Town Meeting: Voters rejected petitioner Articles on government reforms and guidelines

Last weekend, Karen Hanlon presented four Citizen Petition Articles to Town Meeting voters. As, I previously covered, one compromise passed. Here is my recap of debates over the three that didn’t.

You can read more about the details of Hanlon’s petition Articles here. All of her Articles faced official opposition from the Board of Selectmen and the Advisory Committee in a hall with only 210 voters at its peak. 

Two criticisms were echoed through all three of the following proposals.

Former Advisory Committee member John Butler’s asserted that “last minute” petition Articles were the wrong approach. He advised that bylaw changes, some of which he called “sweeping”, should be studied through committees/subcommittees that hold hearings. Hanlon also faced and rebutted accusations about political or personal motivation behind the articles.

As I mentioned yesterday, I don’t how many voters were against them in principal versus wary of making a mistake. Either way, almost the entire hall overwhelmingly voted the following Articles down.

Article 32 to elect Advisory Committee officers

The Article would have put the power of appointing Advisory Committee’s Chair, Co-Chair, and Secretary in the hands of voters. (Though, not in time for this May’s ballot.) Since it would reduce the power of the Moderator, Cimino recused himself from presiding over the Article, asking Hegarty to step in.

Hanlon told voters that taxpayers should have a voice in who is on the important committee. She said it was “nothing personal” and admitted that she was “a little disappointed” that Advisory didn’t support the Article given her admiration for them. She said that if they don’t want to run, they can still volunteer to the Moderator. 

Hanlon previewed that Advisory would say that they should decide who fills the officer slots. She urged that a balance was a more important consideration and voters should choose at least a few of the nine members. She highlighted the importance of an independent finance committee to maintain separate branches of power. She opined that an election process is “less susceptible to political influences” allowing more independence.

She was right about Advisory’s position, which was shared by others. Roger Challen, who has long served on elected and appointed committees, said he had never heard of a committee where the Chair wasn’t selected by the members. He opined it would be impossible to deal with. Former Advisory Chair George McClelland worried about causing friction between appointed and elected members. He didn’t believe there had ever been an independence issues. 

Current Chair Kathy Cook and Butler (who was on the committee “for 20 or so years”) both argued against the potential for inexperienced leaders to be elected officers. Cook said that it takes a long time to understand the Town budgets. She said she’s been doing it a long time and still learns something new every day.

Nodding to earlier mentions of retired CEOs in town who might be tapped to run, another former Advisory member clarified that public and sector accounting are different. Al Hamilton referred to accruals and depreciation and the learning curve.

Cook said Advisory didn’t see why there would be more people willing to run for office than willing to be appointed. With only six of the nine seats filled, she worried there would be less if the change was made. Hanlon countered that the vacancies were “self imposed”. 

Only one commenter spoke in support. Jack Barron referred to sudden resignations by the former Chair and Vice Chair over the winter. He followed that if Advisory was elected:

you might get a much better kind of vote, where they wouldn’t feel at the mercy of the Moderator.

Earlier, Butler said Hanlon hadn’t presented any problem to be solved. He opined that the “current setup is good” and that it was important for Advisory to be appointed while selectmen are elected. He summed up:

this is an ill conceived action that solves no problems.

Hanlon seemed to address what problem she was addressing when responding to the concern about voting in “inexperienced” candidates:

I vehemently disagree. . . We had two pretty experienced people removed for, I can’t explain why, what the reason would be. 

She referred to former member Sam Stivers, who she called “very, very experienced”. She followed that was “the reason” for her Article with a process she opined had turned:

a little political and not based on merits.

Hamilton said that if she has a problem with how appointments are made:

your problem is with the Moderator and you should settle that at the Ballot Box.

Hanlon’s comment spurred Cimino to tell the hall that Stivers wasn’t removed. He was not reappointed at the end of his term. Cimino said he took his responsibility to appoint very seriously and considers members’ competence, willingness, and chemistry/ability to get a job done. He said he spent a long time considering last year’s appointments. He called the members that weren’t reappointed to explain his “rationale”. He said he also explained it to others who contacted him but Hanlon never did.

Cimino declared:

Make no mistake, this motion and her presentation started out as a policy based action. . .

While Hanlon called out, “It remains so”, Cimino continued:

it clearly is a reaction to an appointment that I did not make that she did not like. . .

