WVN #242: More power to selectmen?
- Dear Wayland Voter,
The April 10 Town Meeting could significantly change Wayland
governance for a long time to come. To some citizens Article 5 is
a stealth maneuver to shift more power to the selectmen and
create a de facto town manager.
In establishing a Department of Public Works, Article 5 would
further centralize power and eliminate three independent
elected boards. Other articles in the warrant also demonstrate a
theme of more concentrated power and fewer citizen voices in
town government. This newsletter will examine issues that merit
careful research and debate at Town Meeting.
SUGGESTION: Please consider passing this newsletter along
to as many people as possible who may be unaware of the
importance of this issue.
Town Meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. Thursday April 10. H.S. Field
FEWER VOLUNTEERS, LESS INDEPENDENCE
WHAT IS GAINED?
Article 5 is scheduled early in the meeting, a convenience in the
past for groups seeking to pack the meeting for a particular vote.
In a meeting televised live Monday night Park and Recreation
commissioners hinted at selectmens' efforts to line up support,
then urged voters to reject the article.
"It's about controlling all the power and authority," said
Commissioner Brud Wright.
Four of five selectmen and the entire Finance Committee say
the DPW would save money and improve coordination,
efficiency, planning and customer service. Finally, the selectmen
say that because some "peer" towns have DPWs, Wayland
should follow suit. The Commission vigorously contested those
Selectmen say the DPW will save $300,000 annually some
years from now. The DPW Assessment Committee had
estimated $60,000, and at one point a FinCom member said the
town could save $500,000 by avoiding lawsuits. The earlier
estimates were dropped. The Commission says the DPW will
cost $1.12 million in new salaries for the first five years; any
savings will come from personnel attrition, which isn't
guaranteed or even estimated; negotiating a merger with four
unions will be costly because lesser-paid unions will want to
match the highest salary in anther department; the town official
who created the $300,000 estimate acknowledged that the
numbers could have been different.
With a DPW, power over parks, recreation, cemeteries,
highways, landfill and and water would be in the hands of the
selectmen. The Board of Selectmen already oversees police,
fire, treasury, accounting and surveying functions.If the DPW is
created and the administrator acquires more power, don't be
surprised if the selectmen decide at some point that he
deserves more money. Critics say the article creates a town
manager in effect without a specific vote from the people.
IMPROVE COORDINATION AND PLANNING
The selectmen haven't shown how this would occur because
there is no clear plan of how the department would be organized.
Article 5 lets the selectmen decide those details without public
participation. One Park-Rec commissioner likened that to hiring
an architect to build a house with no guidance whatever from the
client. A DPW director and two others would be hired by the town
administrator. The DPW director would report to the town
administrator, who reports to the selectmen. In this vertical
structure there would be an elected Public Works policy board,
which would have little oversight or authority. Three boards
totaling 15 people would be axed.
The Commission says that in a small town like Wayland
departments already coordinate and cooperate (on snow
removal, for example). Furthermore, it is in the town
administrator's job description to achieve coordination, but
Park-Rec Director Nancy McShea said department heads have
never met on budgets or capital planning.
The selectmen talk about "cross-training" employees,
commissioners say, but identify only one or two among current
employees as candidates. The Commission says that
employees and their unions would resist being separated from
pride in their craft. Water and highway employees value what
they do, the Commission says, and somebody who is a whiz
with mowers might not be what is needed to run a front-loader or
deal with burials and other cemetery functions. Whatever can
be accomplished with a DPW can be accomplished without it,
the Commission asserts.
The Commission says new administrators will replace front-line
employees. The new layer of bureaucracy, they say, will mean
that you won't easily reach somebody who can answer your
questions or sign you up for recreational opportunities. Other
opponents say they now have no difficulty knowing which
department to call and get even a department head on the
One argument for the DPW is that other towns have it and
therefore it must be good. Commissioners said they received
no response over a period of two years when they asked the
Assessment Committee and the Board of Selectmen to study
what employees and users thought of DPWs in other towns.
Comparison isn't simple because DPWs vary greatly in the
functions they encompass. Commissioners' own studies
showed that some towns regretted the change. One
Commissioner recalled a primary argument for the DPW: "Why
wait until it's broken?" He didn't state the corollary: If it ain't broke,
break it. Commissioners described the complexity and cost of
the change in detail: money, lawyers, time, tough negotiations.
According to Director McShea, in towns with DPWs, Park and
Rec suffers when competing for resources.
The Commission also criticized the process behind Article 5. A
similar idea was defeated in 1983, Chair Anna Meliones
recalled, citing arguments against that proposal that sounded
familiar. The current DPW idea arose in 2005 and was placed on
the warrant for a special Town Meeting last fall. The selectmen
withdrew the article, saying more time was needed to correct
misinformation and allow people to learn more. A forum before
the fall Town meeting drew two citizens in favor of the proposal
and as many as 16 against, Wright said.
Commissioner Meliones said Article 5 is much the same as the
one that was withdrawn, except that the wastewater and septage
departments are excluded. Though the selectmen promised a
public forum on Article 5, it was never held.
