WVN #475: Advisory committee power -- too much or too little?
Dear Wayland Voter,
Our town has long been blessed with an abundance of people with exceptional skills and the willingness to share them for the benefit of the community. Volunteers are the backbone of Wayland's civic life, serving on nearly four dozen boards and committees.
In recent years new special committees have been formed to take on important tasks. Procedures and results vary considerably.
There are advisory committees on such things as Energy Initiatives, auditing financial procedures, the Dudley Area, Town Meeting, Wellhead Protection, the Public Safety Building, Design Review, Cable and Youth.
The selectmen and the town administrator have shown a marked preference for forming advisory committees with very limited authority even in procedural matters, retaining actual power for themselves and town staff.
A notable example is the fate of an appointed independent Wellhead Protection Committee which, after years of declining water quality, produced a Wellhead Protection Plan lauded by a state official as the best she had ever seen. Did the Committee's work produce results? No. The selectmen abolished it in June 2011 in favor of a Wellhead Protection Advisory Committee which a year later the chair of the Board of Public Works called a "joke."
On the other hand, at least one recently appointed advisory committee has wielded power without a vote authorizing it.
Why the difference? Maybe it depends on what the selectmen and key town employees want.
This year the selectmen appointed the Town Center Green Committee which produced a $1 million proposal that the Finance Committee will consider even though the selectmen didn't vote on it and the town doesn`t have clear rights to the land.
Last month, though, the Board of Selectmen endorsed the town administrator's schedule for spring 2013 Town Meeting and elections while ignoring the written suggestions of the town moderator's procedures subcommittee and not including subcommittee members in the final discussion.
The Audit Committee has in the past been required to ask the Board of Selectmen to issue any directives or requests to the auditor. This interference seems to be abating.
Town Center Green
The selectmen appointed the Town Center Green Design Advisory Committee last May. Unlike other advisory committees, this committee has no web page on the town's website. A few documents are posted under the Planning Board mixed in with other items. The committee charge is not included.
The first advisory committee presentation of concept designs was to the selectmen at their Aug. 1 meeting. It prompted a question from Selectman Doug Leard: Is any of the green covered by the Activity and Use Limitation deed restriction? Both Town Administrator Fred Turkington and committee Chair Colleen Sheehan incorrectly responded "no."
In fact the AUL placed on the property in December 2011 (and filed at the Registry of Deeds and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection by Twenty Wayland) does cover the 1.6 acres. The AUL is part of the resolution of the hazardous waste pollution of the site by Raytheon, former owner of the site. Rather than remove the pollutants entirely, which would be astronomically expensive or infeasible, Raytheon is allowed by DEP to clean the portion of the site covered by the AUL to a point deemed adequate for commercial uses and then restrict future use of the site so that people would not be inordinately exposed.
Later in August, the Board of Health approved the eastern portion of the same green space to serve as the reserve septic field location for the Town Center project. Thus the area could be subject to excavation.
The advisory committee continued working on the concept designs until its charge expired on Aug. 31. The designs were presented to the selectmen at their meeting on Sept. 10. Sheehan said the committee recommended some form of town lease or ownership of the land so it would be possible to spend Community Preservation funds.
The committee's estimated budget for all the amenities exceeded $1 million. At that time, the chair of the Community Preservation Committee had not been contacted by the Town Center Green Design Advisory Committee about possible funding.
The selectmen asked questions but took no voted action regarding the "advice" they received on Sept. 10. Selectmen were told the property would be able to accommodate the additional surface water, and the AUL would not be a problem. No engineering work had been done to support those claims. The advisory committee was given no further guidance by the Board. The committee's concept designs were posted on the Planning Board website three days later.
On Nov. 1, the selectmen voted to appoint Colleen Sheehan to the Committee. Yes, the same Colleen Sheehan who had been speaking for the Committee for months. An Open Meeting Law complaint filed by a citizen against the advisory committee for failing to create and maintain meeting minutes resulted in the realization that Sheehan had never been appointed. That same evening, the selectmen also voted to continue the charge of the six-member committee until the end of annual Town Meeting 2013.
Sheehan's public support for the town center project goes back to 2005 and 2006 when Wayland developer Chuck Irving was teamed with the Congress Group's Dean Stratouly to promote the mixed-use project. Sheehan published several op-ed pieces in the Wayland Town Crier and signed a letter to the editor along with other members of the political action group Save Our Services. The letter used what some voters viewed as scare tactics, saying that if Town Meeting did not approve the enabling zoning legislation, "then the property owner will build a Chapter 40B housing complex with 200 units." http://www.wickedlocal.com/wayland/news/opinions/x1817187990#axzz2F9SVU4j6
Sheehan's name appeared on the bottom of a full-page ad in the Town Crier just prior to the May 2006 Town Meeting vote, casting the option of a 40B affordable housing project in negative light compared with a mixed-use project. The same ad content appeared earlier in the month in a green handout distributed at house parties and at a presentation to Mainstone condo residents made by Selectmen Chairman Michael Tichnor and FinCom Chairman Chris Riley.