Your choice at the ballot box to pick a new Moderator is how to fix this problem not to change what’s worked for 275 years or however long we’ve had a finance committee in Town.

Close to the entire hall voted in opposition to the Article. 

[Editor’s Note: For all the talk that night, and in blog comments, Cimino is the only name that will be on the ballot for Moderator this spring.]

Cimino returned to the podium for the remainder of the meeting.

Article 33 on Town Counsel

Hanlon presented that it was “time for a change”. She focused on the fact that the Town Counsel bylaws hadn’t been visited in decades and that the Town’s needs and challenges had grown in complexity. She said it

lays an excellent framework for duties and expectations and protects the Town.

The Article revised bylaws about the appointment, responsibilities, and conduct. Instead of the annual appointment coming with a one year term, removal would be “at pleasure” of selectmen. It would have replaced a brief paragraph on counsel’s responsibilities with a detailed, full page list. 

The petitioner told the room that the bulk of the text was based on our bylaws and taken from Wellesley’s bylaws. She later referred to it as “tried and true policy, tested in another Town.”

[Editor’s Note: Wellesley’s bylaw does seem to be the blueprint for much of the first three sections. But comparing the duties section there were multiple omissions (like defending Town employees against lawsuits and others added about defending the actions of Town Meeting and making a monthly report. And I couldn’t find a “Professional Responsibility” section in their code.]

Hanlon referred to a section defining a standard of professional conduct for Town Counsel as standard and done in other Towns. Not highlighted was that it included requiring the attorney to acknowledge representing the Town (not a specific board) and prohibited the appearance that legal advice is based solely on political alignment or partisanship. (Both of those are issues residents have raised about current Town Counsel in meetings or via blog comments in past years.)

Hamilton debated with Hanlon that references to “the Town” were used too loosely and might be seen as covering the School Committee. Hamilton agreed with Butler that the effort was commendable but required much more study:

I actually think that a study may of this area would be highly productive and useful. I’m not crazy about some of the things that have happened over the last years. But I think this is not the way to proceed.

Rooney, speaking on behalf of Advisory, said that there were items in the Article that were inconsistent with the rules laid out by the state supreme judicial court. He told voters that Massachusetts attorneys are required to take a difficult professional responsibilities exam. The court issued the ethical and professional requirements and responsibilities are an over 200 page single spaced document.

The bylaw would have added language giving Town Meeting the authority to vote to appoint Special Counsel for a board. That was included in Wellesley’s bylaw but also may have been in response to a past issue over the Planning Board. In 2016, selectmen refused to authorize special counsel for the board which was seeking independent advice on appealing a decision over the Park Central development.

The Town Meeting solution wasn’t enough for Marnie Hoolahan, who led the petition try (unsuccessfully) to change selectmen’s position. Hoolahan supported Hanlon’s Article but hesitantly asked the meeting to amend it. She asked to add the Planning Board to the list of entities that could authorize hiring special counsel. [Editor’s Note: It’s worth noting that Hoolahan is currently running for Planning unopposed.]

Hanlon said she had struggled over that part and was very much in favor of the suggested change.

Referring to Park Central as “driving the Town crazy”, William Colleary opined that what he’d seen in the last 2-3 Articles was:

I didn’t get what I want, so I’m going to change the rules to get what I want.

Hanlon called out “Wrong!” Colleary continued, saying that going back historically there have always been arguments with Town Counsels because they tell us what the laws read.

We want them to say what we want. Not always can they do that.

He said that he doesn’t think that we have a problem, just a development that is a problem. He said he didn’t think that we should change the way the Town operates. But he said that maybe the government bylaws did need to be studied by committee again.

Rooney said that the amendment seemed to conflict with existing bylaw authorizing only selectmen to hire Town Counsel. He also pointed out that the language appeared to allow the Planning Board to authorize hiring counsel for another board.

Hanlon responded to comments as “patronistic”. She said that she was experienced in hiring and firing counsel, who are “not demi gods”, to get the right person to get things done. Responding to a comment by Butler that she never served as selectman or on Advisory, she said that was irrelevant. She has served on boards and have put together teams of attorney’s.

She said we don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” and claimed:

virtually every word in this policy is an existing policy in another Town. . .

