ATM Voters disfavor Regionalization of Public Safety Dispatch

Above: Town Meeting Hall had a lot of open seats late on Saturday night. But of those who were there, the majority were clearly opposed to outsourcing public safety dispatch, especially as proposed under the IMA with Westborough and Grafton. (image edited from Town video)

On Saturday, voters who stuck around long enough to hear the last few Citizen Petition Articles informed Select Board members that they weren’t happy with plans for regionalizing emergency communications.

Two separate Articles were presented with distinct differences. While support for the first was stronger than the second, the majority of voters in the hall supported both.

As I’ve previously covered, the Select Board signed an agreement to pursue forming a Regional Emergency Communications Center to handle 911 calls. The center would be sited in Westborough on a former EPA Superfund site.

In the fall, as the Select Board began seriously pursuing an agreement with nearby towns, it began to hear an outcry from Public Safety Dispatchers and their supporters, including members of the Southborough Police Department.

As details of the negotiated deal became known, the number of public opponents grew to include some that didn’t necessarily oppose researching the general concept.

Below I’ll recap the Article discussions. But first, it’s worth noting, both Articles were non-binding advice from Town Meeting. In addition, of the four members that voted for the IMA (Inter-Municipal Agreement), two will be replaced in the upcoming Town election. (Chelsea Malinowski and Lisa Braccio aren’t running for re-election.)

That means that the election may have a bigger impact on the course the Town takes than the voters at Trottier last Saturday. (Of course, the TM votes could influence what positions candidates take and how the rest of the Town views the agreement.) 

Now here are my recaps of the Article discussions:

Article 37 – Withdrawing from the MetroWest RECC IMA

This petition was brought forward by former Select Board member Bonnie Phaneuf and presented by former Advisory Committee member John Butler. Butler explained that when Phaneuf publicly raised concerns about the IMA that aligned with some of his concerns, he reached out to her.

Butler told voters that unlike the following Article, they could support this Article to oppose this specific agreement while still supporting the possibility of regionalizing dispatch in the future. In a measured tone, he sought to use Town Meeting voters to persuade the board to walk away from the “fatally flawed” agreement before the June 1st deadline.

Butler highlighted their two main concerns — the site and the stripping of Town Meeting’s ability to control the budget.

Phaneuf had researched issues about her safety concerns over the location at Hocomonco Pond in Westborough, where runoff had collected from a factory that used creosote. The board previously discussed the EPA’s and MassDEP’s signoff that the site was safe for these purposes, and that legal agreements would indemnify the Town against potential suits. On Saturday, Butler argued that it is a terrible idea to put employees there. 

Slide from John Butler's presentation of Article 37He stressed that scientific assurances wouldn’t eliminate workers’ anxiety. All it would take was one employee’s “anomalous” health issue (like cancer) for people to worry it was tied to the workplace. “Why should Southborough buy into the potential management risks associated with that?”

Slide from John Butler's presentation of Article 37Butler also highlighted that under the IMA, the administrative board would have “unprecedented” authority to strip Town Meeting of its ability to control taxation. The three board members, (Westborough and Grafton’s Town Managers and a Southborough Select Board member) would vote on a budget. 

Southborough would be assessed a fee to be covered by Town taxes with no ability for Town Meeting to reject and “no caps on spending or on debt”. He argued that would lead to overspending. Later, Select Board member Sam Stivers clarified that while Butler was right about spending increases, there is a check on borrowing. Any of the Town’s Select Boards have veto power over incurring debt. 

In defense of the IMA, Select Board member Lisa Braccio said that the Town was pursuing a RECC to address public safety issues and the agreement was “pretty standard” for RECCs across the state.

As “kind of an environmental nerd”, Sherri Widdis opposed using the site. As Westborough’s former Conservation Director (now at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs), she witnessed Hocomonco Pond reuse committee’s struggles. She said the site is being pushed by Westborough because they need to find a use for it. She described the kinds testing that would be required in perpetuity. “This site is never not going to have contaminants.”

When the hall cast its votes on this Article, there were plenty in favor and almost no one opposed.

Regionalizing Dispatch Pros and Cons

A lot of the discussion and debate under Article 37 focused on the generic pros and cons of regionalization. Since that really relates more to Article 38, I’m combining those highlights.

Chief Achilles' presentationOn behalf of the public safety chiefs, Chief Steven Achilles presented their reasons for pursuing regionalization. It included “timely and accurate” public assistance and reducing delays and “errors and omissions. . . during multiple or critical incidents”.

Article 38 presentationSouthborough Sgt Heath Widdis, co-sponsor of Article 38, claimed that under regionalization the dispatch times are slower and less accurate.

That was a concern that Peter Phaneuf, a former Foxborough firefighter may have been alluding to when he spoke in favor of the Article. He raised concern that Town officials visited the Foxborough dispatch center but didn’t speak to the firefighters and police officers in the towns it serves to find out about the other side of the coin. (He said he knew their views but didn’t specify them.)

Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski (liaison on the project) explained her motivation based on the Town’s current staffing model of dispatcher on shift at a time. She described an example scenario of a parent who doesn’t know CPR calling 911 for a child that’s not breathing:

How are they supposed to give me instructions and also tell the duty crew where to go, what’s going on, and they can’t multi-task like that. I’m getting put on hold while they’re dispatching that ambulance to see me. Seconds matter in this profession.

She followed that we pay our chiefs to run our public safety operations. When they tell us there is a problem, we need to listen to their recommendation. 

That was an opinion clearly not shared by Sgt. Widdis. He scornfully said the chiefs’ might have been public safety experts once but in their current roles, their expertise is “administrative tasks”. His comments from the floor and the stage were passionate rebukes of the Town’s motivations, the chief’s and board’s handling of it, and the projected impacts on his colleagues and the community.

Sgt. Widdis claimed the chiefs were simply looking to reduce budgets and reduce their personal workloads responsibilities by outsourcing the dispatch staff. Later he stressed that the chiefs don’t have their finger on the pulse of the needs of the community and instead pursued “a quick easy fix”.

One of the biggest concerns voiced by Sgt. Widdis’ and Dispatch Union head Kyle DeVincent is dispatchers losing their current jobs and the seniority they have accrued. But Widdis also spoke about the importance to officers out on the job alone that their connection in dispatch is paying attention.

That was echoed by John Thorburn who served in Weston’s Fire Dept for 42 years before working in Southborough’s dispatch for 11 years post retirement. He said that when officers told him they were approaching a car, he’d listen for gunshots.

Thorburn opposed regionalization but said he knew the fire chief’s complaints were legitimate. He said fixing the problem is easy, but it requires spending money.

He advocated for biting the bullet and spending the money to have two dispatchers on shift and a dedicated supervisor.

That is the same model the Select Board discussed in prior meetings to demonstrate why the alternative to regionalization is cost prohibitive. (Click here for the cost projections discussed at their March 7th meeting.) The cost was the answer members gave Bonnie Phaneuf as to why they are pursuing an agreement for a center years down the road as the solution to a serious liability that exists today.

Earlier on Saturday, she held the budgets for police and fire departments to ask about staffing. She was told that neither included any increased hours or personnel for the coming year.

Article 38 presentationSgt. Widdis highlighted that about 20 people walk into the building for assistance/requests per week. While the Select Board and chiefs have been talking about not letting the building go dark, he was openly skeptical since no details have been shared. The presentation and comments also described a few incidents when dispatchers presence was critical in providing aid to officers or the public.

As a retiree who spent his entire career in public safety communications (including 20 years on the 911 commission), Blair Sutherland shared his perspective. He said he’s seen “extraordinarily successful centers for communities that do it the right way”. He believed the IMA addressed many of the challenges for regional RECCs. He’s been through many public hearings and they are often “peppered with emotion”. He followed that change is difficult and dispatchers need support, but regionalization offers more opportunities for better training and a more professional environment.