In the same April 27, 2006 Town Crier issue as the full-page ad, a Sheehan letter pitched various benefits of the mixed-use project, including a public green:
Once the mixed-use zoning legislation passed at Town Meeting, in a Town Crier interview, project proponent Chuck Irving credited that Town Meeting success to the marketing efforts of Colleen Sheehan and Paulette Greene.
Great Island Development's Chuck Irving and the Congress Group's Dean Stratouly have since left the Town Center project development team. Sheehan now serves on the Planning Board and was incorrectly represented as the Town Center Green Design Advisory Committee chairman when she presented the committee's concept plans for the developer's "public green" space to the Board of Selectmen on Aug. 1 and Sept. 10.
The advisory committee's Oct. 24 draft meeting minutes state that the committee never took any votes while developing the concept designs. So the committee's "advice" to the selectmen was never a voted recommendation by its members. http://www.wayland.ma.us/Pages/WaylandMA_Planning/Wayland%20Conceptual%20Design%20%20min%2020121024%20RM.pdf
Yet without any further public discussion or voted action by the selectmen concerning the advisory committee's work, somehow a Town Center green proposal for the developer's property now appears as one of several large-ticket "infrastructure" projects listed in the FY14-18 Town of Wayland Capital Improvement Program, submitted by Facilities Director John Moynihan.
Town Meeting Schedule
In 2009, the Board of Selectmen, with the support of the Finance Committee, proposed a bylaw amendment to provide greater flexibility for scheduling the town's annual election and Town Meeting, extending the meeting start time to May 15. Among the reasons given was the advantage of having additional time to prepare budgets, ballot questions and the warrant. Voters supported the proposal.
For the April 2012 town election and town meeting, the town administrator and selectmen pressed for an earlier schedule, contrary to their own recent advice and input from town residents, which resulted in Town Meeting running for four consecutive nights.
Moderator Dennis Berry chairs the Town Meeting Procedures Subcommittee, which includes some of the same members of the former Town Meeting Advisory Committee. After each Town Meeting, the moderator has held public forums to evaluate the experience and then provided feedback to the selectmen.
For the 2013 schedule, Moderator Berry sent a Nov. 16 memo to advise the selectmen after meeting twice with the subcommittee. They discussed a variety of options and evaluated data generated by the Electronic Voting Subcommittee (ELVIS). One subcommittee goal has been to bring greater certainty to scheduling Town Meeting so that there is some predictability from year to year that accommodates many needs with as few conflicts as possible. This would allow other town organizations that set annual calendars far ahead of Town Meeting time to avoid scheduling conflicts.
The subcommittee advised that the election and Town Meeting occur after April school vacation, which was the tradition followed until recently. Six of the seven committee members recommended that Town Meeting begin on the Sunday after the vacation (April 28) and continue on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday of that week. Such a schedule carried forward into the future could avoid holidays and become an established pattern.
The Finance Committee and selectmen did not follow that advice, encouraged by the town administrator to choose an earlier schedule. Members of both boards lately say they want to get Town Meeting "over with" as soon as possible. That is a relatively new and negative light for such officials to cast on Wayland's tradition of legislative self-governance.
There are residents and officials who find the earlier schedule counterintuitive, particularly this year, given the department has been without a finance director, three FinCom members are experiencing their first budget season, and public scrutiny of the town's finances continues.
Selectmen voted 3-1 for the earlier schedule on at their board meeting on Nov. 19.
The selectmen's discussion did not include data on how many families leave town for the April school vacation week to substantiate the claim that "a lot of the town is away" then. Those with students on school sports teams need to be in town for games that week. The board also seems to have gathered no data to determine how many seniors in warmer locations for the winter are negatively affected by an early Town Meeting schedule.
The subcommittee's preference to plan a more predictable Town Meeting schedule into the future went unheeded. Despite the proven track record of electronic voting setting a more efficient tone and avoiding time wasted on standing counted votes, for some reason a few selectmen say there still is a need to shorten town meeting. Experienced subcommittee members have said that Town Meeting efficiency follows naturally when the warrant is well-prepared. Preparing the warrant is the responsibility of the selectmen.
Wayland is populated by many highly qualified professionals and historically has relied on such residents for advice to operate efficiently. Such people often gravitate to advisory committees, but lacking an independent budget or authority are frequently frustrated by an inability to implement their advice.
