Jul 152015

GuestEditorialThis editorial ran in The Groton Herald recently. It is reprinted here with Editor Russ Harris’s permission and encouragement and with the strong endorsement of The Groton Line editorial committee. — Ed.

In an RFP for Town Counsel issued this month, Town Manager Mark Haddad describes Groton’s government as operating on a ‘Strong Town Manager Model.” This may or may not be technically true, but it seems an unfortunate description, given that many voters have expressed concerns about the reach of Town Manager’s power and his use of that power in day-to-day operation of the town. Mr. Haddad seems to agree with Selectman Peter Cunningham, who posited this theory when he wrote this letter to the editor of The Groton Herald in November 2014:

“Reduced to its simplest terms, our Charter and strong town manager form of governance was intended to remove elected political leaders from the day-to-day administration of town government. Much like the Education Reform Act of 1993 which redefined the role of school committees to the hiring/firing of the superintendent, budget approval and establishing policy, Groton’s Charter has a similar effect on its Selectmen … Townspeople recognized this when they overwhelmingly approved the Charter … In both examples the intent was to eliminate the numerous instances of ‘bad behavior’ where an individual elected official would attempt to intercede in the professional operation of a public institution for questionable reasons.”

Selectman Cunningham asserts that voters wanted elected officials legally removed from the process of running the day-to-day affairs of the town in virtually every instance. In our view, the recent town election suggests the opposite: voter/legislators want Selectmen more involved in guiding and directing the Town Manager.

We believe that the last eighteen months of controversy on the Board of Selectmen boiled down to differing views of this question: How much independent power should the Town Manager exercise?

It appears that, rather than wanting selectmen completely removed from day-to day decisions, voter/legislators want a Town Manager to be responsible for administering day-to-day town operations with leeway to do the job without being micromanaged. But also a Town Manager with limited independent powers who works as a proxy for the Selectmen when performing administrative duties; who seems himself as an employee of the Selectmen who assists them in their administration of the town.

Of the five sitting Selectmen, Cunningham and two others seem to be in agreement with the model Cunningham asserted in his letter to the Herald last fall. Two other Selectmen — including just-re-elected Jack Petropoulos — seem to think the TM’s powers should be more limited and he should be subject to significant direction and oversight by the Board.

Voters chose Petropoulos over two candidates who expressed support of the current Town Manager and his interpretation of the independence and strength of the position, among other issues. Voters also chose Petropoulos over one candidate who was endorsed and aggressively supported by Selectmen Cunningham, Eliot, and Schulman, who have actively supported Mr. Haddad and his interpretation of the charter.

It seems clear to us that voters want the manager to develop a more consultative relationship with the board, and the board to be more engaged and pro-active in managing their manager. By their vote, as they did when voting for the Charter, the legislator/voters said this is the government model they want for their town.

If the voter/legislators truly express the desire for this kind of change to our Charter, one of the challengers of the Charter Review Committee will to be to craft language to meet this need. If the Charter Review Committee is looking for a guide to correct this imbalance, we suggest this language from section 3.23 of North Andover’s Charter: “The Board of Selectmen shall serve as the chief goal-setting and policymaking agency of the town and, as such, shall not normally administer the day-to-day affairs of the town, but shall instead regularly direct the Town Manager to help it in carrying out its administrative duties, and make recommendations to the town meeting relating to actions required to be taken by that body.”