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.

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Erratum

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.

29 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you once again for a very thoughtful piece. One thought I have is that the town needs to consider changing its charter so that we have a town administrator/ manager with the authority/power to run the town. A volunteer board who meets twice a month is not sufficent to run the town. This I believe would be the best way to start.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Selectman Marion McEttrick has proposed undertaking a study for just this.

It would remove from the Selectmen many of the more mundane decisions and tasks, freeing them up to spend their time on more significant issues.

10:02 PM  
Blogger SJM02186 said...

Milton indeed needs to create a charter. To my research, we do not have one, but instead a series of bylaws developed and enacted over the decades.

Mayor, Manager, Administrator, the titular head is less important than the creation of an organizational structure with a pinnacle. I meant not to criticize Town Meeting, but the farm scape of silos that are the independently elected boards, committees and commissions. My letter to the Times was intended to spur dialog regarding reform and not to simply make a pitch for a Mayor of Milton.

9:28 PM  
Anonymous Steve Morash said...

It's time to put everything on the table. The whole structure of town government needs to be looked at. There are economies of scale all over a town this size that need to be made. And it's in every department.

Why not look at privatizing the Milton Cemetery? We need to look realistically at the Fire Department and move away from three engines and a one or two manned ladder truck, to combination quints (an engine with a ladder). Why do we have all these elected boards with commissioners? Could not the same people and equipment that mow grass in the parks cut the grass at the schools and the cemetery?

Oh yeah and where are we with the insurance issue with our unions?

These questions need to be asked and the time is now!

10:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Town Meeting can still do its job, although it could do a better job if town residents were more actively communicating with their representatives. I think the school dept and board of selectmen disagreed with the warrant comm. recommendation for an override because the warrant committee was doing their job and the other 2 committees knew that an override would never pass given the combination of the economic uncertainty and the fall out from yet another school dept. theft. If there had been an override effort the school lunch theft would have been fore front in the cry that out tax dollars/ school finances are not well looked after and why should we increase financing when they can afford to loose 83K without even noticing it.

6:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the fact that the school dept can afford to loose 83k and not notice it for 2 years remains a factor in terms of consideration of next year's override question. those who were in a position to prevent this sort of theft didn't do so - yet there is still no accountability or even discussion of that except for the alledged employee who may go to jail and who will probably never be able to repay what she was allededly allow to scoff from MPS. This is a repeat of the past when employees steal and the school system STILL doesn't prevent it, while the taxpayers are STILL expected to increase their support of this system. NOT.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

anonymous 1

The fact is the need for an override was obvious from very early on, and yet the decision was made to muddle through. Therefore, inadequate budgets were in some cases submitted, and much valuable time slipped by when communication to the voters of the true need could have taken place. This was long before final decisions were justified based on lack of support. Lack of suppport was hardly surprising when the voters really had no idea of the size of the problem.

I doubt very much that a theft would have played much of a role in the outcome of any election. The theft of money inside institutions as well guarded against such occurrences as banks still occurs.

Sure, it would have given those who wanted to vote no a good reason to do so, but the leap of logic required to equate a theft with large scale mismanagement of a $30 million plus budget is too great for voters to continue to inadequately fund their children's education.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Anonymous 3

In fact it was the school department, using a new audit system, who discovered the theft.

The money stolen came from the school lunch program, an all cash business. This money has nothing to do with budget appropriated by the town and managed in a manner similar to other town departments.

10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

an all cash business. ok. i get it. new audit system. ok. i get it. thanks for the explanation. Money that has nothing to do with the budget. sorry don't get it.

11:34 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Well, I'll try to explain it to you.

The cash business for the lunch service is the money raised from those who eat a school lunch, not the budget and money provided by the annual budget approved by the Town Meeting.

Yes, the school's audit caught the discrepancy.

11:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

they caught it after 2 years of theft. and there are interactions between the school lunch program and the mps. not completely autonoumous and they answer to superintendent and sc. they are involved in a federal crime which has cost us in terms of milton police time and money - its not okay and mps should have done a better job for this town.

12:04 AM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Of course there are interactions between the school lunch program and the school administration.

That has nothing to do with the point made about the budget.

Only the thief is involved in a crime.

Theft is not financial mismanagement.

12:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whether or not theft is financial mismanagement may be a matter of opinion - I think the town will feel that theft should be prevented by management, that extra measures should have been in place given the cash nature of the business. Anyone who deals in cash knows that. Yes, the alledged thief bears the consequenses of the crime, but mps is not innocent or without blame.

12:38 AM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

I think the town will recognize a difference between someone stealing from a cash account, fnd "financial mismanagement".

You didn't say that the administration had some blame, you indicated they were involved in a crime. That's simply false.

The management of the foodservice account has been done the same way for literally decades. It is recent administrations that changed the system and found the crime.

To deprive our children of adequate funding due to an oversight in a small account under prior administrations, and having nothing to do with the way the budget is managed, makes no sense. I'm confident the town would recognize that. Of course those looking for a rationale for not providing needed funding may use jump on it as a convenient excuse for saying no.