The road commissioners and water commissioners endorsed
Article 5, though not unanimously.
You can read columns and letters for and against Article 5 in the
April 3 Wayland Town Crier.
THE WISDOM OF MANY VOLUNTEERS
To some, the controversy over the DPW goes to the heart of the
Open Town Meeting form of government. Every citizen has the
chance to act as legislator. Citizens elect representatives to
make policy and hire employees. Small towns are relatively
simple organizations where democratic processes can work
transparently and efficiently.
Top-down corporate efficiency isn't always compatible with
democratic government, nor is it meant to be. Town government
must serve all residents and can't choose its customers. A town
may not be as nimble and entrepreneurial as private
corporations, but it must endure.
A WVN reader some time ago suggested reading James
Surowiecki's influential book "The Wisdom of Crowds" for
insights into town government. Its thesis is simple: large groups
of people are collectively smarter than an elite few. Here is one
example from the book that bears on elective boards in
particular. When the U.S. submarine Scorpion was lost at sea in
1968, the naval officer in charge of the search contacted experts
in several fields ranging from mathematics to salvage. He asked
them to work independently and give him their best estimate of
the sub's position.
No one expert came close, but the combination of independent
opinions came within 220 yards of the sunken sub. Collective
wisdom can be subverted, on the other hand, by a small group
working together. Under those conditions, Surowiecki shows,
consensus tends to be valued over dissent, and
Those who support the current Board of Selectmen might ask
themselves whether the proposed shift in the balance of power
would be attractive in the future with a different set of players.
Wayland is proud of having a highly educated, experienced and
public-spirited population. In some of the following sections on
Town meeting articles, you'll find attempts to either increase or
decrease the sources of collective wisdom. Keep in mind that
the explanations and arguments in your pink warrant booklet are
the product of the selectmen and the selectmen-appointed
Finance Committee and don't necessarily fully represent the
position of petitioners or other boards.
-- Michael Short
Horror stories about disparities in Wayland home
assessments are legion: one entire neighborhood grossly out
of proportion with the rest of the town; two similar houses built
on the same street by the same builder, yet one assessment
rises by $400,000 while the other drops by a similar amount;
expensive houses assessed at far less than recent sales
prices. Examples occur all over town.
Article 15 calls for a "full list and measure" of properties,
meaning that the town would evaluate each property within a
year, applying the same standards to everybody at the same
time. The result is intended to be a fresh start. You might not like
your assessment but you could be confident that the same
metrics were applied to everybody.
The FinCom unanimously recommends against the article but
says it "recognizes the perception of inaccuracies voiced by
some residents and feels strongly that this needs to be
addressed by the Assessors."
The FinCom, giving itself 75 percent more space in the warrant
than the petitioner, argues that inaccuracies aren't supported by
data, the full list and measure process isn't perfect and "a more
comprehensive approach might be for an independent
Toward this end, the FinCom has included $40,000 in current
year transfers for a professional evaluation of Wayland's
assessment methods and operations.
Are the assessors listening? Some of them, but not all, say the
system is just fine and property owners simply need to
understand it better.
The petitioners note that the assessors have converted from a
system of evaluating condition/desirability/utility to depreciation.
They ask how can this be done without evaluating every property.
(The lead petitioner is Molly Upton, a WVN contributor. The
article was submitted for the warrant before the latest
assessments were issued.)
Though the FinCom pointed to a declining number of requests
for abatement (413 in 2006, 275 in 2007, 241 in 2008), the rate
is still several times higher than in many towns of similar size.
Moreover, in 2007 Wayland granted abatements to 70.2 percent
of applicants. Those who appealed to the state in 2006 and
2005 were successful 20.3 and 24.2 percent of the time
This costs the town money without necessarily addressing an
underlying problem; those who are underassessed presumably
don't complain to the assessors.
The cost of the full list and measure, which simply speeds up a
process that generally takes several years, is estimated at no
more than $250,000.
This year Wayland's assessors' office is undergoing
recertification by the state.
The FinCom points out that Wayland has never failed to receive
state certification of its assessments. Officials in Concord may
have said the same thing, but the state recently rejected its
BETTER CAPITAL PLANNING
Voters will consider Article 18 as the town plans to spend
$125,000 for lawyers and $600,000 for repairs this year on the
five-year-old Public Safety Building. This follows large
expenditures in earlier years for a project still in litigation. By the
way, the building cost far more than was anticipated.
Not to point fingers at those involved in that project, but mightn't it
be a good idea to involve additional Wayland talent in evaluating
complex factors before a building committee gets into the nuts
and bolts? The Public Safety Building suffers from problems of
design or construction or both.
The location atop a high water table was no secret. Surely
building has been done successfully on such sites, but it would
be difficult to call this project successful when it continues to
cost the town serious amounts of money. The petitioners'
comments call the project "a disaster."
Beyond the problems of money and priorities, major projects
involve proper siting, construction, design and planning, matters
calling for specialized expertise. The town's list of potential
projects includes water and wastewater treatment plants, school
buildings, a municipal garage, a new municipal building at the
Town Center and new recreational facilities.