To the point that this might be inconsistent in some way with state law, don’t worry about it and don’t trouble yourself with it because the Attorney General’s office will have the final say and they will disapprove or simply not approve the parts that are not allowed. 

She said she agreed with the spirit of the amendment but if it conflicts with an existing bylaw, we’d have to set it aside for now.

Only a few voters supported the motion or the Article.

Article 34 Prohibited Conduct Policy here.)

In presenting the Article, Hanlon introduced it as almost verbatim to the Town of Brookline’s policy. She stressed it was a common sense measure meant to outline a self-explanatory set of standards for officials and volunteers. She said it was important to improve transparency in Town Government. She said that current policies are inadequate and not properly implemented or followed. She advocated that it established procedures for preventing misconduct and for addressing it when it does occur.

Again referring to not inventing the wheel, she said it was established long in practice policy. [Editor’s Note: It doesn’t appear to be part of the Town’s bylaws, just the Town’s policy adopted by their selectmen and schools.]

But when Devona Cartier asked which parts were different from Brookline’s bylaw, first she answered “almost verbatim”, then acknowledged an additional section under Other Conduct Prohibited

Basically it states that conflict of interest forms and Mullins certifications must be completed in sufficient detail. That has been a problem

Rooney stated that in pulling up Brookline’s to compare he saw a number of differences with omissions and additions. Hanlon confirmed that and followed that it had been vetted by experts in municipal law.

Bill Boland told the room that he was unhappy with how a number of Articles attacked officials’ integrity. He said he doesn’t live in Brookline or Wellesley, he’s proud to live in Southborough. He followed that if you want to change how things are done, you should run for elected office, and “face the music”.

Hanlon responded that she also admired officials and loves the Town. She said she was stunned at the remarks and doesn’t know why anyone would take her Articles personally. She said that times have changed and it’s time to change the approach to these bylaws. She asked why anyone would be against an anti-fraud, anti-corruption policy. She referred to three violations the Town has from the AG’s office:

You’re saying ‘It ain’t broke”? Well, let me tell ya. Go ask the Attorney General. It’s broke.

She told the hall that meeting minutes the Town has been delinquent on posting minutes residents rely on to keep them informed. She referred to “serial releases” going back to 2013 with no discussion.

Once again, only a handful of voters supported the Article.

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Honestly Able
4 years ago

Has anyone checked the AGO’s website (link below)? What is the Town’s actual process for checking and stopping violations? It’s noteworthy that a few of the loudest objectors to policy change at Town Meeting are the subject of directly (or on the overseeing BOS at the time) the Attorney General’s Open Meeting Law violations.

Plug in Southborough and there they are.

Sorry to be slow on the uptake, but it looks like the same objecting three or four people kept popping up and slamming down change, instead of addressing the violations.

How can one violate State Law as laid out in all the “education” cited by the objectors and still stay in position (crazy, is this due to a lack of awareness?) and on the Town public address system influencing voters on Town Meeting floor (crazier)? Education has not stopped violations apparently. Only policies will help stop misconduct and law breaking.

Importantly, there is and remains no mention of addressing the problems, only fighting the policy to stop the misconduct.

Some turkeys argue that the violators are “victims.” This is wildly misleading as state law applies to all 351 municipalities in Massachusetts. The violators have taken the courses and exams.

The only victims of this type of unsettling pushback (again only by a few persons) is the unwitting citizen taxpayer.

Houston we have a problem
4 years ago

In the article above, the following illustrates a big part of the problem with ‘appointed’ town officials:

“Current Chair Kathy Cook and Butler (who was on the committee “for 20 or so years”)
both argued against the potential for inexperienced leaders to be elected officers. Cook
said that it takes a long time to understand the Town budgets. She said she’s been
doing it a long time and still learns something new every day.”

While it may be nice to build one’s ‘power base’ a community is not necessarily well served by someone acting in a political role “for 20 or so years”.

This goes to the heart of the matter. Here is an example of someone working to ‘advise’ the town BOS for TWENTY YEARS! Did anyone elect this person? Does anyone have a say as to whether this person remains in the role?

NOBODY should be working in a political role for such a long period.

Oh yes – the town moderator APPOINTS people to the advisory committee. All of them. This is the same town moderator who berated Hanlon (above) expression his OPINION, as though it were fact that Hanlon’s petitions were:

“clearly [is] a reaction to an appointment that I did not make that she did not like.”

