WVN Newsletter #219: DPW -- A question of power
- Dear Wayland Voter,
Voters are being asked to make the biggest change in
government in Wayland's modern history. In contrast to a similar
effort 15 years ago, there has been little effort to prepare voters
or encourage debate. Ask a random sample of residents what
they think about creating a Department of Public Works and
odds are the vast majority won't recognize it as a critical issue.
Is this a good way to decide the town's future?
The idea of a DPW may sound reasonable at first glance:
consolidate several town functions as many other towns have
done. The nine-page article being pushed by the selectmen in
the warrant for the Nov. 8 Special Town Meeting could be difficult
for voters to assess without a good deal of homework.
But when you read between the lines of the article and
evaluate the controversy it engendered among officials, you'll
see that the change would be momentous. It could be the end
of Wayland's long tradition of power shared by several volunteer
Proponents say the DPW would make town government more
efficient and (though they have presented little evidence) should
save money someday. Opponents call it a power grab by the
Board of Selectmen, which has clashed with other boards in
recent years. Some describe it as a back-door way of creating a
de facto town manager system in which government would be
less open and bureaucrats could make decisions behind
Under the article the town administrator, who reports only to the
selectmen, not the taxpayers, would wield great power. With
fewer checks and balances in place, a majority of the selectmen
might face fewer obstacles if they want to ram through
measures to please a particular constituency.
Proponents, including the head of the Wayland Boosters
organization, hint that the DPW would lead to more and better
playing fields for the town. Why this would be so isn't clear,
though the implication is that with more power the selectmen
would shift funding toward recreation.
In addition to questioning the merits of this particular plan
(which isn't the only way to create a DPW and differs from DPWs
elsewhere) some criticize the selectmen for putting the matter to
Special Town Meeting. The selectmen ignored consultants'
advice to let voters decide on changing the town charter at the
ballot box. An election invariably results in a larger number of
voters and avoids the accusation of special interests packing a
WVN urges you to study the matter carefully and spread the
word to friends and neighbors. Taking Wayland government in a
vastly different direction is too important a decision to be left to a
small minority of voters. Molly Upton reports below. You might
keep this for reference and as a reminder to attend the Special
Town meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday Nov. 8.
THE RIGHT DPW FOR WAYLAND?
The Nov. 8 warrant article asks voters to approve a structure that
creates a powerful town administrator (think town manager).
But the bigger questions are the appropriate way to make a
change in town government and whether the reorganization
presented in the warrant is the best possible fit for Wayland.
Voters who think the system should be changed should
consider the best way to do it -- at the polls with a new charter,
or via a vote at Special Town Meeting? In 2002, the Maximus
consulting firm's study of Wayland's government structure
concluded that if the town wanted to convert to a town manager
and a DPW, the decision to adopt a new charter spelling out the
full plan and implications of the changes should be made at the
ballot box. "The town should use a charter to make the changes
recommended by the project team," the report said. "This is the
cleanest and easiest way to make the recommended changes."
The warrant proposal would be the most significant change in
government Wayland has made in modern memory. Voters
may ask whether it deserves more than one or two weeks of
public debate. The town's experience more than 15 years ago
provides a useful example.
NOT THE FIRST TIME
Contrast the coming Town Meeting decision with the way
Wayland studied the issue before. In 1989 Wayland's population
was roughly the same size as it is today but poised for growth,
and some citizens thought it was time to consider a change. An
11-member Charter Committee was elected and painstakingly
researched government in other towns. The matter was so
thoroughly studied and discussed that it didn't come to a vote
until 1992. By an overwhelming vote Wayland decided that its
time-honored system was working well. There wasn't much
evidence that a change would save significant amounts of
money, and some voters evidently didn't want to give up
Wayland's time-honored reliance on participation by large
numbers of volunteers.
The 1992 proposal was different from the present article,
notably in specifying a powerful finance department. The
important comparison is the care Wayland took in dealing with
the question: a large study committee (elected, not appointed
like the present DPW study group) spending years of thorough
WHO'S IN CHARGE?
In addition to the method of change, another issue is whether
the town administrator or the elected DPW board should have
authority over the DPW director. Some have observed that the
proposal is a back-door approach to implementing a town
manager-style of government because it gives the town
administrator significantly more authority. The DPW board's role
is policy and review.