In any event, I think our views have been adequately aired on this issue.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

From a cost perspective, tighter controls typically cost money as well. In the world of fraud, an $80k skimming scheme is the most basic and dificult forms of fraud to detect. As a fraud investigator I'm actually impressed that the school had procedures in place to uncover the fraud.

5:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pleassseee - Impressed that the school finally figured out that the all cash snack bar, never looked at inventory, didn't balance? That type of control shouldn't have cost MPS more than we already paid for management oversight.

9:54 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

So now you're going to ignore the opinion of someone who just might know something about such fraud.

We paid very little for management oversight in this instance, and theft of cash in these kinds of situation is not that unusual. Often it isn't even discovered.

10:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why should I consider the opinion of "Greg" as an authority on fraud? What do you mean by we paid very little for management oversight? Are you saying that our saleries offer the bonus of a job poorly done or that they forgive incompetance? Theft not unusual or undiscovered is okay? Are you on the same planet?

10:48 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Indeed, why should you consider any opinion that conflicts with your anti-school desires!

Embezzlement of cash is hardly rare, and in fact national statistics show it's on the rise.

A month ago a similar case occurred in Concord New Hampshire.

Your argument is circular. Poor job and incompetence is what you need to demonstrate, not assume. Very little money is spent in this school system on management, and the school lunch program is hardly the major focus of that management.

Embezzlement occurs in all areas of our economy, including in the private sector where presumably the very best controls and management could be afforded. There is no full proof system for preventing it.

11:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. i am not anti-school
2. incompetence has been demonstrated by the theft of cash in a system that discovered it too late
3. what mps spends on management cannot be described as very little
4. there may not always be fool proof systems to prevent embezzlement but there are foolish systems that allow it - such as the practice utilized at mps

6:20 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

1. I have my doubts about that.

2. No, a theft does not demonstrate incompetence.

3. In fact it can by any reasonable measure.

4. You haven't described the system you claim to be expert in was "foolish". It was the system that caught the theft. Much theft goes undetected.

Cash systems are always vulnerable to the dishonest actions of trusted employees.

7:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

think whatever you want about me - you are not very open minded. I believe the system was foolish because if ultimately the theft was detectable than originally it should have been preventable. The system caught the theft too late for comfort. Are you so forgiving of the system that you think the accused thief is excusable? If she is not excusable then why is the system that allowed the problem to persist long term and to great amounts not at fault? It was a simple fix, after all, to avoid this whole thing.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

I don't think the problem is whether I'm open minded or not, but rather whether I agree with you or not.

The fact is, embezzlement of cash is nearly always detectable. That doesn't make an occurrence of theft proof of bad management.

Billions of dollars of embezzlement occur in businesses and the public sector every year. No one takes that as ipso facto poor management or incompetence. If you actually spend some time reading about such fraud by experts in the field, you'd realize that a willing thief can find a way.

That's why your vehemence in making such a charge tends to suggest something else going on.

I've made no comment suggesting excusing the thief. I suspect you know that.

I also suspect you understand the concept of blaming the victim, and making false equivalencies.

At this point you are merely repeating yourself. You have now had your opportunity to make your point, repeatedly.

7:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed, and I'll end with stating I support education and that good systems disallow theft and that when systems fail hell should be raised and not just for the alleged thief.

11:46 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Lots of good systems, schools and private enterprises experience theft or in your words, "allow" theft.

Equating in outrage a thief with the victim is perverse.

9:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perverse when the thief attacks and unsuspecting and innocent victim; Not perverse when the system/victim should anticipate and prevent the theft- that's where responsible and competant management gets held accountable.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

No, perverse in an of itself.

The victim was not suspecting, and indeed was innocent.

Responsible and competent management are stolen from every day. That has been the basic flaw in your argument since the beginning.

6:46 PM  
Blogger donedunitnow said...

Reader comment:
“One thought I have is that the town needs to consider changing its charter so that we have a town administrator/ manager with the authority/power to run the town.”

Your response:
“Selectman Marion McEttrick has proposed undertaking a study for just this.”
“It would remove from the Selectmen many of the more mundane decisions and tasks, freeing them up to spend their time on more significant issues.”

My comment:
Let me help you with the want ad copy. Wanted - Town Manager “to remove from the Selectmen many of the more mundane decisions and tasks, freeing them up to spend their time on more significant issues.” What color is the sky in your world?

Try this on for size. Town Manager – Yes. Selectmen – No. Both aren’t needed.

On the school theft subject:
Are the cops responsible for the crime? - Of course not. The criminal is responsible for the crime.

You may actually believe that skimming 80K from a school lunch program is an innocent, acceptable loss. I disagree. Where there is smoke, there is fire.

At what point is town government held accountable? What else is smoldering out there?

10:49 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

In the Town Manager form of government, the Town Manager is the chief administrative officer. You still need an executive unit --a board of Selectmen or move to a Mayoral form.

I did not say that the theft is innocent or acceptable.

Why don't you share with us what your idea of accountable is?

11:06 PM  

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