Unfortunately, acting as a moderator and speaking from a podium, Cimino’s comments would seem to be less than professional, considering his current role in town government. Such comments walk the line of acceptable behavior.

Unfortunately for the town, nobody seems to be stepping forward to challenge him.

Al Hamilton
4 years ago

All of Ms Hanlon’s articles had some merit. I share some of the concerns she sought to address. However, the process she followed bringing these items to the floor of Town Meeting was deeply flawed and that process matters a lot.

As someone who has shepherded several by laws through the process I would like to offer a few observations.

1. Big changes (these were big changes by Southborough standards) never get through on the first try. If she believes in these by laws, she should listen to feedback and then try again.

2. The hard work is not drafting legislation, it is educating the populace and building support for the measure (this is legislation 101). You cannot do this on the floor of Town Meeting. Dropping several dense pages of by laws on Town Meeting without a substantial education process and securing support is a prescription for failure.

3. Town Meeting is conservative. It has been meeting for 295 years and sees little reason to change. Those that show up and vote (the only ones that count) are, for the most part, pretty happy with how things are. If you doubt this take a look at how easily $50 million dollars of taxes were approved. It takes a lot of work to make a change. For example, redefining the role of the Town Admin took about 10 years and 3 tries at Town meeting. The new Public Safety building took longer than this and at least 3 tries.

4. Attacking someone for serving the town in various capacities for 20 years is a very bad idea and probably counter productive. Town meeting has a solid contingent of “Regulars” who have seen these people year in and year out serve their community. They know who they are and understand the work behind the service even if they do not agree on a specific item. Serving takes a lot of work and hassle. The words they speak carry weight. Far better to work beforehand to get them to speak in favor than opposition (this too is legislation 101).

5. Finally, pick your battles, instead of trying to pass 4 large articles it would have been better to focus on 1 or even a subset of 1. That in turn might have lead to debate on the merits of the proposal rather than the shortcomings of the process followed. Getting legislation through Town Meeting is a bit like passing a kidney stone. It can be difficult and painful and smaller ones pass easier than large ones.

Jessica Devine
4 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Great advice, Al. This newbie to town government is tucking away your words of wisdom for the future!

Maximus Publius
4 years ago

Replay the tape Al. Not sure about your observation about an “attack” unless you are referring to “Houston’s” comment above? It was very clear that the presenter made clear that there was zero attack and in watching the tape there was none. The presenter cited policy changes that are long overdue due to increasing challenges facing the town. It is smart to look at what other towns have done and already have in place. Nothing wrong with that.

As for “deeply flawed,” could not disagree with you more. There is nothing “incorrect” about approach. It’s not a multiple choice question. There are different ways to enact changes and some recent articles have been wildly successful. You have a short memory or perhaps did not participate.

As someone who also has helped with recent bylaw changes, you might note that the town voters put through a number of articles successfully and recently, including eliminating use variances and one regarding the quorum requirement.

From your comments, unfortunately it sounds like this Town is slow to catch on. So waiting for a committee and for the changes to be reviewed by persons who allegedly are a part of the problem or are the problem is like waiting for help to freeze over and probably not a good idea in the first instance.

Interestingly, if you look at the state violations, many of those persons who tried to sway the floor have violated state law.

What do you suggest the Town do, if it doesn’t enforce already? What about process? Where is the procedure? Where is the enforcement at present?

Per the sponsor of the quorum article (Article 1),Town counsel has been fighting the quorum matter behind the town’s voters backs, in spite of the overwhelming vote. This is not right. Other towns prohibit that. Having a conflict of interest prohibits that.

The bylaws forever said four and four is what the town’s people voted through recently. It is a little harder to stack or corrupt a four person board instead of three. He has never explained why he fights what the town voters put through.

Again, per the article sponsor, and behind the voters’ back, and in spite of his own self stated conflict, he has worked to tank the article, unsuccessfully.

The state approved the bylaw. Also, according to some citizens, a judge that Town counsel faced in court stated that he (the judge) “could count,” meaning the bylaw has always said four. File under welcome to the Province of Crazy Ass.

The upshot is this: probably all can agree that times change and bylaws must change too with the changing times no matter how they are enacted. Take a look. Other towns have better bylaws.

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