The DPW assessment committee recommended in May that
the DPW director "should be appointed and supervised by the
However, the warrant article proposes a highly centralized, town
manager type of government, although those words are not
used, with the town administrator exercising budget authority
and hire/fire authority of the DPW director and senior staff. (The
DPW director prepares the budget, for the board's review, but
the town administrator recommends the budget to the Finance
Committee. The town administrator has to ratify the DPW
director's decisions on senior staff.) And the town administrator
reports to the Board of Selectmen. Several attendees said after
an Oct. 18 forum that the motivation for this proposal appeared
to be to consolidate power.
The mantra from the Board of Selectmen (BoS) is that many
other towns have DPWs. But a closer review of other towns
indicates no town with the same lineup of departments and,
notably, all of the examined "peer" towns with DPWs have town
managers (Weston, Concord, Sudbury). Many have
departmental enterprise funds, a separate account that
supports only the long-term activities of that department and
can't be raided by the selectmen to cover deficits elsewhere.
By contrast, Wayland has long enjoyed a strong tradition of
volunteer participation on boards. While the selectmen and
Fincom cite the "inefficiency" of having so many volunteers on
the various boards, only five people would replace all that
knowledge and energy contained by the 25 members of six
boards. Free technical expertise and historical knowledge
would be lost.
Another issue is the loss of the detailed attention many of the
current boards are able to devote to specific issues.
STRUCTURE AND TIMING
Bob Duffy, a member of the DPW assessment committee, told
the Board of Selectmen that BoS proposal might fail because it
is too great a change for Wayland. He also noted that the fall
Special Town Meeting was probably too soon for citizens to fully
digest the issue.
But members of the Board of Selectmen said that this
centralized structure is the one they prefer, and that it is up to the
BoS to "sell the town" on this choice. Maryanne Peabody,
another member of the DPW assessment committee, earlier
told the selectmen that if they wanted a town manager, they
should not implement that structure via the back door of a DPW.
The septage committee and the Park and Rec Commission
have gone on record as opposing the proposal. Some other
departments were unclear whether they should take a voted
position on the warrant article. The water commissioners
flipped from their Sept. 6 unanimous vote against being part of a
DPW to an endorsement only upon spoken assurance their
water fees would not be commingled.
The DPW assessment committee has not voted its position on
the selectmen's warrant article. As noted above, the committee
The DPW would consist of road, parks (but not rec), wastewater,
septage, and water departments as well as the landfill
When the Park and Rec board objected to the proposal, the
selectmen decided to include only the parks portion in the DPW.
The current Park and Recreation Commission would become
the initial rec commission. Here too, the town administrator
would wield significant authority. The town administrator "in
consultation with the recreation commission" would appoint and
set the terms and conditions of the recreation director's
employment. The recreation director would operate "under the
supervision and direction of the board and the administrative
direction of the Town Administrator."
EFFICIENCY OR JUST POWER SHIFT?
Finance Committee member Bob Lentz said the DPW would
result in a more efficient structure, with better coordination, and
would be more responsive. He cited two examples. One was
that the Fincom discovered that a road was to be repaved prior
to having water pipes installed and rectified the situation. Road
Commissioner Mark Santangelo said this is no longer an issue
because the Board of Road Commissioners now sets a
five-year plan for road resurfacing and coordinates with both the
water department and residents in advance. There is also a
moratorium that discourages ripping up a road for five years
Lentz also cited the potential to eliminate duplicate construction.
He said the water department plans for a new treatment facility at
Baldwin wells include a new garage, while a new highway
garage is also in the planning stages. One has to wonder
whether the Fincom adequately vetted the town meeting article
for the new water facility.
NO NEAR-TERM SAVINGS
While saving money was initially touted in the original study
committee charge as a major reason for converting to a DPW,
the committee has been unable to point to significant near-term
savings. In the presentation at the forum, cost saving is not
among the top reasons for implementing a DPW, and the
selectmen indicated there would be no near-term savings.
Dennis Berry, chair of the DPW assessment committee, has
said that fiscal comparisons among towns is very difficult and
breaks down because of the different structures.
One attendee asked WVN how this proposal made sense when
the town is facing an Fiscal 2009 $2.6 million operational
shortfall. The staffing plans for a DPW implementation call for a
DPW director and a business analyst, adding
$150,000-$200,000 to the town's expenses.
Long term, Lentz expects the reorganization will result in two or
three director-level personnel instead of six. (But the town would
have to save salaries of more than two directors to pay for the
new DPW management staff.) Lentz also said the DPW would
eliminate or reduce redundant equipment, overtime, and
personnel legal costs because the human resources director
would be in charge of personnel matters instead of the boards.
This is "the best opportunity the town has to look at areas for
savings," he continued. Over time, with attrition, new employees
can be cross trained among departments, the Fincom says. No
details have been provided regarding how to implement such
flexibility given the number of different unions in town or the legal
"We must take steps now to fix for long term future," Lenta said.