An example is the Energy Efficiency Advisory Committee, formed in 2009, "to advise the Board of Selectmen, other town boards and committees, the Town Administrator and the Public Buildings Director on all issues related to energy conservation measures, procurement of heating/ ventilation/ cooling equipment and technologies, policies regarding use of energy, and exploration of alternative energy technologies, equipment and grants." http://www.wayland.ma.us/Pages/WaylandMA_BComm/Energy/index
The five members of the committee include four with professional backgrounds in energy, three with MIT associations, and three graduate engineers (obviously with some overlap).
This committee was responsible for Wayland's designation as a "Green Community" by the state (which included a $132,000 grant) and for Wayland's adoption of the "Stretch Energy Code", which will improve the energy efficiency of all new construction in town. It was also one of the sponsors of the recently successful Solarize effort.
But one of the first initiatives of the committee was to investigate methane capture at the closed landfill. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas which is also the major component of natural gas, is normally emitted from landfills as a product of decomposition of organic waste. The town had previously hired a consultant to investigate methane capture using conventional approaches and found it uneconomic, but the committee identified an unconventional approach which could work. It recommended that the town administrator gather proposals to harvest the methane, along with installing solar panels at the closed landfill.
But the committee heard nothing on the matter for more than a year. When it finally pushed for a response, it was told that the town administrator had consulted the public works director, who told him that harvesting methane at the landfill wouldn't work because the consultants had said so. Since methane emissions decline over time after a landfill is closed, and a year of gas had already leaked away, the committee reluctantly dropped the issue.
In a more recent example, the committee has advocated for buying Wayland's streetlights from NStar and replacing the current incandescent bulbs with LED's. This not only reduces energy use by about 90% (worth tens of thousands of dollars per year), but radically reduces maintenance costs by replacing the 1,000-hour incandescents with 25,000-hour LED's (streetlights burn about 4,000 hours per year). Many other municipalities are doing this, including Sudbury and Boston.
But town staff has dragged its feet in implementing this advice for many months, citing concern over liability for town-owned streetlights. NStar says liability should not be an issue because state law sharply limits the town's exposure. After repeated attempts the committee has succeeded in getting agreement only for a small pilot project. It remains unexplained why other towns can deal with this issue so effectively and Wayland cannot.
The original Wellhead Protection Committee (WPC), mentioned above, was appointed in 2007 by the Water Commissioners. It was given a small budget for public education and absolute financial support and encouragement by the Water Commissioners for more costly initiatives like hiring a consultant to map out the capture zones around the town wells. Those are the areas, never before defined, from which all precipitation is normally drawn into the wells. That data formed the foundation of the Wellhead Protection Plan.
But conflicts developed after the Water Commission was folded into the newly created Board of Public Works in 2009. For example, the new DPW director blocked the recommendation of the WPC, supported by the Conservation Commission, to use permeable paving at the new high school. Permeable paving, which has now been operating successfully for several years at the Trinitarian Church, is recommended by world experts at the University of New Hampshire as the very best way to trap pollution from parking lots before it enters the groundwater.
Faced with conflicting inputs, the High School Building Committee opted to go with an older more conventional design, which has in fact already encountered serious problems including flooding in a heavy rainstorm and deposition of sediments in the stream that runs by the Happy Hollow wells.
In another conflict involving the high school construction, the DPW director allowed the use of the Zone 1 "sand pit" area near the Happy Hollow wells, the most sensitive area within which all pollutants are virtually guaranteed to get into the wells, as a construction staging area. The WPC was not consulted. State regulators eventually got involved, but by then the damage was already done.
In the summer of 2009, after the WPC was invited along with other existing town committees to post on the town's new Virtual Town Hall website, Town Administrator Fred Turkington claimed that the WPC had no business having a website. Without notice, the WPC website was deleted, despite the committee's charge to engage in public education. The committee chairman had to argue for it to be reconstituted, and then its content remained an incomplete "work in progress."
The quality of Wayland's water supply is widely recognized as having deteriorated in recent years. Twice (early fall of 2011 and 2012) the town was forced by state regulations to send out notices that bacteria had been found in our water. The source of the contamination has never been publicly identified. Sodium content has been on the rise, without additional test data made readily available to the public.
In the June 2011 Wellhead Protection Plan, the WPC noted a number of instances in which the town had put the wells at risk, and recommended actions to address those risks. The response of the new BOPW and selectmen was to abolish the committee at the end of June 2011 in favor of an advisory committee which would have no independent authority.
But only one independent citizen has volunteered to serve on the advisory committee with the current chair of the BOPW. The committee has never met, prompting the comment cited above by the chair. The former members of the WPC continue to advocate as private citizens for the protection of the town water supply. (See www.waylandwells.com)
But few of the recommendations made in the June 2011 Wellhead Protection Plan have been implemented.
-- WVN Staff
(Disclosure: All regular contributors to WVN have served on committees similar to those mentioned in this newsletter.)
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor