Surprise -- It’s Town Meeting Time
by William Dowd 10/18/12
The way our local government is struggling to make it to Town Meeting, you’d think they didn’t know it was coming. The truth is that the date of this meeting is set in the Town’s By-Laws, and has been for years. How can so many important things remain unresolved less than two weeks to Town Meeting?
The Warrant for Town Meeting was published on the web site, but don’t go looking for any details there.
- There’s an article to pay unpaid bills from prior fiscal years, but no detail or explanation.
- There’s an article to “supplement” various budgets voted at Town Meeting in May. Which budgets, how much and why remains a mystery,
- Since we pretend that “Free Cash” doesn’t really exist until the State certifies it, there’s nothing on property tax relief or a Stabilization Fund allocation.
- There’s an article to make capital purchases in several departments. Which departments, and what to buy is a mystery.
- There’s an article to spend money on updating the Town’s website. How much? No idea.
- There are very specific Articles regarding property tax relief for veterans and seniors. That’s good.
- There’s an article to set up a funding mechanism for over $45 million in retiree health insurance. This fund is to be the depository of an annual appropriation growing over the next 4 years to $2.5 million and lasting for 30 YEARS – until at least 2044. I’d like to think I’ll be here to see this fulfilled, but our kids are going to foot this bill. And here we are, setting up a method of funding for a program we can’t afford, and regarding which none of our elected officials has taken any official action to seek reform.
- There’s an article to enact Special Legislation to exclude part time elected officials from Town subsidized health insurance. This, despite the fact that such action is clearly within the Selectmen’s authority. Perhaps it’s a good thing that they’re seeking Town Meeting action. Maybe this means they’ve decided to go that route on so many other important issues they prefer to decide on their own. Perhaps they just don’t want to be the bad guys. But I’m not sure why their article includes punitive language forcing the one current enrolled out of the plan in 2013 when that is absolutely not necessary.
We can only hope that the FinCom report, which isn’t due until Monday the 22nd – just seven days before Town Meeting - will provide more details. Even still, how are residents to prepare for a meeting involving a proposal to fund a $45 million debt and hundreds of thousands in spending if they only get the details with seven days to go?
And I know the Selectmen and FinCom are volunteers, and have very busy lives outside their service to the Town. Four of the FinCom have only been in office a few months. And I appreciate their willingness to give so much of themselves to the community. But this year after year “we ran out of time”, “we didn’t get a chance to look at that”, “we need more information to make a decision”, and “we’ll have to postpone that until next Town Meeting” wears very thin and devalues their work. This is nothing more than a failure to plan.
It is my opinion that the FinCom firmly believes that the absence of attendees at their meetings and the virtual voter silence on matters to be decided is strong evidence that it’s really just up to them. The FinCom has publicly expressed its exasperation with voters who come to Town Meeting with questions or insist on explanations, all of which could have been obtained by attending the meetings leading up to Town Meeting. To a point, that is fair and therefore, I attend as many meetings as I can. But we’re within two weeks of Town Meeting and neither they nor I have a complete handle on the business to be done.
By the way, here’s an interesting twist in our By-Laws. Both the May Town Meeting and October Town Meetings are referred to as Annual Town Meetings. But the Selectmen treat the October meeting as a “Special” Town Meeting with 14-day advance notice requirements (vs. just seven for an Annual) and the imposition of a 100-signature requirement for petition articles (vs. just 10 for an Annual). Why the inconsistency, and why the confusion?
The lawyers will no doubt affirm that the Town is operating well within the legal limits of the law and our By-Laws. But this is one of those situations where mere compliance is not good government. Elected officials constantly bemoan low turnout at Town Meeting. Perhaps if there was more awareness of the issues to be decided, more citizens would make it a point to be there. The Schools have a well-developed electronic communication and action tree. When something of importance is happening, we hear about it. Not so on the Town side. No outreach, last minute chaos, incomplete proposals and vaguely worded articles.
I will admit, once again, that I have high expectations of our local government. Having worked in two other local governments, I know what is possible and what is right. I’m not sure why Holliston puts up with this twice a year chaotic stumble to Town Meeting, but I know it doesn’t have to be this way, and I know we can do much better.
Posted in Comments.