"We should not let the control issue get in the way of long-term
direction for the town.".
NO DIRECT COMPARISON
Unfortunately, no "peer" town represents an apples to apples
comparison and many have enterprise funds, ensuring money
from fees and interest is not transferred to other departments.
They all have the town manager form of government. For
example, Weston uses MWRA water while Wayland has its own
wells. Its DPW does not maintain recreational sports fields and
playgrounds. It has an enterprise account for the water
department. The DPW director reports to the town manager.
Concord's DPW has four divisions: administration,
engineering, highway/grounds, and water and sewer. The public
works commission, which is responsible for policy and rate
setting, is appointed by the town manager. The water and sewer
units each have an enterprise fund. An even bigger difference
from Wayland is that Concord's DPW employees are not
Sudbury's DPW handles roads, parks and grounds, the waste
transfer station, and town vehicle maintenance. The water and
septage departments are not included. In addition, the DPW is
not responsible for field maintenance at the high school.
LOSS OF FISCAL CONTROL?
The DPW board, while elected, would be only five persons with
no direct authority over personnel or budgets. It is supposed to
focus on "policy" issues.
Who controls budgets is a major question voters need to
consider. Currently, voters at spring Town Meeting assess and
vote on itemized departmental budgets that are vetted in public
meetings with the Finance Committee. The voter-approved
allocations are kept for those specific departments.
However, with the proposed DPW, there would be a single
budget instead of six, according to Lentz. The town administrator
would have sole authority to decide how to allocate expenses
and to prioritize and allocate cuts in the town side of the budget
when faced with an override. The remaining bigger (about 70
percent) chunk of the budget remains under the control of the
As the water department has acknowledged, a project such as
installing water lines could be a slippery slope in deciding
whose revenues paid for what.
Despite the assurances that park and rec's needs would be
met, resident Sandra Brennan asserted that the vote is coming
too soon, that "we're voting on an unknown," with a lot of risk. "If
the budget becomes one, if the town needs to pull dollars, it will
pull from Park and Rec," she said. Selectman Michael Tichnor
reminded her the rec commission would continue to be
independently elected, and could focus exclusively on
If the DPW board had more authority, perhaps voters could feel
they still retained some control over funding allocations, but
that's not the option before Town Meeting.
Town administrator Fred Turkington said the motion will
enable more attention to be paid to capital improvements in the
range of $100,000 to $1 million, that now "slip through the
At the Oct. 18 forum, the one public forum held this fall on the
proposed change, the Board of Selectmen, aided by a few
members of the Finance Committee, played one-on-one
defense, countering every point raised by the sizable audience.
Only the "pro" side was presented, unlike League of Women
Voters' forums that require both sides of an issue be presented
to help educate voters.
Selectmen Michael Tichnor and Bill Whitney assured skeptics
the athletic fields would be better maintained, and more
numerous, under the new structure. It was not explained how
such promises are to be funded.
Most of the information gathered by the assessment committee
consisted of speaking with DPW managers in "peer" towns.
However, the effort did not include interviewing the recreation
managers or employees. Nancy McShea, director of Park and
Rec, said that whenever she attends meetings, her colleagues
all bemoan their inability to deliver services because they don't
have authority over the town employees who mow and mark the
As Park and Rec Commissioner Brud Wright pointed out, one
of the proponents' main pitches for more efficiency didn't ring
true because the limiting factor was the number of lawn
mowers, not personnel available. "Are the additional personnel
supposed to cut the lawn with clippers?" he asked in response
to the panel's claim that a DPW could reduce overtime and
improve efficiency, such as putting more manpower on the task
of preparing the cemeteries for Memorial Day.
Although some attendees commented the warrant article is a
"blank slate," Berry said it should be up to the new DPW board to
determine the structure. Several management models were
examined, including one with the water-related functions in one
group and the land-related functions in another, both reporting
to the DPW director.
Resident Kurt Schwartz said he supports the concept of a DPW.
Citing his experience in state government, he said "efficiency of
management is a good thing." He also noted that without the
"silos," the Board of Selectmen could better effect the will of the
Resident Werner Gossels said the proposal is a "terrible
mistake" and cited the ability of citizens unhappy with a particular
board's service to vote at the ballot box and the ability to speak
directly with a board. We will "lose direct contact of people to
By now you should have received the Special Town Meeting
You'll note that the BoS-appointed Finance Committee
recommends approval after devoting nearly 13 inches of type to
arguments in favor and only 3 inches to opposing arguments.
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Michael Short, Editor