Sunday, May 03, 2015

Warrant Article 15 - Strong Town Administrator


This article asks the Town Meeting to codify and strengthen the role of the Town Administrator as the town’s chief operating officer. It represents the recommendation of the Town Government Study Committee, of which I am a member.

The position of Town Administrator is mentioned in our bylaws, but the roles, responsibilities and authority are not defined in any way.  This differs from the practice in most communities and means that each successive Board of Selectmen could in effect define the position.  This is not good practice and could lead to instability both for the way town operations are run and in filling the position with highly qualified and skilled professionals.

The article also seeks to increase the authority of the Town Administrator in keeping with a widespread trend in municipal government in Massachusetts.

The dominant form of government in Massachusetts remains the Town Meeting form.  It is hundreds of years old and is a defining characteristic of the New England region.  Its resiliency stems from thoughtful accommodations to modernity - the changes modern life exerts on self-governance. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Open Town Meeting gave way to the Representative Town Meeting in those communities whose populations made the Open Town Meeting either too unwieldy or not sufficiently representative of a large community. Beginning in the 1950’s and continuing for 3 decades the trend toward the professionalization of town governance occurred, as Executive Secretaries, and Town Administrators and Town Managers assumed the administrative and operational roles that volunteer Boards of Selectmen composed of citizens with full time jobs could no longer hope to execute.

The most recent trend finds towns making changes to centralize authority for town management. The first period of professional town management saw “weak” Town Administrators with limited authority taking over some of the functions previously performed by Selectmen. The trend now is to put nearly all operational authority under the Town Administrator, freeing the Board of Selectmen to spend the limited amount of time they can devote to questions of policy and long range planning for the town.

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue strongly supports this trend. In its 2013 report on the town it said: 

There is a growing trend in Massachusetts local government favoring a centralized management approach under the direction of a strong town administrator. Operating under the board of selectmen’s oversight, an empowered town administrator handles the bulk of daily management-related activities and can implement strategy across municipal operations, monitor financial management functions, and supervise the administration of all departments, boards and committees outside the jurisdiction of the schools. This model has emerged as the best way to promote accountability in government because it establishes a strong chain of command with clear lines of authority. Within this structure, employees have well-defined roles and responsibilities, tasks can be easily delegated, collaboration is promoted and encourages efficiency.”

A consultant from the Municipal Management Association also supported this move before a joint meeting of the Board of Selectmen and the Town Government Study Committee.

Another consulting resource to Massachusetts Communities, The Edward J. Collins, Jr. Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts at Boston echoes the benefits of a strong Town Administrator in a report it made to the Town of Sherborn.

“…as the elected leaders of the Town’s executive branch, the Board of Selectmen should have the time and capacity to set policy and direction for the Town.  … Achieving this has grown more and more difficult, as the increasing complexities of operating a municipal government and the increasing statutory demands make decision‐making both more difficult and potentially more consequential. A strengthened Town Administrator can lift some of the more mundane tasks and decisions

from the Board of Selectmen.”

As for the role this change would open up for Boards of Selectmen, the Collins Center says:

“…we believe that the Board of Selectmen should be devoting more time to big‐picture strategic issues, long‐term planning, and goal‐setting. We believe this as a general matter for the Town. Additionally, the current Board’s core competencies and comparative advantages are not being used profitably by spending time debating the minutiae of the management of the Town’s operations. Those competencies and advantages could be put to more valuable use thinking strategically about issues such as long‐term plans for revenue, regionalization opportunities, the development of performance measures, and other such issues.”

 

As I’m sure was the case with past changes to our Town Meeting government, this one will likely be met with concern by some, and some will even predict disaster. I’ve already heard concerns expressed that sound very dire. For example, the fear has been expressed that with the power to appoint the Police Chief, the Town Administrator could appoint a non-resident to that office, departing from long standing tradition in our town. But the Board of Selectmen today could appoint a non-resident to that job, and retaining a veto power on the appointment of Department heads, as the Selectmen do under this article, represents no real change. The Board has the ability to set policy and provide the Town Administrator with direction in hiring. No professional Town Administrator is going to jeopardize their job making decisions so out of tune with the community. I’m sure it will not surprise you to discover that Milton is not an early adopter on these kind of issues. Many communities have gone down this path without consequential adverse results.

 

The Town Government Study Committee, with three former Selectmen and a Town Administrator of over 30 years, voted unanimously to support this change. The Warrant Committee voted unanimously to support this change.  The current Board of Selectmen, including newcomer David Burnes, support this change.  I hope my fellow Town Meeting Members will support this change at the Town Meeting so that we can continue to adapt the Town Meeting form of government to the changing circumstances of the modern world.

Friday, May 01, 2015

A Disturbing Election


I find Tuesday’s election disturbing. By disturbing, I don’t mean the results, although I find them unfortunate in a couple of cases. What disturbs me is the turnout. The turnout was 26.4% of registered voters. I’ve been observing and working on political campaigns in Milton for many years, and as I watched the voter counts throughout the day, it became apparent that something somewhat unusual in recent Milton electoral history was happening.

Common sense and experience indicate that turnout at our Annual Town election will be higher in those years featuring a Selectmen’s race or a School Committee race, and especially in years where both of these important town-wide offices are up for election.

I decided to look back over recent history to assess Tuesday’s turnout in historical context. I looked at the past 19 years, a time period for which I had the information immediately at hand.

During the last 19 years we’ve had 9 elections that involved competitive races for both Selectmen and School Committee.  The turnout in the previous 8 elections ranged from 33% to 45.4%.  This year’s turnout was almost 7 percentage points below the lowest performance of the last 19 years. The average turnout in all 9 elections is 36.4%, a full 10 percentage points ahead of 2015. Elections in 5 additional years during which only one of these offices had a competitive race, all had higher turnouts than this year, with 2004 topping 50% because of a Moderator's race and a debt exclusion override for school construction.

Here are turnout results for the 9 years.

 

2015 ------------------------------26.4

2013-------------------------------38.6

2010-------------------------------34.1

2007-------------------------------45.4

2006-------------------------------37.7

2001-------------------------------34.0

2000-------------------------------38.6

1999-------------------------------39.9

1997-------------------------------33.0

 

Now there is no evidence of a trend here. We have one data point that represents a significant drop and we need to see what happens going forward. But it is troubling, and as much as we lament a slight decrease in participation at Town Meeting, a ten point drop in the average voter participation rate for contested elections would offer an even greater cause of concern.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Library Trustee Endorsements


With four excellent candidates running for three seats, these are the most difficult endorsements to make.

Herb Voigt, a one term incumbent is seeking a second term. Andrea Gordon, a former trustee of many years, seeks to return to the Board.  Doug Scibeck is a Freelance Writer and Financial Analyst. And Paul Hays is a one-time teacher and Principal in the Boston Public Schools who now oversees three Public High Schools as chief academic officer.

Herb Voigt is a highly recognized Biomedical Engineer who last summer was named a Fulbright Scholar. In his first term on the Library Board he played a key role in addressing the Library’s parking and traffic problems, resulting in the addition of parking spots on Canton Avenue and a reversal of the traffic pattern into and out of the parking lot that improved traffic safety. He worked with Friends of the Milton Library to expand the highly popular museum pass program. And he has helped to build stronger ties with the Milton Public Schools.

Altogether a productive first term and I hope you’ll join me in supporting Herb for a second term.

Andrea Gordon already occupies a place of prominence in the recent history of the Milton Public Library. She served for 18 years from 1994 to 2012. During that time she played a vital role over many years in bringing to fruition the expanded Library we now enjoy. Key to this was her participation in negotiating the land swap deal that made possible an expanded parking lot – crucial to the full success of a new Library.  She also is a founder of the Milton Library Foundation, a source of much needed funding over and above what the Town provides.

As a professional librarian, with so much experience and history with our library, I commend Andrea Gordon to you for one of your three votes tomorrow.

The third choice was very difficult. Both Paul Hays and Doug Scibeck are well educated (Hays has a Ph.D and Scibeck two Masters Degrees). They are successful in their fields and seem to have a genuine interest in the Library as an important civic institution. I’ve chosen to support Doug Scibeck because I think it would be good to have someone who earns their keep as a writer sit on the Library Board. If Paul Hays does not earn a spot on the Board this year, I hope he’ll try again.