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.


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