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No lessons learned from July 23

February 4, 2013

Any citizen who attended the Walpole Board of Selectmen’s discussion of the town charter last week should have come away confused, concerned, and, above all, very insulted.

That’s not only because the town charter – the town’s Constitution – was deemed by Selectmen to be fine as it is and not in need of changes, despite clear proof that significant fixes are very much needed.

It’s also not just because Selectmen spent less than an hour discussing the charter and whether it needs to be reviewed – the short amount of time providing a strong indication that nobody on the Board seems to understand the significance of our charter and why it needs to be fixed, and that the Board is treating this as a part-time distraction, if not a joke.

Actually, the main reason taxpayers should be very offended by the Board’s discussion last Tuesday evening is because Selectmen blamed their unwillingness to fix the town charter on the taxpayers themselves – accusing them, in essence, of being too dumb to understand the way town government operates.

Apparently it is our fault – yes, you, and I, and everyone who lives in Walpole and pays taxes here – that the charter should not be fixed to ensure that the outrage that occurred during last summer’s Special Town Meeting, when a provision in the charter was summarily disregarded by Town Meeting Representatives because it supposedly wasn’t specifically enforced, never happens again.

After hearing few calls for charter changes from department heads and town committee members, Walpole Selectmen decided at last week’s meeting that it was not necessary to put together a Charter Review Committee.

The state recommends that communities review their charter every ten years. Walpole last had a Charter Review Committee between 2003 and 2005.

“My sense in looking at this information we’ve been given [from department heads, etc.], and I think my sense from my gut if you will, is that there isn’t a great burning desire to change the way we’re doing business in Walpole, and I don’t see a chain of towns that are similar to Walpole changing,” Selectman Chris Timson said.

Timson’s comments are surprising. For months now, there have been calls for changes to the town charter, from both citizens and RTMs alike.

At the July 23 Special Town Meeting to appropriate last year’s general override, Town Meeting Representatives summarily disregarded, by voice vote, a provision in the charter that requires the Finance Committee to hold a public hearing on budget articles at least three days before the articles come up for a vote at Town Meeting. Town Administrator Michael Boynton, the Board of Selectmen, the Finance Committee, Town Moderator Jon Rockwood, and a majority of our elected RTMs used a 1939 court case to claim that because there were no enforcement mechanisms to ensure the charter is actually followed, Town Meeting could still go on anyway even without a public hearing at least three days beforehand.

RTMs Cliff Snuffer and Joe Moraski both made a big fuss over the issue on the floor of Town Meeting, and were joined by other RTMs, such as Tom Bowen, who were all equally outraged. Citizens also expressed concern and have continued to do so in the months since the incident. Many citizens in town continue to talk about it to this day, expressing their utter disbelief that some RTMs would actually have the audacity to think the charter does not need to be enforced.

Yet apparently, according to the Board of Selectmen, no fixes to the charter are needed. Go figure.

That means Town Meeting, Selectmen, or anybody at Town Hall, can disregard the town charter whenever they want to meet whatever conditions they see fit, because a 1939 court case says the town charter can be ignored if there is nothing enforcing it.

I guess that means the Board of Selectmen and Town Administrator, both of whom get their powers and authority under the provisions of the charter, are meaningless figurehead positions. With a charter that can not be enforced, Walpole is an anarchy with no bylaws and no form of government.

Next time you are asked to pay your property tax or sewer-and-water bill pursuant to the budget provisions of the town charter, send in a printed copy of the 1939 Mass. Superior Court case “Young vs. Westport” to Town Hall, instead of a check.

Remember, if the town charter doesn’t apply to our Town Meeting Representatives, it most certainly does not apply to you, either. Selectmen seem to be just fine with that, since they’re not concerned about fixing it.

If their inability to understand the need for major town charter fixes was bad enough, Selectmen also claimed last week that because citizens never brought up any potential changes to the charter, the citizens must be too dumb to know how town government works.

The Board proposed having a booth at Walpole Day, and they want to engage in an outreach effort with informational sessions to educate citizens about the way the charter and town government works.

“To me, when we talk about a charter change, our pool of involved people needs to grow,” Selectwoman Nancy Mackenzie said.

“You can read something on paper but you may not fully understand how it actually functions, and I think what we want to show is how things function,” Selectman Mike Berry told The Walpole Times after the meeting. “The charter talks about a lot of things that are harder for people to get from just reading it on paper.”

Mackenzie’s and Berry’s comments, and the notion that a booth at Walpole Day is necessary to somehow educate the town, are insulting and amateurish.

Actually, many citizens have proposed some modifications to the town charter, based on the July 23 Special Town Meeting – yet Selectmen evidently chose to ignore them. It certainly seems from those concerns that citizens actually are educated, which makes the Board’s comments all the more ridiculous.

At the meeting, Berry did advocate for a Charter Review Committee, but his comments nevertheless came across as insulting and he should apologize to the public.

We elected this Board to supposedly do the right thing for our town, and that means taking the lead on changes to the town charter when they are needed. To blame the citizens for not being informed enough on the issues, and to use that as a justification for not touching charter review, is offensive.

Obviously, Walpole citizens should certainly be more informed and it would be spectacular if taxpayers were more interested in their government and had ideas for charter changes. But to claim that a lack of citizen engagement is the reason why the charter should not be fixed, and then to start changing the subject away from the charter to scold citizens for not knowing anything about town government is a slap-in-the-face.

Also, here’s a news flash: very few people, if even, know the nitty-gritty of the town charter or other critical government documents. Even some RTMs, who are themselves elected officials and are supposedly tuned to town issues, didn’t know before last summer that the Finance Committee is required to hold a public hearing three days before Town Meeting.

If Selectmen honestly expected citizens or town officials to come forward with changes to the town charter, they must be joking. Even people who are involved with town politics are not going to necessarily be itching to change things, unless an incident such as the one on July 23 occurs. The very fact that more than 7,000 people came out to vote in last year’s town election is evidence enough that there is a substantial population in Walpole that follows town issues and does indeed care about good government. Selectmen owe it to all of them to call for changes to the town charter when they are obviously needed.

No matter what, Walpole Selectmen showed last Tuesday they do not have the guts, or the willingness determination, or both, to fix the town charter. We are beyond figuring out whether it needs to be fixed in the first place – the Special Town Meeting from last summer proved that it most certainly does. Rather than childishly blaming citizens for their own inaction, the Board should immediately put together a Charter Review Committee, made up of members from each precinct along with at-large members, to examine the charter and to propose potential changes. This was done just ten years ago, and was quite successful, no matter how long it took or how much it made town officials complain about their operations being scrutinized.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Robert Luce permalink
    February 4, 2013 9:58 AM

    Very nice Sam.Its time to vote the board out there not in the best interest of the tax payer

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