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WVN #242: More power to selectmen?

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  • waylandvoters1
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 8, 2008
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      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
      House
      ------------------------------------------
      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
      claims.

      SAVE MONEY

      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.

      EFFICIENCY

      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.

      CUSTOMER SERVICE

      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
      phone.

      OTHER DPWs

      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.

      ANALYSIS
      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
      decision-making suffers.

      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

      EQUITABLE ASSESSMENTS

      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
      third-party review."

      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
      respectively.

      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
      figures.

      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
      Committee.

      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
      unclear.

      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
      costs.

      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
      meeting.

      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
      questions.


      BETTER COMMUNICATION

      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
      selectmen).

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      Wayland Voters Network
      Michael Short, Editor
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