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Potential town charter changes

February 11, 2013

Last month, the Walpole Board of Selectmen, ignoring cries from many residents and elected officials, decided not to call for the creation of 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.

Obviously, in light of the incident that occurred at last year’s Special Town Meeting, the Board’s decision not to create a Charter Review Committee was puzzling. More significantly than just the changes that came to light from that Town Meeting, the Board’s decision means that the charter will not receive the review necessary scrutiny it requires – even if that scrutiny doesn’t turn up anything. It is always good for any community, like any business, to take a look at their operating procedures to see what they could change or clarify.

Hopefully, Selectmen will reconsider their decision, or Town Meeting will create a Charter Review Committee on their own.

For now, though, 180 offers, below, several potential considerations for and changes to the town charter, that should all be considered by a future Charter Review Committee. Selectmen claim they wanted more citizen input on the charter, so here is my humble input, in specifics rather than talking points:

Finance Committee Term Limits

Some area towns, such as Norfolk, Canton, and Foxboro, require regular turnover on their Finance Committees (known in Norfolk and Foxboro as an Advisory Committee.)

It might be time to consider bringing that same policy to Walpole.

Canton’s term limit of three consecutive terms (nine years) seems reasonable. If someone wants to stay longer than nine years, they can step down and come back for a non-consecutive term a year later.

Town Moderator Jon Rockwood came under fire in 2010 for declining to reappoint five members of the Finance Committee – claiming that the committee needed some new blood. Maybe Rockwood had a point. It might be necessary to ensure that we do get some new voices every now and then. Even a strongly conservative Finance Committee should see new faces.

The town of Falmouth goes even further than just Finance Committee term limits, requiring that “no member of an appointed town board shall serve more than three consecutive three-year terms.” In a town such as Walpole, where volunteers willing to serve are hard to come by, mandatory term limits on all appointed committees might be too extreme. But a powerful committee such as the Finance Committee, which in recent years has attracted a lot of candidates for appointment, should probably experience some turnover every now and then.

Too much power in one person?

A question that has been raised after Rockwood created a stir in 2010 from the Fin Com Five incident was whether the Town Moderator – one person – should even be given broad unilateral power to make those appointments. Because of his ability to appoint members to the Finance Committee, Capital Budget Committee, and Personnel Board, the Moderator is unequivocally the most politically-powerful person in Walpole. Those three committees are hands-down the three most powerful appointed town committees.

Other towns do not give their Moderators such extraordinary powers. Some towns, such as Norwood and Easton, elect their Finance Committee. Other towns, such as Falmouth and Sharon, have their Town Meetings appoint their Finance Committee from a list of the Moderator’s nominees. Still other towns, such as Raynham, have their Finance Committees appointed by Selectmen. Other towns, such as Plymouth, allow their Moderator to only appoint a Finance Committee, and no other committees – with the Moderator having a three-year term instead of Walpole’s one-year term.

Diversity on Finance Committee

Rockwood has said his appointments to the Finance Committee are generally, among other considerations, intended to reflect the various geographic regions of the town, with members from each of the precincts. Having a diverse membership from all parts of town has obvious benefits – ensuring that all precincts are represented in budget matters. This should be required, not just put up to the Moderator’s discretion.

The town of Dedham for example, requires that the Finance Committee, appointed by the Moderator, “consist of one legal voter from each district in the town and two from the town at large where there is an odd number of districts, and three from the town at large when there is an even number of districts,” with “no more than two members […] appointed from any one district.”

Clarification for Council on Aging

The existing Walpole Town Charter includes very little mention of the Council on Aging’s responsibilities. The only mention is that the Board of Selectmen must appoint members to that Board. In 2011, the Council got into a battle with Selectmen over, among other issues, how big the Council should be and who should nominate members.

The charter should be changed to include specifics on the Council on Aging’s membership policies so that they are set in stone.

Walpole Selectmen also expressed a need for new voices on the Council on Aging last year when they expanded the Council and added several new members from the community. The town charter should be changed to ensure that new voices becomes a matter of policy, and not just practice. In Dedham, for example, the charter requires that the Council on Aging “consist of the chairman of the Recreation Commission, the chairman of the Board of Health, [and] the superintendent of schools,” along with members of the community.

Attendance Policies

Surprisingly, there is no mention anywhere in the Walpole Town Charter about what should happen if a town board member fails to show up to their committee meetings. Fortunately, attendance has rarely been an issue for town officials in this community, and the few town officials that do have trouble attending usually voluntarily resign. But even if attendance has never been an issue before, it could still be an issue in the future. Implementing an attendance policy does NOT mean that there is anything wrong with our town boards, and should not be seen as an insult to any existing committee members. For the vast majority of Walpole officials, the attendance policy should not be an issue. But it is still necessary in the event that future committee members fail to uphold the trust placed in them.

Walpole should implement a specific attendance policy for all elected and appointed officials, along the lines of the one in the Falmouth Charter: “The unexcused absence, without good cause, of a member from one-half (1/2) of the total number of meetings during any twelve-month period or from four (4) or more consecutive meetings of any such board shall serve to vacate the office.”

Other towns allow committees to vote to remove fellow members who fail to attend a certain number of meetings.

Fix the charter to prevent abuse

Last summer’s Special Town Meeting showed that the town charter needs to be tightened to ensure all provisions are obeyed and backed up with specific enforcement mechanisms.

Every mention of the word “shall” in the town charter, such as “the Finance Committee shall hold one or more public hearings on the proposed budget not less than three days prior to the session of the Town Meeting at which it is to be submitted for adoption,” should be changed to “must.”

Apparently the word “shall” is simply too vague for our town officials to understand. Maybe “must” will have a little more kick to it.

In other words, the above sentence would read “the Finance Committee must hold one or more public hearings on the proposed budget not less than three days prior to the session of the Town Meeting at which it is to be submitted for adoption.”

But a simple word change is still not good enough. Walpole should look to the Plymouth town charter for an example of language for a specific enforcement mechanism in the event that the above wording is still too unclear for town officials to understand.

The Plymouth charter requires: “The advisory and finance committee shall conduct 1 or more public hearings on the proposed operating and capital budget and shall issue its recommendations in a detailed written report and shall mail copies to town meeting members postmarked not later than 14 days prior to the scheduled date of the representative town meeting and make copies available to voters at least 14 days prior to the scheduled date of the representative town meeting.”

The Plymouth charter also clearly states: “If the advisory and finance committee has failed to consider a warrant article, the representative town meeting may consider that article, provided that two-thirds of the representative town meeting members in attendance vote to do so. The vote shall not be taken unless the article has been presented to the advisory and finance committee.”

To enforce the required budget hearings, the Plymouth charter also includes this wording: “In the event that the advisory and finance committee fails to comply with section 2-12-2 of this charter (the requirement for a public hearing no later than 14 days prior to Town Meeting), the scheduled representative town meeting shall convene and then adjourn to a date that would allow the advisory and finance committee to make copies of its detailed written report available to representative town meeting members and voters 14 days prior to that date, except that two-thirds of the representative town meeting members in attendance may vote to waive the 14 day requirement of section 2-12-2.”

The Plymouth charter is clear on what happens in the event the Finance Committee fails to do its job in the time frame required by the charter. If they don’t do it, Town Meeting could either override the requirement or adjourn to another date, but at least it’s clear what they can do and there is no controversy because it’s all spelled out in the charter.

Plymouth’s charter might be too flexible, in that it allows Town Meeting to vote to override the 14-day requirement. But the rest of it is logical and should be immediately included in the Walpole charter.

Outside of enforcement mechanisms, it might also be necessary to include a provision in the charter that outright requires regular charter review.

The town of Ashland, for example, requires regular review of the charter with the following language: “commencing in the year 2010 and at least every 5 years thereafter, a charter review committee shall be appointed by the board of selectmen for the purpose of reviewing the provisions of the charter and to make reports concerning any proposed amendments or revisions which such committee deems necessary and such report shall be presented to the board of selectmen within 9 months after the charter review committee’s first meeting. The board of selectmen shall hold a public hearing on the report’s recommendations within 60 days after the report is presented to the board.”

Plymouth has a similar requirement in their charter: “At least once every 5 years, a special committee shall be appointed by the town moderator to review this charter and to make a report, with recommendations, to the representative town meeting concerning any proposed amendments which the committee may determine to be necessary or desirable.”

Rather than having to go through a laughable process every ten years where the Board of Selectmen sits around and wonders aloud whether charter review is necessary or not, we should just create a Charter Review Committee automatically every ten years that makes the ultimate decision. Selectmen should not have this issue hanging over their heads.

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