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WVN Newsletter #219: DPW -- A question of power

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  • waylandvoters1
    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,
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 28, 2007
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      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
      boards.

      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
      closed doors.

      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
      Town meeting.

      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
      study.

      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
      (DPW) board."

      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
      is divided.

      The DPW would consist of road, parks (but not rec), wastewater,
      septage, and water departments as well as the landfill
      operations.

      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
      after resurfacing.

      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
      costs involved.

      "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
      unionized.

      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
      school department.

      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
      recreation.

      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
      cracks."

      FORUM

      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
      fields.

      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
      voters.

      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
      boards."

      By now you should have received the Special Town Meeting
      warrant book.

      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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