On Saturday, voters rejected changes proposed to the Advisory Committee’s governing bylaws. The main sticking point was blurred lines between two branches of Town government.
Comments highlighted a divide between how some officials and voters view the relationship between the committee and the Town’s administration.
The plan before Town Meeting was essentially to codify and extend a situation that already exists on an “ad hoc” basis. That is the overlapping relationship between two committees that scrutinize town finances and Town Meeting Articles.
Town Meeting’s action now puts pressure on selectmen and Advisory to determine how to proceed leading up to the next Town Meeting.* (Which should be as soon as this fall. A special meeting is planned, but no date yet annnounced.)
In 2020, the Board of Selectmen appointed an ad hoc Capital Planning Committee to focus on the Town’s pipeline of Capital Expenses. It was charged with “developing strategies to move these projects forward for approval in a financially responsible manner”.
Since April of last year, the committee has worked closely with Advisory. For most of that time, three residents served simultaneously on both committees. (That’s actually two more than the proposed Articles would have allowed.)
Selectmen were so impressed with Capital’s work to reduce expenses for the Town that they supported turning it into a standing committee.
Article 33 sought to create the Capital Improvement & Planning Committee with a similar but more detailed charge. Like Advisory, it would report to and advise Town Meeting. Unlike Advisory, it would continue to be appointed by selectmen who also oversee the Town departments the committee would work closely with.
To allow that, Advisory first sought to change rules prohibiting serving on a standing committee unless appointed to it by the Moderator (which is who appoints members to Advisory). As a compromise, the proposed CIPC rules would only allow one member to be appointed from Advisory.
Advisory’s Chair Kathy Cook made the presentation on Article 32 for her committee. (She previously served on both committees but recently stepped down from Capital.) She asked to reduce the number of members to nine from seven. She defended that the committee has been at seven for a while now and works well that way. She noted that when there are more it leads to absences.
As for allowing Advisory members to serve on “one committee chartered to consider capital appropriations” she explained that the two committees’ work dovetailed and the collaboration made sense.
Most critics of the rule change focused on Advisory’s intended role, working for Town Meeting voters as an independent check on selectmen and other Town officials/departments.
Resident Karen Shimkus told voters that the change would be a clear violation of state statute.** That was rebutted by Town Counsel. Revisiting the microphone, Shimkus stressed that the overlap creates a conflict of interest.
Shimkus noted that Advisory (which is the Town’s Finance Committee) has the Mass Municipal Association’s Finance Committee’s “Role of the Finance Committee” posted to its website. She quoted from it:
Without finance committee independent review, the town meeting would be at a severe handicap in voting on financial matters when all of the recommendations are coming from one source. Separation of powers was designed by our founding fathers for a reason—Defend It
Resident Whitney Beals questioned why Moderator Paul Cimino hasn’t been seating 9 members as written into the bylaw.*** Cimino defended that the mix and quality of people on the committee is the most important standard. He claimed the vacancies were due to it being hard to find volunteers to do the “grueling work”.
Beals asked if the number of members was reduced to seven, what would stop Cimino from seating only five. He argued that would be too small a group. Cimino agreed with the latter point but didn’t directly respond to the first.
Freddie Gillespie (who serves on multiple Town Committees) urged voters to reject the change. Latching on to the “grueling work”, she opined that the change would make it harder to find volunteers.
Others defended the plan, stating that members of Advisory offer important background knowledge and insight invaluable to the committee.
Former Advisory member Al Hamilton sided with the critics but opined that Advisory could play a valuable advisory role. Pointing to Town Meeting as the legislative branch he warned about mixing it with the executive branch. Hamilton initially moved to make an amendment that would change the proposed Article to allow Advisory to hold a non-voting role on the CIPC.
After another voter moved to indefinitely postpone the Article, Hamilton withdrew his motion.
Voters decided 76-52 to eliminate the Advisory Article. Selectmen promptly requested voters to do the same with Article 33 to create the CIPC.
Asked whether pulling Article 33, meant the Capital Committee would remain Ad Hoc, Selectman Marty Healey said the Board would have to decide.
According to the Town website, the terms of members on the Capital Committee are all set to expire on June 30th. The Committee’s charge doesn’t specify an end date (though it did specify a deadline to report to selectmen by December 31, 2020).
*This is one of at least three Town Meeting outcomes that selectmen will have to grapple with. They will also need to address a successful non-binding Citizen’s Petition (Article 39) that asks the Board to study pursuing a truck exclusion on Flagg Road. (That passed overwhelmingly.) And a Citizen’s Petition Article that failed raised many voter voices in calling for selectmen to work on a better version to tackle the same issue – implementing a Noise Bylaw. (I’ll cover that in a separate post later this week.)
***Updated (5/26/21 8:48 am): I initially charactarized Whitney Beal as asking why the moderator had refused to seat all nine members to Advisory. He has commented that he didn’t use that word.