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Finance Committee dropped ball on Article 24

May 17, 2013

What should have been a relatively routine Town Meeting article to accept a street as a public way hit an unexpected snag at Spring Town Meeting last week and early this week when RTMs questioned its necessity and ultimately sent it back to Town Hall for further review.

The rare instance of Town Meeting actually sending back a street acceptance – not usually a controversial issue – to town officials for more work on it exposed some serious flaws with the work of the current Finance Committee.

Under Article 24 on the Town Meeting warrant, Town Meeting Representatives were asked to approve the town taking over the currently private street in Walpole Park South, an industrial park near Route 1 in South Walpole. If approved, the town would pay for maintenance and repairs on the street in the future. Considering the condition of the road, those costs would likely be fairly high, though no specific estimates of long-term costs to taxpayers have ever been provided by officials.

Town Administrator Michael Boynton told the Finance Committee during their May 2 public hearing that the street acceptance was the fulfillment of a promise the town had made at the time Walpole Park South was first built during the late 1980s. Under the terms of that supposed agreement, made between the town and the developer of the property, the town would take over the street after it was completed.

Yet specifics as to what that agreement actually stated, including the conditions stipulated before the town would take over the street, have never been provided by the Town Administrator or any other town official. If the agreement exists, few have seen it or remember it. A few Finance Committee members seem to remember it, but can’t provide any documentation.

Town administration’s claim, despite the fact that no written evidence was ever shown to Finance Committee members that showed any contract with the developer ever existed, was apparently enough for the Finance Committee to recommend favorable action to Town Meeting on the article.

And that claim might have been enough for Town Meeting to approve the article too, if not for a few concerned RTMs who raised questions about the proposal during the second night of Town Meeting last Wednesday.

The Finance Committee’s near-unanimous vote, 9-1-1 (with Dan Bruce opposed, and Donna McDonough abstaining) to accept the street as a public way, raises serious questions about whether the Finance Committee is really doing the due diligence it is supposed to do on all Town Meeting articles.

Under the town charter, the Walpole Finance Committee is an “advisory board” that reviews all articles for the Town Meeting warrant. The Board is appointed by the Town Moderator, giving it significant independence from the rest of town government – allowing it to freely examine all fiscal procedures and hold town departments and officials accountable for their spending practices.

It’s hard to see how the Finance Committee is taking their role in town government seriously when an article on the Town Meeting Warrant is recommended for favorable action despite the fact that town officials can’t actually provide any proof that the article – and the accompanying long-term burden on taxpayers – is necessary. The Finance Committee should have demanded town officials provide the specific contract that was signed with the Walpole Park South developer. If none could be provided, as in this case, the article should not have gotten a recommendation for favorable action.

Taking town officials’ word that an article needs to be passed because supposedly a document was signed more than 20 years ago is a very risky precedent for the Finance Committee to set – it signals to town officials that they they might be able to get away with irresponsible proposals as long as they come up with justifications that sound credible.

It also undermines the Finance Committee’s credibility in the eyes of Town Meeting, because it indicates that other articles are similarly not getting properly examined.

The Finance Committee is the one town board that has an obligation to do its homework. It is arguably the most powerful board in town because its motions are automatically the main motions on the Town Meeting warrant. Their votes on articles – either for “favorable action” or “no action” – are meaningful and influential.

The Finance Committee really dropped the ball on this one.

Interestingly, it wasn’t always this way, and the members of the current committee should take note of the way their forefathers acted.

During its heyday in the mid-1980s, the Finance Committee was run very differently than it is today. Under the leadership of Cliff Snuffer, who served as Chair between 1983 and 1984 (and is now running for Selectman), Finance Committee meetings typically ran late into the evening, with town officials forced to justify their spending in front of a committee that truly did see itself as a watchdog for the taxpayers and relentlessly scrutinized every dollar that left the building. With political icons like Joe Moraski and Tom Driscoll on the panel, the Finance Committee routinely rooted out and actually conducted full-throated investigations into potential abuses of tax dollars.

