looked at now.

With support from colleagues, Selectman Dan Kolenda pushed for the inclusion of merit-based pay as a priority. Purple explained that the Personnel Board will likely support it, but that implementing it will take more than a year.

Purple advised that instituting a Human Resources Director and training department heads are two of the pieces in a process that could be complex. Purple said they should think of it as a 2017 priority, but Kolenda pushed for starting the process this year.

The priorities came from Rooney’s request that each member submit their top three priorities. Only one on the list didn’t receive support. Cimino’s list called for each Town Committee to be assigned a liaison selectman. The liaison would be responsible for communicating with the committee and sharing important information with the fellow selectmen.

The other four selectman opined that assigning liaisons would be too burdensome.  They believed involvement with other committees should remain voluntary. Instead, they proposed receiving minutes from the committees.

Because Cimino was unable to make his case last night, that discussion may be revisited in a future meeting.

Updated (10/21/15 10:30 pm): I mistakenly wrote earlier that in September Desiree Aselbekian had offered to resign. She never offered to resign. Instead, she offered to put forth an article to Town Meeting to dismiss the PWPB.

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