The article proposes creating an independent Capital Facilities
Planning and Coordinating Committee to help develop and
recommend to Town Meeting a 10-year plan that prioritizes and
coordinates needs within the town's ability to fund projects so
they come in on time and on budget.
Petitioners identified 15 towns with varying models of
independent planning committees, including Sudbury, Lincoln,
Wellesley and Needham. They say they found no town where
the Finance Committee does capital facilities planning and
coordination, and they note that Finance Committee members
would be welcome on the proposed Capital Facilities Planning
The FinCom recommended unanimously against the article,
boasting of the town's top bond rating and financial position. It
also objected to appointments made by the town moderator. The
article calls for the Selectmen (1), Finance Committee (1) and
the Moderator (3) to appoint the five members.
The FinCom says it is already doing the work that the new
committee would do. (It recently produced a draft Capital
Improvement Plan for review by the selectmen that stops short of
recommending an independent committee.)
The petitioners' idea is to draw on the wide variety of expertise in
Wayland to publicly coordinate longer range planning for all
needed capital facilities. The FinCom says, in effect, Wayland
doesn't need that.
NEW POOL AT WHAT PRICE?
Article 19 outlines a plan to replace the aging town pool adjacent
to the High School with a new facility. How this would be done is
The FinCom voted 4-0 to recommend the article even though it
lacks specifics and provides no idea of the cost and potential
liabilities to the town.
In fact at the Board of Selectmen's warrant hearing it couldn't
even be established that the article as written fulfills legal
requirements to be acted upon.
The petitioners' article was introduced by Ben Downs, who says
that regardless of the language the idea is to "provide town pool
land (through alease or sale) for the construction of a new pool
that will be funded with private donations." The idea is to pay for
the new building and pool through private donations and
borrowing, then pay for operations and debt service with usage
fees. The present pool has run a deficit recently, and the ad hoc
committee appointed to seek town budget savings
recommended closing it to save $94,000 a year in operating
The article says that a private entity called Wayland Community
Pool would bid on the land, raise money, build the pool and then
lease it to the Wayland Park and Recreation Commission.
Downs says WCP would be a non-profit entity. He hopes to start
raising money soon and also seek taxpayer help from
Community Preservation Act funds.
Voters will need to know much more about this public-private
venture. For example, what if the group defaults on loans?
The warrant devotes nearly two pages to the FinCom's comment
and favorable recommendation and only four lines to opposing
arguments, the most important of which is that the town "will still
have some financial expense based on its usage of the facility."
To learn the implications of that you'll have to go to Town
Procedural flaws in an article can be dealt with in the formal
motion iand presentation at Town Meeting.
It is clear, though, that there are people who really, really want a
new pool and are in a hurry to get started.
FUTURE LANDFILL COSTS
The landfill is expected to reach capacity by July, and the town is
looking for a contractor to haul trash somewhere else. Officials
have discussed contracting with Wheelabrator, which operates a
huge incinerator in Millbury that converts trash to electric power
and boasts of clean emissions. (You can see its tall stack from
the Mass Pike.)
In Article 23 the Board of Health, which operates the landfill,
asks for authority to sign a 10-year contract. The FinCom
withheld a recommendation until Town Meeting, warning against
indemnifying a vendor and raising the possibility that the town
might regret a 10-year commitment.
The article doesn't address an obvious concern of residents:
What will users pay under the new system? Officials are
considering a "pay as you throw" plan, under which users would
buy and fill special bags. They say many towns use the system
as an incentive to increase recycling.
The landfill change could affect employees as well as
customers. Town Meeting looks like a chance to raise important
Do you use the town website? Would you like to see
improvements? Do you have ideas about making it more useful?
Article 27 is another measure that would draw on Wayland
volunteer expertise. No cost, no power, just people who would
be appointed (four by the moderator, three by the selectmen) to
recommend improvements in the town's ability to communicate
electronically with citizens. The committee would report to the
2009 annual Town Meeting and post its results on the website.
Any resulting changes would have to come from the selectmen.
Sounds harmless, doesn't it? The FinCom unanimously
recommends against it.
According to the FinCom, it would be better for town staffs and
selectmen-appointed committees to do this sort of thing. The
FinCom also says there will be a cost because the volunteers
would be "interrupting town business." The article argues that
easier access to information would save staff time and reduce
costs: "Town employees could refer researchers to the Town's
site where they could gain access to certain Town information
and make copies themselves."
The FinCom said it would recommend approval if amended to
change the committee's accountability from Town Meeting
(Wayland's legislature, as Moderator Peter Gossels likes to
remind us) to the town administrator (who reports only to the
To be sure you continue to receive WVN newsletters optimally
and in your inbox (instead of bulk or junk folders) it may help to
add to your address book or safe sender list:
Thank you for reading this WVN newsletter. Please forward it to
your friends and neighbors in Wayland. If they want to receive
their own copy, they can send an email to
waylandvoters@... and they will be signed up for the
listserv. Or, they can sign themselves up by sending a blank
Click reply and send after receiving an e-mail confirming the
Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor