Town Meeting Update: Articles will include promoting viewpoints at Town Meeting, Electing Advisory officers, Town Counsel’s responsibilities, and Conduct for Town employees and agents

Above: Late on the third night of 2017 Annual Town Meeting, voters in an almost empty hall approved a new “Electioneering” prohibition without questions or debate. One of several Citizen Petition Articles for the next ATM is looking to revisit and rescind the change. (image cropped from SAM video)

Thirteen of the Articles headed to Annual Town Meeting in March are the result of Citizen Petitions. Sponsors were invited to present their cases to selectmen and the Advisory Committee last week before they vote on petitions. Only two sponsors did – but one of them was responsible for most of the petition articles.

Today, I’m going to focus on just those articles spearheaded by Karen Hanlon Shimkus.* The resident’s petitions revolve around 4 topics split into 10 Articles for specific bylaw changes.

In Hanlon Shimkus’ presentation last week, she referred to most of her proposed changes as putting the Town “on parity” with other Towns in the state. The resident called many of her language/policies “standard” and “common practice”. Some she said were for clarity for residents or officials on processes or acceptable standards.

But one set of changes is intended to provide “balance” by putting more power in voter’s hands. That is a move to have residents directly elect Advisory Committee officers.

Selectmen opted to hold off on taking Article positions last week. But they did pose a few questions and make a couple of comments. Below, I’ve summed up the Articles and highlights from the discussion. 

(For the full language of her Articles, click here for text copied from last week’s meeting packet. For comparison, you can click here to review current Town Code.)

Numbering of the Articles in the draft Warrant has been in flux. That caused some confusion during last week’s presentation. Since those may change again, I won’t be using them below. For now, I will just group them by theme.

Promoting voter issues at Town Meetings

  • Rescind language prohibiting electioneering at Town Meeting 
    • The Article would rescind language that was adopted by Town Meeting voters in 2017. Current bylaw prohibits candidates or their agents from standing within 150 feet of the entrance to Town Meeting for the purpose of electioneering or greeting citizens or voters, or for petitioning or soliciting signatures for any purpose.
    • [Editor’s Note: In 2017, Town Clerk Jim Hegarty proposed the Article. He explained that the existing law didn’t prevent electioneering at the Town Hall when people come for early voting. For Town Meeting, he said it was making legal a standard that the Town had been advertising but didn’t have legal right to enforce. He told voters that it wasn’t intended to change the way the Town conducted business. The presentation was made late on the third night of Town Meeting to a small group of remaining voters. It passed easily without debate.]
    • Hanlon Shimkus referred to current law as prohibiting the handing out of voter materials at Town Meetings. She cited the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office as saying no other Town is known to have such laws.
  • Warrant sponsor materials display
    • The Article would state that materials informing voters about articles are commonly put out at Town Meeting
    • Answering a question from Chair Lisa Braccio about the fact that the display is already standard practice, Hanlon Shimkus explained that it is to make the practice clear to voters. She said that many voters have entered the hall empty handed since the tables were around the corner from check in.

Changing the method for selecting Advisory Committee’s leadership positions 

  • Currently, the Moderator appoints the 9 member committee responsible for advising Town Meeting voters on Articles. Hanlon Shimkus is looking to change that to having voters elect the three officers of the committee with the remaining members to be appointed by the Moderator. To do that, she has submitted changes split into 4 articles that would:
    • Remove language specifying that Advisory choose its own Chair and Secretary
    • Add elected Advisory members for specific positions of Chair, Vice Chair and Secretary – with members moving up if the seat above them becomes vacant
    • Specifies initial and subsequent length of terms for the elected seats (ultimately, 3 year terms elected on different years)
    • Removes any Advisory member who misses 4 consecutive meetings and specifies that the Moderator is responsible for filling those vacancies
  • Hanlon Shimkus responded to one concern stated by Braccio – her research showed that it is legally acceptable practice to have a board that is partially elected and partially appointed.
  • Braccio also opined that sometimes on a board “things work out” as to who is interested and should be Chair and some committees change every year.
  • Hanlon Shimkus rebutted that if someone wants to be Chair, they can run for it. She called the Advisory officers “some of the most important positions in Town government”. She said the change would give voters some direct say in who oversees finance and provides some balance.
  • Selectman Brian Shea questioned the process if all elected members resigned. Hanlon Shimkus said that it specifies that the Moderator fills the vacancy. [Editor’s Note: That isn’t specified in her article. So, I assume she is referring to a section of the Town Code (9.9) which her Article would leave in place. That language refers to the process for the Moderator filling vacancies between terms.]
  • Advisory’s only comment last week was an clarification by Chair Kathy Cook for the public about the officers. She said the committee adopted the practice of electing a Vice Chair a few years ago but that the position isn’t currently outlined in the bylaws.

Town’s attorneys – Appointment, responsibilities, and conduct

  • Replace Town Code language on the annual appointment of Town Counsel and responsibilities.
    • The appointment would now include language that selectmen are free to remove counsel at their “pleasure”. The responsibilities list is much longer and more detailed than the current text.
    • Hanlon Shimkus said it would put the Town on par with other Towns and provide clarity to residents.
    • Answering a question from the board, she said the Article was unrelated to a failed past effort by Sam Stivers. Stivers was in attendance and confirmed that the Article didn’t cover the same topic.
  • A new section outlining Town use of Special Counsel
    • If the previous Article is adopted, it would replace language that included that the Town may employ additional Special Counsel. This new section would patch that hole and add clear language about hiring authority for additional counsel.
  • Professional Responsibility of Town Counsel
    • A new detailed section would include clarifications that Town Counsel must:
      • Serve the best interest of the “Town” not a specific board or official
      • Avoid appearance that legal advice is based solely upon political alignment or partisanship
      • Hold regular trainings on Open Meeting Law, Ethics Law, and Public Records Law

Prohibited Conduct for Town employees and officials

  • A new “Prohibited Conduct Policy” to be added for employees and agents of the Town and the Schools.
    • Hanlon Shimkus said that it is intended to “safeguard” the assets of the Town and business done on behalf of the Town. She said it’s self explanatory and basic and will allow for greater transparency.
    • The long detailed text includes allowing for removal of committee/board members who violate the policy.
    • The proponent answered that she hadn’t brought the proposal to the School Committee for their feedback but would do that.

*The proponent submitted Citizen Petitions under the name Karen Hanlon. In previous public meetings, she has referred to herself as Karen Shimkus. To avoid confusion, I’m using both of her last names here – as I have also seen her listed as “Karen Hanlon Shimkus” in some documents.

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