Many Finance Committee members who served in the 1980s recall that their philosophy was very simple: they were automatically against any spending until they could be persuaded by town officials to support it. The burden was on the town, not the Finance Committee, to prove that a Town Meeting article that required a new expenditure of town funds was needed.

These days, the Finance Committee seems to see itself as a jury – town officials are “innocent” and can be trusted to spend money and to do the right thing unless someone can step forward and prove otherwise. While that isn’t a bad assumption to make, considering that we have every reason to believe that town officials are trustworthy and are not deliberately seeking out ways to waste money, the very nature of the Finance Committee is to keep town officials accountable and to be skeptical.

The Finance Committee shouldn’t “trust” town officials, they should “trust but verify.” This is a very important distinction. That’s what being an “advisory board” to Town Meeting is all about. Town Meeting Representatives need to know that the articles given to them for consideration have been put through the ringer and any kinks or question marks have been filtered out by the Finance Committee.

While being skeptical of town officials might create animosity toward the Finance Committee from town department heads and committees and potentially make Finance Committee meetings very rancorous, the whole point of the Finance Committee’s independence from other town boards is that they are allowed to create hostility like that. The Finance Committee should be feared by town officials – not be a lap dog. The Finance Committee has absolutely nothing to fear from Town Hall because the only person who can retaliate against them is the Moderator, unless of course he is voted out by the town. But nobody at Town Hall – not the Town Administrator nor the Board of Selectmen or any other committee – can punish the Finance Committee over their votes.

It’s baffling that on the third night of Town Meeting, even after RTMs on the second night had shared many deep concerns about the proposal, the Finance Committee still dug in its heels and refused, by a 6-4 vote, to reconsider the article. The move to send the article back to committee had to come from the Town Meeting body instead of from the committee that had, by any measure, submitted an article to Town Meeting that was not properly researched and could very well be a wholly unnecessary cost to the town.

The motion to send the article back for further review, made by Moraski and seconded by Ron Ardine, was eventually approved by Town Meeting. RTMs on all sides of the political spectrum voted in favor.

Yet no one on the Finance Committee seems fazed by the embarrassment, probably because they know Moderator Jon Rockwood will keep re-appointing them when their terms expire.

Perhaps Rockwood should take better care of this very important committee, rather than letting rubber stamps take it over. This committee already came under fire last year for refusing to enforce the town charter on public hearings. If the committee can’t even enforce the charter, it’s not clear they have what it takes to enforce safeguards against waste of tax dollars. This committee should stop creating controversies for itself.

Article 24 is certainly not this Finance Committee’s proudest moment. Now we deserve to know how many other Town Meeting articles are being rubber stamped without proper scrutiny.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Tom Driscoll permalink
    May 17, 2013 9:58 PM

    Hi Sam. Very perceptive. You hit the nail on the head. Two points:1) the resolution I asked for at town meeting was a result shenanigans at WPS. The Licensed Site Professional hired by WPS to evaluate a toxic spill later appeared before the Sewer and Water asking that WPS, his client, be considered area 3 vs. area 2 (less restrictive) before the conclusion of his “evaluation”. To no one’s surprise he then concluded there was no environmental threat caused by WPS 2) Town Meeting voted to take the area of WPS by eminent domain to protect the aquifer. Betsy Lane from Koppleman & Paige, Town Counsel, came before Town Meeting asking for a reversal of the vote on the basis the town had negotiated safeguards that would protect the water supply “in perpetuity” . When it was pointed out agreements could not be made in perpetuity she countered by claiming it could be by signature of the Secretary of Environmental Affairs who would sign the agreement. Based on her assurances Town Meeting reversed the vote. Secretary of Environmental Affairs, Jamie Hoyt, wrote a letter to the Town saying he would not sign the agreement as it provided no additional protection. I heard the Town requested Betsy not be sent to future town meetings. After 30 years guess who came to Town Meeting on Monday. ? Betsey Lane!. They thought we had forgotten. That night I gave her a copy of Hoyt’s letter and told her we have since had toxin releases

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