Sutherland also noted that the state is beginning to shut down opportunities for small regional centers and instead building larger centers, like one they are looking at Milford. He said that there would be even less local control as “a small fish in a very large pond”. 

The wording of Article 38 called for telling the Select Board to “cease and desist” all efforts at regionalizing unless otherwise directed by Town Meeting.

That went too far for Al Hamilton. He said he wasn’t sure regionalization makes sense but the board should have the authority to research possibilities.

Although this Article passed, there were also a number of No votes. (Enough for the Moderator to repeat the vote for a second look.)

Updated (3/29/23 9:41 am): Although, they didn’t all stay through the whole night, 250 voters showed up for the second session.

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David Parry
1 year ago

I am so glad the voters passed these two common-sense articles, asking our Select Board to reverse course and GET OUT of the Regional Dispatch system.

As the story states … “the election may have a bigger impact on the course the Town takes than the voters at Trottier last Saturday” — because the vote was
ADVISORY, and therefore the Select Board does NOT legally have to obey.

But I promise that I personally WILL obey, because I strongly agree with the majority of voters ….. So for those of who dislike the regional solution … your solution is simple … vote for David Parry for Select Board. (I already committed to dumping this mistake months ago).

Al Hamilton
1 year ago

Both articles are purely advisory. The formal authority to enter into an Inter Municipal Agreement (IMA) lies solely with the Select Board. I favor withdrawal from the existing IMA with Westborough and Grafton for the reasons outlined by Ms Phaneuf and Mr. Butler, the Superfund Location, and the stripping of all funding control from Town Meeting. These are fatal flaws in this IMA.
The second article, in my opinion, goes too far and attempts to impinge on the fundamental responsibilities of the Select Board. The Town of Southborough is not a museum. The SB has an ethical responsibility to make sure that every tax dollar raised is used in an efficient and effective fashion. It must be able to evaluate and consider new modes of service. This is fundamental to it’s mission not optional.
The proponents of the second article raised some important issues that should be addressed. I for one am unclear on the economic and service benefits of a Regional System. It is also important to hear from communities that have undergone regionalization to gauge their experience and a specific plan for dealing with the “dark station” issue needs to be addressed. A lot more work needs to be done before an informed decision on regional dispatch can be made.
This work takes time. It appears to me that the speed with which we signed the current IMA was driven at least in part by Grant Chasing. I believe we should learned our grant chasing lesson from the St. Mark’s part debacle. Let’s first decide what we want to do and then chase the grants not the other way around.
This is a big decision, it will impact the lives of most people who live in our community and will impact the lives of some of our employees. We should take the time to get this right but we must examine this option, the SB is duty bound to do so.

Mike Pojani
1 year ago

Here we go again! Our wonderful select board will still try to jump into an insane proposal totally ignoring what the town folks want to happen! They never talked to the individuals who do the work every day but went along to sneak this crazy idea through! For the Fire Chief to be so enthusiastic about this whole thing and ignoring what would happen to the present dispatch staff! Losing seniority and accrued credits starting from square one. That is disgusting and should never happen! Select Board you work for us and must abide by the taxpayers wishes! This type of action is not what our great country was built on!

