Governing Cohasset, MA by Tom Callahan

By Attorney Tom Callahan
former member of the Cohasset Board of Selectmen
and the Cohasset Conservation Commission

Part of the paltry response of the Board of Selectmen to the controversy over their removal of three Conservation Commissioners is to suggest yet another new committee to study the structure of town governance.

Let us not forget, as recently as earlier this year, such a committee created to respond to the still first and foremost crisis in the town, the Water Dept., recommended a change in governance, i.e., the elimination of elected water and sewer commissions (which was also called for by the outside neutral auditor last year, by the Mass. Municipal Assoc.’s neutral study of circa 2006 and this author when a Selectman circa 2000). That suggestion has fallen on deaf ears, notwithstanding recurring problems. Why should any new committee find any better reception? I am sure that the hope by the time a report is produced, the ConComm controversy will be long forgotten, and the powers that be will continue business as usual.

In my view, but for too many separately elected boards, there is nothing inherently wrong with the current structure of the town’s government. The problem now, as can be said of most problems of the last 20 years, is with the people in various positions, and the execution of the power they have or assume, a truism likely found in any organization. Competence and better inter-town communication would go a long way to solving most problems. However, some ideas for change:

1. Appreciate the seriousness of the current problems, and the frustrating recurring cycle of them.

2. “This-is-a-small-town” and “these-are-our-friends-and-neighbors” can no longer explain away major problems or be the controlling governing philosophy. If our friends and neighbors, yes giving of their time, are nevertheless engaged in either active wrongdoing or incompetence, then we coldly and objectively have to make changes. A first step in addressing current town governance, then, would be to have a few selected heads roll.

3. Perhaps, finally pass a recall petition process.

4. Consider a representative town meeting to address low attendance and meeting-stuffing by single issue voters.

5. Do not weaken the Town Manager. Recognize that past town manager problems were personal or personality/management style in nature, not a function of the position.

6. Support having the kind of manager our interim and new managers represent – hands on, not laid back, won’t defer authority over and responsibility for town departments under him, someone who is going to knock heads together and effectuate change over the whining cries of self-importance and  “this is the way we’ve always done it”. Unfortunately, but predictably, that bristles some of those in charge of the various town fiefdoms and there is already tangible resistance.

7. Have the Town Manager make all board appointments, as other town managers do, unburdened by sentiment or anyone’s agenda.

8. Have citizens (& BOS) show more respect to town boards. Speaking from experience on both sides of the table, I observe that people, in general, don’t like ConComms. ConComms thus suffer from a built-in defensiveness, born of disrespect shown them and a perception that they oppose everything before them. Other boards suffer this to a lesser degree, but ConComms are generally the most disrespected board in any community owing to most people’s phony concern about the environment until it affects them. The Cat Dam issue was one of bad treatment by the community and BOS, not the other way around.

10. Boards of Selectmen and School Committees are the only boards required to be elected. Eliminate all non-required elected positions, especially the utility boards, since the one real, demonstrative and historical governance problem in Cohasset is having too many chiefs. Too often while a Selectman I personally heard the position to the effect  “well, you can’t tell us what to do because we’re separately elected.” Separate elected status leads directly to the fiefdom mentality that the chief executive authority (BOS) and chief administrative authority (town manager) often clash with. Like every other level of government in the US, we should have but one chief executive. None of these other boards are or should be policy-making boards, although some have fancied themselves that over the years, leading to demonstrable problems and added costs. These boards provide specific functions only, and we don’t need to elect anyone to perform a function.

10. State law unfortunately creates the present system of having two almost independent governments within one town, school-side and town-side. What could occur is improved communication, with the BOS and School Comm. each creating a permanent liaison to the other, and the new town manager and new superintendent institutionalizing regular meetings between them.

11. If there is any duplication of services between school-side and town-side, they should be eliminated. Cohasset is too small for it. Consolidate financial functions. The school business manager is only a relatively recent position, and was vacant for some time during which Town Hall adequately performed the function. This also has the advantage of facilitating more communication between the Superintendent, Town Manager and Finance Director, and allows all School Dept. finances to see the light of day and avoid surprises.

12. Support adding staffing in the Finance Dept., which audits have identified as one of the sources of our recordkeeping and systems mess. As recent events have shown us, the quality, qualifications and competence of the person serving as finance director will be critical.

13. Consolidate Capital Budget and Advisory Committees into a Finance Committee. This would eliminate one recently annoying self-created fiefdom, empowered, in part, because the past town managers have foregone their own responsibility over capital budgets. Expand the membership to 11, and have BOS appoint six, Moderator two, School Committee three. Bringing in the School Comm. as a co-appointing authority, unprecedented I believe, makes them a stakeholder and hopefully the new Finance Comm. can become the vehicle through which negotiation over town-side vs. school-side of the budget is achieved. The FinComm. would perform all functions that Capital Budget and Advisory do now. It would end the Advisory Comm. role of review and recommendation upon non-financial warrant articles.

14. Changes in the utilities have been long recommended by many in-town and out-of-town observers. Going back to the ‘80s up to the problems the two boards present us with today, I would suggest these two boards and their inefficiencies, incompetence and/or possible wrongdoing have cost the town an inordinate amount of money. It is time to end it. Combine the departments into a new consolidated department, under the direct management of the Town Manager and a superintendent. Look closely at Hull’s system as a guide.

15. Combine the two utility boards and any other public works ad hoc board (especially  the Senior Housing Committee which I fear is another financial problem in the making absent professional management) into an appointed Public Works Committee. The PWC would vet all public works projects and utility rates, the latter that would instead originate with the professionals running the department. The utilities would continue to be self-supporting via enterprise funds, but now under responsibility of the professionals.

16. BOS members need to get out there with the boards they are liaisons to, and avoid making judgments about them from one contentious hearing. They need to realize their job does not just mean 2-4 BOS meetings a month, and need to act like executives and supervisors and see what their boards are up to.

17. Create a common land use vision. Because of the quasi-judicial functions and state law authority of the land use boards, they will necessarily have a degree of independence, but some effort at a common land use vision should be made, avoiding surprises and conflict.

18. Create a litigation management system to control costs.

by Attorney Tom Callahan
you can reach Tom at

© Copyright 2011 Tanna K, All rights Reserved. Written For: Tinytown Unleashed

  2 comments for “Governing Cohasset, MA by Tom Callahan

  1. November 3, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    Everything Tom said comes from the experience of having lived in that world and his advice should not be taking lightly. One minor point. Petitioners have gone to Town Meeting many times over the years asking for the right of recall. It has always been voted down. Now in my dotage, I understand why. It’s a divisive tool; it goes right for the jugular without a hearing or a trial. It’s basically a special election, but over the past year in Cohasset I could see where groups of citizens on both sides of an issue might have been scheduling special elections up the ying yang. So I think recall should probably not be part of any new governance plan.

  2. Steve Brown
    November 3, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Given the continued problems that our town has experienced despite many different individuals holding the positions described by Tom, suggests that the structure needs updating as he suggests. Hopefully other knowledgeable citizens will add their suggestions to Tom’s.

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