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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Update - Charter Revision Hearing - Play-by-Play

Update - this morning we learned that tonight's scheduled meeting of the CRAB was not properly announced and cannot be held.

Will has been writing of his puzzlement over the proposals for changes in our Town Charter developed by the Charter Revision Advisory Board (CRAB). I shared some of his doubts and had my own questions. I was especially disappointed in how little rationale and justification was provided in the proposal document, so I was interested in attending the public hearing tonight to, hopefully, get a better idea of what these are about.

This report gives many of the comments made at that meeting and the explanations by the CRAB members. 

My colleague Will will add an article or two reacting to what was said. I am minimizing my personal comments here, to get this article published soon.

by Tom Ferrio

The hearing document with the official wording of the questions is available here

The hearing opened with CRAB Chair Mary O’Connor describing the procedure that the CRAB used. The CRAB will continue their work after this hearing, using comments here as input. The Town Council will hold their public hearing on the final questions at their June 11 meeting.

Question 1 - Require voter approval for acquisition of real property interest over $150,000

Will’s discussion of this proposal is here. There is probably a clear legal definition of “interest,” but I came to the hearing not knowing which projects would apply. I suppose the purchase of the YMCA land conservation easement counts as an “interest.” What about a grant to a non-profit organization for the purchase of land for Affordable Housing, under our Affordable Housing bond? And what are some examples of prior Town Council decisions that would have gone to the voters instead?

Town solicitor Peter Ruggiero clarified that a purchase like the YMCA conservation easement would be affected by this change but that Affordable Housing acquisition grants to a non-profit organization would not be covered. It was noted that the YMCA purchase could have been structured as a grant to still allow something like the YMCA land purchase after this change.

Former Town Council member and current Affordable Housing Commission Chair Evelyn Smith described how Affordable Housing (AH) projects sometimes look for some form of town ownership of the land to prevent loss of Affordable restrictions in foreclosure. With many other funding sources all relying on town approval, any lengthy delay by the town will jeopardize other funding approvals.

The Board stated that they felt the current language allows a Town Council to spend any amount of money if they find some matching funds. Ms. Smith stated that a Town Council cannot now simply spend money that is not budgeted or previously approved by a bond. She did not see what problem this change is solving.

Former Town Council President Deb Carney stated that she has not heard of a problem related to the current language. She said that she felt the proposed language will cause confusion because of the lack of consideration for the use of money from approved bonds.

Question 2 – Term limits for Zoning Board of Review

Will gave his reaction to this here, and I share his disbelief that if term limits are good and necessary that they should be applied only to one group of appointed or elected people serving our town. This clearly appears to be an attack on specific people rather than a statement about the benefits of term limits.

Mr. Ruggiero stated that the Zoning Board is special under the law, as a Board that holds legal hearings. Hearings by other groups such as the Town Council, Planning Commission and Wastewater Management are administrative hearings.

Zoning Board Chair Mike Rzewuski spoke to strongly oppose the change, saying that he is one of the people feeling singled out. He explained that the Zoning Board does not represent citizens or the Town Council; their job is to interpret the law. He stressed the number of years needed to learn enough to know the job.

The CRAB denied that this was being done as an attack on one group, though they admitted that Councilman Avedisian made that accusation during a meeting.

Evelyn Smith pointed out that four appointments to Zoning are made every year, so there is abundant opportunity for new people to apply. She agreed with the length of time needed to learn the job and stated that she feels there has been sufficient turnover on the Zoning Board over the last ten years.

Planning Commission Chair Ruth Platner stated that the Town Council has the power to not reappoint people and can decide to limit terms in that way, to bring in new people, if they desire.

Mike Chambers claimed that he applied to the Zoning Board and then later found that there was no record of his application. (To an observer he seemed to be claiming that the Zoning Board somehow caused his application to be lost. But applications are handled by the Town Clerk’s office, so I don't understand that.)

Question 3 – Public hearings for any financial legal arrangement with any other party

There are a lot of words in this question (you can read in the document) that seem rife with legal meaning. When I first read it I let out a “wow,” thinking that almost anything the town does that involves purchasing or an agreement could apply. That was Will’s reaction too, and I came to the meeting looking for some clarity.

CRAB is already entertaining another alternative that has not been published. In my quick look at the screen in the room, it seems to change the last words from "financial interest" to "financial return" to omit things like purchase orders.

Town Treasurer Pat Anderson stated that the prior language would require public hearings on numerous things that are normal business. Even the new language will require many, many hearings, such as for every event at Ninigret Park, even a contract for a birthday party.

Beth Richardson asked what problem is being solved. Donna Chambers specifically stated that the Larry LeBlanc wind power partnership with the prior Town Council was the trigger for this and that she was advocating for changes to prevent such things in the future.

Evelyn Smith suggested that the Charter could be clearer on the Council process for approving things. Items that do not extend beyond the term of office can be done with resolutions. Items that create an arrangement that has a longer life and an obligation of a party other than the town could/should require an ordinance. Mr. Ruggiero stated that normal town contracts are 5 years. (So I don’t know how that fits well in the two categories to make it simple to buy copy paper.)

Question 4 – Reducing the purchasing thresholds requiring formal bids

My first reaction when I saw this was surprise that something this detailed, and subject to adjustment with inflation etc., was part of the Town Charter rather than an ordinance or a written procedure. I was even more surprised when I heard that the state imposes a similar requirement. Why do we need two? I have not yet heard what concern leads us to conclude that the current bid thresholds are too high. Will talked about this and wondered how this question and question 3 work together. Will looked at this one in detail here.

The Board explained that the current Charter is not in compliance with state law for the level requiring going out to bid. (I somehow missed that in my read of the current Charter and state law.) The proposed change also places a bid level lower than the state for small purchases.

Pat Anderson expressed concern about the $1,000 bid limit, the cost and work associated with that. Council member Gregg Avedisian noted that a recent Charter change just increased the bid limit from $1,000 to $3,000, so this is reversing that with no stated evidence of a problem.

Deb Carney expressed the popular saying “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” referring to the $1,000 bid level, below the state requirement.

Question 5 – Establishing Town Council President and Vice-President by election votes

My first reading of this produced a yawn because I have thought the procedure of the Council choosing its own leaders a little staged. Then I read Will’s possible scenario of a minority-slate candidate getting the most votes, and it made me think harder, wondering why we need this if the President specifically has no special powers of office.

The Board explained that this proposed change came from some members of the public.

This one did not receive strong comments, but Deb Carney pointed out that the President and Vice President do not have any special powers in our town.

Question 6 – Requiring a five-year capital budget

This seemed reasonable to me until I was told that the town already does this and that the state requires it. So I don’t understand the purpose of this, what it improves.

Pat Anderson stated that she doesn’t see the necessity of this since state law already requires it and we do it.

Council member Dan Slattery stated that there was confusion about the capital budgeting process in the town; he felt that it would be better to have it stated explicitly in the Charter, although it is redundant with state law.

Question 7 – Two-month wait for filling commission, board and committee vacancies

It’s probably just me, but I read this one with a furrowed brow. I could not decide whether this applies when a commission etc. has had openings for some time or only if it gets an opening when it didn’t have one previously. And what if a Commission etc. had an opening for a while, got another opening and then got enough applications to fill all the openings. Would filling that last opening have to wait? And does this mean that new ad hoc commissions etc. that need to get to work fast now have to wait an extra month to get started? It just seems like the wording is terrible, and I cannot recall a specific situation that became a problem that this seems to fix.

Beth Richardson asked how this affects long-term openings. The Board explained that this is for full Commissions etc. that have a reappointment or new opening, so there is more notice for when terms are up for renewal as well as for openings. 

Gregg Avedisian pointed out that the wording talks about “vacancies” and reappointments are not mentioned. Tom Gentz confirmed that upcoming reappointments are not announced like vacancies.

Deb Carney brought up the situation where a position should be filled as quickly as possible, like on the school committee, and this will impose a substantial delay. Evelyn Smith noted that timing could require up to three months to fill a position when one becomes suddenly available and that the delay could impact needed work.

Mike Chambers spoke to support the change, which he says will ensure that there is enough time for the news of an opening to spread, so that more people can consider applying.

The meeting ended with no further business, but with plans to have a previously scheduled meeting Tuesday night to consider the public input.