Al Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Pojani

I think you are a bit hasty in your condemnation of the SB. To the best of my knowledge they have not met nor discussed the feedback they got from ATM.
However, I need to differ from you in your characterization of who the SB works for. The SB does not work for either Town Meeting nor the taxpayers. They are entrusted by the voters to run the day to day operations of the town and to make decisions based on their judgements of what is best for the town. I would remind you that in the last election, for example, Mr. Stivers got 471 votes and Ms. Cook got 482 votes. Mr. Dennington received 461 votes in 2021. That is roughly 2 to 3 times the number of people in attendance at last Saturdays ATM. Is the trust these folks put in the elected members of the SB to be ignored? (Note I could not easily find the totals for Ms. Malinowski or Ms Broccio)
While we are at it, let’s be clear about the non binding, ATM vote to bar consideration of regionalization. This vote had no formal effect. I am as big a fan of Town Meeting as anyone but it was held in the dead of night (about 12:20 AM) after a significant fraction of the hall had left to put their kids or themselves to bed. I doubt that the meeting would have survived a quorum call. Those that mobilized for the article barring consideration clearly stuck it out. They are to be applauded for their dedication and the exercise of their rights but the context of the non binding vote is worth consideration.
There is nothing undemocratic going on here. ATM has expressed itself. The SB operating under it’s mandate from the voters will exercise their judgement and authority. I have made my position clear on this matter and I hope others seeking election to the SB will do so as well. The votes deserve a choice. This is exactly what the sort of democratic actions our great country was built on.

Kathy Cook
1 year ago

I am not going to get into a back and forth on this blog about the details of this issue other than to state the following. The Select Board has done a significant amount of research on this topic for a significant amount of time. And we have met with our dispatchers both in a public meeting and individually. Each person on the Select Board sat down individually with Kyle DeVincent while he was at work to discuss this issue with him and watch how the dispatch operation works. There is much more to come on this topic. The Select Board intends to make a fully informed decision that we feel is in the best interest of this town taking into account all relevant facts and information. And that includes listening to all points of view just as we have been doing including those of Chief Achilles and Chief Newell who believe the current dispatch operation structure is not viable and is potentially dangerous when we have complex emergencies and/or simultaneous emergencies such as what just happened in Nashville this week.

Mike Pojani
1 year ago

To both Al and Kathy, I don’t understand how the select board can ignore what the town taxpayers voted for with the regional dispatch issue. It has been proven without a doubt that it doesn’t work no matter where it has been implemented throughout the state. What we have now works excellent and there has never been an issue with it. There is no way that the select board can totally ignore what the voters IN ATTENDANCE voted on. If that is the case its needs to be looked at and changed! You folks work for us! We elected you just as we elect all officials whether local, state or in Washington! The very thought that Chief Achilles opted for this path is disgusting to say the least! No thought or care was given to the present dispatchers and how they would be affected. I am a retired state employee and also had a long career in the private industry with Data General in management . Many times this happened where great employees were cast about to save a few bucks! This should never be tolerated in our town operations and needs to stop immediately. You say a lot of research was done but obviously not in right direction! It is not broken don’t waste our resources in a program that has been proven to be a huge mistake. This is another ploy by the State Of Massachusetts to further control the towns. Al as far as the amount of folks who took the time to attend to meeting compared to your numbers of voters who voted for board members means nothing. They did not seem fit to attend this important meeting and we did have a quorum to attain to decisions. Case closed!

Kelly Roney
1 year ago

Some thoughts:

  1. The articles that passed at Town Meeting were explicitly advisory. It’s not TM’s decision. It belongs with the Select Board, like it or not.
  2. I agreed with John Butler’s and Bonnie Phaneuf’s presentation that the Westborough RECC is a bad idea.
  3. I didn’t agree with everything John said, but siting is a big problem for me. I don’t want to assign employees to a hazmat site.
  4. Southborough currently has five dispatchers. If the goal is to have multiple dispatchers covering all or most of every day and night, do we need another five dispatchers to go it alone?
  5. In a crisis such as a hurricane that affects the entire RECC’s region, dispatch capacity will be exceeded (and police and fire response, too), but there are other circumstances in which the excess capacity of a regional center will save someone’s life.
  6. Heath Widdiss said that dispatch bandwidth has had only four incidents of affecting service in 20 years. Did he really mean that, or did I misinterpret his comments?
  7. Saving money is a key duty of the Select Board and a key interest of Town Meeting. It seems to me that regional dispatch would save money and provide better service.
Kelly Roney
1 year ago
Reply to  Kelly Roney

Westborough thinks Hocomonco Pond is safe enough to add walking trails:

Margarite Landry
1 year ago

As a resident who is running for one of the two open Select Board seats, I would like to say that there are several issues with the regionalization IMA that would need to be resolved before I could support regionalization.

  1. Liability: the site is not healthy
  2. Uncertainty: The original regionalization included Hopkinton, Westborough, Grafton, Hudson, Marlborough, and Southborough, but now contains only 3 towns, the minimum number for a regionalization.
  3. Irreversibilty: If one of the 3 towns drops out, after the regionalization is complete, Southborough, having already given up its 911 number, which can’t be returned to us, would need to find another region to join.
  4. Lack of control financially.
  5. Lack of a human presence: residents coming to public safety for emergency or non-emergency needs, would use a wall phone, instead of a trained dispatcher in person.

The State is currently providing financial incentives to encourage towns to regionalize, but once communities are regionalized. these incentives may stop.
I would like to be sure that any decisions about Southborough’s public safety dispatch would be made after these concerns and other concerns of residents and town employees were addressed.
Marguerite Landry

David Parry
1 year ago

Do readers notice, in the comments above — the equivocation and LACK of decision — about a issue which is so crystal clear ?

Anyone who paid attention at Town Meeting — to the numerous powerful reasons for GETTING OUT OF THE NEW REGION before the DROP DEAD DATE IN JUNE — must be astounded !

Why don’t the candidates for election state CLEARLY what they will vote for ?

As for me, here it is — GET OUT — NOW.

Al Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  David Parry

I am on record opposing the existing IMA with Westborough and Grafton. If given the opportunity to withdraw before June 1 I will vote to do so. That should be unequivocal enough on this topic.
If, on the larger topic of the wisdom of joining a regional dispatch system, equivocation means gathering the facts, data and listening to stakeholders before making an important decision then I am guilty as charged.

John Kendall
1 year ago

Most of these comments are from people who never worked with a dispatch center. As a retired Southborough firefighter, I find that the RECC is not a good option at this time. Down the road, maybe. What we have now would work with two dispatchers on duty. This would provide better communications for fire and police, and would prevent the dark station problem. I’ve been to some RECC’s and they don’t always work well. A big problem is dispatching calls by a person with poor knowledge of the area. Training is a huge issue. When the grants run out, we’ll be on the hook for a lot of dough. And to even consider the Otis Street site is insane. I won’t bash the select board, however, they are being led down a path they should avoid. I’m dead set against the RECC, and always will be.

David Parry
1 year ago
Reply to  John Kendall


The Select Board voted on Tuesday evening, 2 to 1, with 2 abstentions, to withdraw from the region. Cook sensibly made the motion to withdraw. Stivers seconded. Stubbornly refusing was Dennington, who claimed regionalization was wonderful and inevitable.

But nothing is inevitable, except death and taxes. We can make our own destiny. Regionalization is a temporary fad which will soon lose State funding , resulting in many unhappy towns who fell for the gimmick, stuck where they don’t want to be, with severe penalties against getting out! Our neighbors Hopkinton, Framingham and Marlborough had the common sense to stay out.

Southborough Town Meeting is many times a Godsend. This time the voters made crystal clear where their hearts are — independent government and a properly staffed local force, with a fully OCCUPIED new Public Safety Building. …. we have just avoided, by the skin of our teeth, a quagmire of bureaucratc goverance, lawsuits and union action against an unsafe polluted regional site, undemocratic budgeting with no Town Meeting control, and an unoccupied new Southborough police station.

Can you just imagine the sheer stupidity of this proposal ?… We have only just completed a brand new Public Safety Building, which we are all justifiably proud of, and we are then asked to “regionalize” so that there will be no Dispatch in our new Station. Imagine driving there and finding nobody !
WTF would soon become a common remark !

Is there any chance this decision could be reversed by a newly elected Board, after the elections on May 9 ? YES there is a possibility — but NOT IF YOU VOTE for the two candidates who have publicly committed to get out and STAY OUT of the region … David Parry and Al Hamilton.

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