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Town charter review not a small issue

October 1, 2012

For the vast majority of Walpole residents, the soon-to-begin town charter review process, recommended once every ten years by the state, is probably about as interesting as attending a lecture about quantum mechanics.

That might be one of the reasons why the Board of Selectmen decided to take on the bulk of the process themselves, rather than create an independent board to do it.

During the last charter review process that the town went through, between 2003 and 2005, a primarily-elected Charter Review Committee spent about two painstaking years talking to town employees and citizens before recommending to Town Meeting what amounted to only small changes to the document.

But quite a bit is at stake in this process for local residents, and the review process is too big for the Selectmen to undertake on their own. It would be wise for Selectmen to create an independent committee, as was done last time.

The last review process may have lasted two years, but taking a long time isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Though some Selectmen expressed concern that an overly lengthy process puts an undue microscope on town employees and Department Heads, this is not necessarily a bad thing, if it translates into a product that all involved with town government are satisfied with.

The Special Town Meeting on July 23 was Exhibit A as to why reviewing and changing the charter should not be taken lightly. Town Meeting Representatives summarily disregarded, by voice vote, a provision in the charter that seems innocuous at first, but is important to ensure an inclusive town budget process. The provision in question requires that the Finance Committee hold a public hearing on budget articles at least three days before the article comes up for a vote at Town Meeting, but due to an attendance issue, the hearing was postponed to just minutes before Town Meeting. The Town Administrator, Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee, Town Moderator, and a majority of our elected RTMs cited a 1939 court case to argue that because there were no enforcement mechanisms to ensure the requirement is actually followed, Town Meeting could still go on anyway, town charter and public hearings be damned.

A few small, clerical changes are clearly not all that is needed to make the charter a stronger, more effective document. The town must conduct a full-scale, top-to-bottom review to ensure every inch of the town’s sacred constitutional document is protected with specific enforcement mechanisms if the town fails to obey. The town’s legal counsel also needs to be involved and put to work scraping around for every possible court case from decades or centuries ago that might affect the charter and how town officials interpret it, to prevent a repeat incident of July 23. For whatever reason, the last charter review committee failed to anticipate that a 1939 court case could cause the charter to be virtually unenforceable.

The Special Town Meeting also made it clear that the charter should provide greater clarification of the role of our Representative Town Meeting. Some RTMs complained before the Town Meeting that officials jumped the gun when they hiked property taxes to reflect the $3 million override, before RTMs had actually appropriated the override money. Even if Town Hall didn’t technically violate state law (which is still up for debate), there should be a provision in the charter ensuring that Town Meeting’s role as the supreme authority on all spending and taxation, even if voters have already went to the polls, is respected. No taxes should be raised until Town Meeting appropriates the money. It is baffling how this is even a concern in the first place.

Selectman Mike Berry made the strongest case for conducting a thorough charter review process, that involves more than just the town’s top board, when he said last week “there’s obviously no more important document in town than the town charter.”

With that in mind, the five-member volunteer Board of Selectmen, made up of members who each have full-time jobs, should recognize that reviewing the charter is not a part-time activity. This is serious business, and should be done correctly and responsibly, no matter how long it takes.

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