Jul 012013

Jack Petropoulos

Jack Petropoulos

Maybe the first time you see them they are standing at a podium or sitting on stage, presiding over the mysterious process that is Town Meeting. What is it that they are asking us to consider? How can my opinion compare with what they must know?

That was my impression of the Selectmen the first time that I attended Town Meeting.

The magic of it all was quickly dispelled when I watched my first televised BoS meeting and saw the humdrum of day-to-day approval of roads, appointment of the Fence Watcher, and the reading of meeting minutes. But when the Fire Station siting proposal for the Sacred Heart location came up and I found much to object to, I started to understand the challenge of being in a municipal decision-making position.

And so, with painful humility, I put my name on a lot of front lawns and was duly elected to the role of Selectman. Orientation consisted of a swearing in and an initial meeting with the Town Manager and the Chair of the Board. A few ground rules were noted, a couple of current issues were reviewed, and I was off to figure it out by myself.

When do you go along to get along, and when do you take a stand based on principle? There just is no training for this.

How does one know what criteria to use to issue a liquor license? How do you know who will make a good Conservation Commissioner? When do you go along to get along, and when do you take a stand based on principle? There just is no training for this, and perhaps, that is as it should be. You are elected because people perceive you to be something. Maybe it is best to hope that they perceived you correctly, and that the person that you are should form your decisions and guide your actions. With this as my background, I completed my first year as a Selectman.

It wasn’t until after a year on the Board that I had the opportunity to attend the Massachusetts Municipal Association“s (MMA) New Selectman Training class. Eager to know if this training might answer questions such as: Exactly what are the grounds on which you can deny a liquor permit? , I reviewed the Agenda to confirm my expectations of value.

To my dismay, the curriculum might have been titled Common Sense 101. But I signed up just to be sure that I wasn”t oversimplifying, and to demonstrate my willingness to learn.

The kickoff was a legislative update informing us all of the initiatives that the MMA was working on our behalf. At times it seemed a bit promotional but that is what lobbyists do. But it reminded me that small towns are affected by the actions of the State Legislature, and it is important to know about these things and to affect them if they are important to your town.

Next we reviewed the Role of Selectmen. Like any good introductory course, it started with a set of guiding principles, in this case:

The 10 Golden Rules
  1. Do the right thing.
  2. Always respond to your constituents.
  3. Never:
    1. Believe them
    2. Promise them anything
    3. Tell them you can fix it
  4. Never ever lose your temper.
  5. Never treat anyone who comes before you with disrespect, sarcasm, or condescension.
  6. Always remember that the people who come before you are citizens, business owners, or employees of your community.
  7. Always assume that everyone knows nothing (don’t presume understanding).
  8. When the fight is over, it is over.
  9. Thank everyone.
  10. Make friends out of enemies.

Now each of us can look at this list and see applicability. And each of us probably sees that differently. Having just attended the ‘lively discussion’ of the BoS meeting in which GELD informed the Board that it was withholding its Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT), I found many of the items quite timely. Overall there is a little in here for all of us and, simple as these are, they are indeed great guiding principles.

There is also a move in many towns to change the term: Selectmen to Selectboard Member. Now my spell check doesn’t recognize that term yet but I am guessing it will some day. It is also particularly useful if you would like to reference a member’s actions without giving away their identity by gender.

Moving on to Ethics and Conflict of Interest Law, I prepared to learn all I could to keep myself out of trouble. It turns out I could have accepted that free cup of coffee the other day, but it does get complicated. There are lots of rules about dollar limits and conditional guidelines that exceed my capacity to keep straight.

A teacher may accept a $40 gift at the end of the school year without disclosure after grades are in, but must provide disclosure if the gift is given prior to assigning grades, as the gift could be seen as an inducement.

One great example:

A teacher may accept a $40 gift at the end of the school year without disclosure after grades are in, but must provide disclosure if the gift is given prior to assigning grades, as the gift could be seen as an inducement.

I think I will just buy my own coffee.

Avoiding conflicts of interest may mean abstaining from a vote. Just the other day a Selectboard Member felt that they needed to recues themselves from a vote and left the podium and sat in the audience. They none-the-less weighed in on the issue as a citizen when discussion was opened to the floor. This behavior was challenged as inappropriate and all I had to go on at the time was my common sense when I defended their actions.

Well, now that I am trained, I know:

  • Abstaining should be in the interest of advancing government.
  • Abstaining means no substantive participation as a public official
  • It does not require that the individual loses their rights as a citizen so participation from the audience may be appropriate.
  • At their own discretion the member may:
    • Simply announce their abstention
    • Remove themselves from the table
    • Remove themselves from the meeting entirely

While there aren’t 10 Golden Rules for Ethics and Conflict of Interest, there is a Code of Conduct which advises public officials to refrain from acting in a manner in which a reasonable person looking at the situation might perceive a bias. Again you don’t need to be an elected official to see the value in this guidance.

Should a citizen have a complaint about a public official’s ethics, the State takes this very seriously and has a number to call to speak with the “Attorney of the Day” : (888) 485-4766.

Lastly we learned about Open Meeting and Public Records. Again there is a lot of common sense in here but from what I heard, common sense isn’t so common. The AG’s office sees a lot of complaints around this issue but finds that most of the violations are based on ignorance rather than intent.

The purpose of the Open Meeting Law is to strike a balance between efficiency and transparency. This is an interesting objective because it recognizes the importance of process and disclosure, and rejects the idea that efficient operation is an excuse for moving things forward without due process.

But openness does not mean participation. “Open meeting” means “open to public view.” The Chair has the right to allow or restrict participation. A few clever tactics were reviewed for how to handle cases where public participation got out of hand. I’ll save those for the right occasion.

Actually the law gets a bit complex. Simply forwarding an email may create a quorum and on more than one occasion the use of email in general was reviewed as possibly being more trouble than it was worth.

One of the aspects of Open Meeting that has struck me most has been the concept of Executive Session in which meetings may be closed to the public in a few narrowly defined instances. Calling an Executive Session is subject to guidelines intended to assure that the public knows why the session is called. As much information as possible must be disclosed prior to going into session without compromising the intent of the session.

Oddly, while an Executive Session may be called to protect the privacy of an individual, that individual must still be named and the general purpose of the meeting must still be disclosed. Meeting minutes must be detailed and accurate (though not a transcript) and must reference all documents discussed. Though they are kept, minutes may be withheld “so long as publication may defeat the lawful purpose of the executive session but no longer.”

The Board is required to meet regularly to review undisclosed Executive Session minutes.

A couple of interesting safeguards exist to be sure that dirty laundry doesn’t get buried: The Board is required to meet regularly to review undisclosed Executive Session minutes , and requests for Executive Session minutes must be responded to within 10 days.

Overall, for me, the recurring theme of the training was the persistent idea that we are here to serve and no matter how hard the issue, we need to behave in a matter that is in the best interest of the town. While for most of us day to day, the acts of getting angry, accepting favors and keeping secrets may be just part of life, they become destructive behaviors once the hat of public service is donned. I still don’t know the grounds for denying a liquor license, but I trust that my judgment will carry me through.

I am grateful to the town for having afforded me this opportunity. While it brought some issues to light that I can follow up on, for me the more important thing is the perspective that it drives home. It is my hope that I have and always will carry these principles forward. Now, in no uncertain terms, you know what to expect from all of your Selectboard Members, new or seasoned.