State House Hearing on Cohasset’s Amended Town Manager Act

The Hearing at the State House on Cohasset’s Amended Town Manager’s Act H 3486 attracted myriad Cohasset town officials and others offering testimony, those present largely in favor of the passage of the bill Tuesday, July 23.

The joint Committee on Municipalities & Regional Government asked very few questions. Rep. Tim Madden asked if the town would be amenable to having the Committee offer amendments to the Act. Chairman Sara Peake asked if the Town Manager Act had ever been voted on in a town-wide ballot. Town Counsel Paul DeRensis said the act could be amended but that the Town Manager Act, the town’s constitution, had never met a town-wide election ballot.

Speaking against approval of the bill were Agnes McCann, Selectman Karen Quigley who spoke as a private citizen, and former town manager Mike Coughlin.

Coughlin, who has submitted various written testimonies, said it was bad law, a bad process, political and piecemeal. In various testimonies he has pointed out alleged incongruities and illegalities in the Amended Act.

McCann said “Cohasset never had a failure of good governance needing repair – its problems have been the consequence of people doing their jobs badly (or not doing their jobs) and the result has been chaos and confusion. In the last two town elections voters have responded by turning out those they held accountable, and those votes far exceed the Town Meeting votes taken on the Committee’s work; just as the scope of Cohasset’s difficulties – as richly detailed in an FY 202 forensic audit and February 2013 DOR review – go beyond the question of who gets to apply for Town Manager.”

McCann continued: “Read closely, the suggested Amended Act makes one significant, substantive charge: lifting a one year cooling off period for town officials/boards/committee members to be eligible to apply for the Town Manager position. This solves a problem we have never had: not getting enough applications for an advertised town Manager position.

“Mainly, H3486 rewords, reorders and reorganizes the content of the exiting law. The drafters were people with no legislative experience or legal training, who for all of the time they spent changed little. Added is the requirement that Selectmen must conduct a search if there is a vacancy, and downgraded is the experience requirement to “public management or business administration.”

Further, McCann said the committee ignored the pointed recommendations of outside agencies with regard to dealing with Water and Sewer department issues. “It eliminates continuity provisions of Sections 7, 8 and 9 of the existing Act…It is notable that, prior to turning its “high beams” on the Town Manager Act, the Governance Committee did not review existing processes or bylaws regarding committee appointments, apart from conducting a town-wide survey of boards and committees which has yet to be reported on. It s notable, as well, that at no time before the “Final draft” stage of proposed town Manager Act change was any public opinion sought, and then only at two hastily scheduled evening meetings held within one week of each other in February and March 2013. These were the only evening meetings it ever held.

Selectman Quigley stated that she supported the will and vote of town meeting but speaking as a private citizen, her testimony concluded:

“I agree that the existing TMA is not perfect and needs some revisions, however, it is my considered opinion that the course of action that best serves the people of Cohasset is DOR’s recommendation to establish a formal, elected charter committee to explore the broader scope of town governance. This process would also provide the people of Cohasset with the opportunity to vote their governing law at a ballot.”

Speaking in favor were Select Chair Fred Koed, who said he supported town meeting’s vote because it cleaned up gaps, ambiguities and corrected collective bargaining negotiations by the town manager, requiring those negotiations to be approved by the board of selectmen. “That’s been the practice but the language doesn’t track what has been practiced. It also clarifies the roles played by different agencies.”

Sam Wakeman, former chair of the advisory committee, a member of capital budget and government structure, said the Amended act also produced a budget process bylaw that was adopted at 2012 annual town meeting.

Former Select Chair Paul Carlson and Selectman Steve Gaumer also spoke in favor, as did new governance committee member Kevin McCarthy, Trish Morse and governance chair Christine Cunning.

Cunning said 100s of hours of legal research was done over many months (but the legal research was not done by attorneys). She said the process was completely outside of the political process as much as possibl (except for the fact that one member was on the committee illegally; while Mike Milanoski did step down from the committee he did attend future meetings as acting town manager shepherding the committee to adopt changes in the act that would allow him to legally apply for the position).

Trish More, also on the governance committee, said the committee dropped qualifications for the position because Cohasset was one of the few communities in the Commonwealth who had qualifications. The original act requires the Town Manager and the Acting town Manager to be professionally qualified.

Advisory committee member George Chamillard also advised the committee to pass the act. “This represents very good work done by good people.”

In a press release Wednesday, July 24th, Governance Chair Christine Cunning wrote this:

 

I wanted to thank all the individuals who took their time to attend the Massachusetts Legislative committee hearing regarding Cohasset’s bill to amend the Town Manager Act and to express their varied opinions. I hope to clarify and highlight some points regarding the process and culture of the Governance Committee. I also apologize for not having had more time along the way to present these, outside the venues of our regular meetings and at intermittent Board of Selectmen’s meetings, as my schedule just has not allowed extra time for ‘PR”! However, after reading this week and then hearing yesterday the extent of misunderstanding surrounding this piece of legislation I must respond, speaking for myself, but feeling that the following aligns with the committee , from our past discussions at meetings.

There was testimony yesterday that the ‘driving force and the sole goal of the amendment brought forth was to remove qualifications for the Town Manager’. This misses the intent by such a wide margin it is difficult to know where to begin. I start by assuring all that a group of 8-9 independent and varied and very busy volunteer citizens would certainly not invest this kind of time and energy in pursuit of such an agenda. Though organizational circumstances and political timing at the beginning of our work on this issue were murky, over the course of the following 15 months, the committee and interested members of the community certainly moved forth much more comprehensive, thoughtful and positive ideas. And point of fact, though several line items were voted down at the 2012 fall Town Meeting, the act in it’s entirety was presented once at spring Town Meeting and overwhelmingly approved with a 61% vote by the secret ballot requested by some.

Among these very important changes made in the passed act are the following

Budget Planning Process, encouraging continuance on sound and positive financial management

Requiring selectmen to formally approve warrants before Town Meeting

Giving selectmen authority to appoint independent auditors

Obliging selectmen to create a search committee for town manager

Eliminating the prohibition against appointed or elected officials (excepting selectmen)

Establishing a written process for removal of the town manager

Defining process for absences of the town manager

Authorizing the selectman to determine powers of acting or temporary town managers

Clarifying some responsibilities and powers of the town manager

Requiring selectmen to approve and ratify collective bargaining

© Copyright 2013 Tanna K, All rights Reserved. Written For: Tinytown Unleashed
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