Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Can Town Meeting Government Still Do the Job?

A few weeks ago I began to compose an article on the recent Annual Town Meeting, and the run up to it. I wanted to echo Charlie Winchester’s comments before the members about failed leadership. Then the Milton Times arrived. It contained a letter to the editor from my friend Steve McCurdy that posed the fundamental question. Is the Town Meeting form of government still up to the task of addressing complex community problems in the fast-paced 21st century?

Steve’s answer is no. Authority and responsibility are too diffused and the town meeting unwieldy. There is no source of leadership, leaving us to hope that multiple boards, with multiple members can somehow reach consensus and point in the same direction. He recommends following communities like Braintree and Weymouth who in recent years abandoned Town Meeting in favor of a Mayoral form of government.

A few years ago I would have rejected this suggestion immediately, as I’m a great fan of our form of government. I still don’t agree, but witnessing the continued erosion of our fiscal situation and this year’s chaotic budgetary process the question of how we forcefully and strategically address complex problems will increasingly intrude upon public discussion.

So just how did we end up at a Town Meeting at which the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee opposed the considered recommendation of the Warrant Committee? Perhaps we should begin by asking why they opposed the override recommendation. It was the majority view of both elected bodies that an override was not politically feasible. Times are tough economically and no one had stepped forward from the citizenry to lead the charge in a campaign destined in any event to begin too late to be mounted successfully.

This reasoning lead to a very risky decision. There is no reason to believe the economy will be in better shape a year from now. Indeed, the Massachusetts economy has not been that bad. Anyone who has served on the Warrant Committee during recessions that caused an actual substantial reduction in state aid understands the difference. But if the continued spike in world energy prices prompts the recession we’ve so far been able to avoid, and Massachusetts fully feels the effects, we could be faced with the prospect of seeking an even larger override at an even worse time. The consequences of a failed attempt will be commensurately greater to the level of town services, with the schools once again suffering disproportionately.

The origins of this year’s budgeting fiasco seem to emanate from decisions made at the very beginning of the budget building season. We are told that the prospective $700,000 cost for health services for firefighter Anthony Pickens precipitated a call to many department heads to prepare for a tight budget year as they put together their submissions. This led to the Warrant Committee receiving requests that upon examination clearly did not meet level service for many departments, a standard agreed upon as part of a financial planning process. Arguments about the definition of “level service” strike me as defensive. If departments can provide the same service with fewer people, then maybe they were overstaffed to begin with. I doubt that is an argument department heads would like to find themselves supporting.

But why did the Picken’s medical costs spur a call for austere budgets, rather than an early recognition that an override was likely needed, even more so because of it? Only a few months before, the Town Meeting had passed a budget resulting in 30 staff cuts in the schools. Other large departments were spared as serious a consequence only because of the frequent and frustrating lack of a labor agreement with the Police and Fire unions, postponing cuts in those departments.

While it is true that the final picture of a budget cannot be known for months into the planning process, there are structural aspects to our fiscal reality that only a remarkable occurrence could altar. For years the annual cost of maintaining current service levels has been growing faster than our annual revenue growth. We’ve now reached a point that such costs, combined with the growth of “bills”, exceed our yearly new revenue even as soon as one year after an override. As annual cost increases approach revenue increases, the result will be the need for more frequent and/or significantly larger override efforts. Unchanged, this phenomenon will worsen at an increasing pace and poses a threat to service levels in Milton.

Given this reality, and the substantial medical costs we were faced with early on, the beginnings of an educational effort on the need for an override should have started in the early Fall. Instead of having some department heads submitting inadequate budgets, the budgets would have made clear what the needs were. Instead of underplaying the implications of budgets, everyone should have clearly and loudly communicated the likely cuts that would have been necessary. Rather, we had a situation in which the Warrant Committee was stunned by one department head’s assessment of his budget just before town meeting. We had anonymous "sources close to town 's decision makers" making wholly incorrect charges about the Warrant Committee’s role to the Milton Times.

This is what happens when there’s an absence of leadership. The vacuum is filled with hesitation, confusion and infighting. However, I’m not ready to conclude that this is
endemic to a town meeting model. Within it there exists a spectrum of leadership styles, from the passive to the active. Certainly, witnessing members of two elected groups monitoring the number of phone calls and emails and waiting for a few citizens to lead the charge is an example of the former.

We have the right people in place to begin a more aggressive approach to addressing issues that are quickly becoming severe. Building support for an override next year is a necessity. We need to fulfill the promise of a revised Master Plan, one that gives full consideration to the DPW Yard as suggested in the Economic Development Plan, along with intensive re-development of our present commercial zones. And please, this should be done with outside experts, not town residents with political axes to grind.

A few years ought to be sufficient to judge whether a 17th century model that has served us well for so long can adapt to the unremitting pace of challenges and required solutions of today. By then, more people will be willing to answer Steve McCurdy’s fundamental question.


In an earlier version of this post I identified anonymous sources in Town Hall as the source of a report in the Milton Times. Upon rechecking, it was "sources close to town's decision makers". I apologize for the error, since those sources may not have been in Town Hall.