The Groton Herald Staff

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.”

Apr 162015

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

Other than voting for individual selectmen at the ballot box, voters have no voice in who the Board of Selectmen hires as town manager or how the town manager fulfills the duties of the office; it’s all up to the selectmen.

Town Meeting is the place where voters, acting as the legislative branch of town government, have the power to speak with a unified voice to influence or actually determine the direction of government. The rest of the year voters are limited to individual voices and opinions at public meetings and events, and in the media.

Because ten voters signed a citizen’s petition, voters will have the opportunity this month to ‘speak’ with a unified voice, expressing their nonbinding opinion on whether or not selectmen should renew the contract of Town Manager Mark Haddad. If the meeting approves it, this vote will be by secret ballot instead of the usual verbal “yes” or “no,” or show of hands.

Introducing the topic of the current town manager’s contract renewal in this way is, unfortunately, the only way it can come before the voters as a group, meeting with selectmen, where discussion can occur. Without doubt, this is a blunt instrument. But, unfortunately, it is the only instrument we have.

The town manager’s actions and behavior are, rightly, of concern to voters because of the outsize political influence this unelected position can, and in this case, has, assumed. A majority of the current Board of Selectmen have not welcomed public criticism of him and have defended his unpopular actions and statements, using the new Town Charter as justification.

It is unfortunate, we think, that the first “test” of the new charter has been complicated by the particular personality of the first hired manager, making it more a test of the individual than of the form of government itself.

This nonbinding vote on the town manager’s contract has larger implications; it is a vote on the board’s management of both the manager and the town he administers. Depending on the vote, selectmen may continue on their current course, having been given a greater sense of political legitimacy, or they may heed voters’ call for a change in direction.

A vote to not renew the contract would add legitimacy to those members of the board who see a need for change in the board’s actions, or in the charge of the charter, or both. We hope that whatever the outcome of the vote, it helps to heal divisions in town and among the selectmen and manager.

Apr 092015

At the opening of the Board of Selectmen’s (Thursday, April 2) workshop to address the need for selectmen to find ways to address the failure of trust among board members, Board of Selectmen Chair Josh Degen said, “We need to work together in a much more cohesive manner, need to respect differing opinions in a cordial and polite way.”

Selectman Peter Cunningham agreed, saying, “If we can find a way to work together cohesively for the benefit of the town, we should try to do it.”

There seemed to be a general agreement that the best way to achieve this goal was to follow Selectman Stuart Schulman’s suggestions to put all the grudges and preconceptions together and “… burn them in a bowl.”

Selectman Jack Petropoulos agreed, and said the first step was to: “Put the guns away.”

According to Cunningham and Schulman, town affairs are actually being run reasonably well. Schulman said, “Even with all that’s happening, we’re still managing to work together pretty cohesively. We’ve got a town meeting coming up; we’re got a budget approved by the Finance Committee … The fact of the matter is that we’re getting the job done.”

“My reputation is gone. My public career is over because of the two of you (Degen and Petropoulos) and if you want me to apologize, I’m not going to do it.”

Schulman, State Representative Sheila Harrington and Cunningham spent time blaming the press for some of their problems. Cunningham said, “We have a hyperactive press that is more than willing to jump on things and expand stories.”

Harrington agreed, and said that the press is focusing on the details of Selectmen’s personal battles with each other. Instead, she said, both [the press and the public] “… should be looking at how you are executing your jobs.”

In response to the charge of the press compounding the board’s problems, Selectman Petropoulos countered that the poor press Selectmen are receiving has more to do with their own actions: “People have reacted to us negatively when we have taken negative steps, but they will start to react to us positively if we take positive steps.” He added that if the Board could start taking some steps toward true reconciliation, toward truly addressing the Board’s interpersonal problems, “The [public] impression of us will rise so much.”

On a personal note, Chairman Degen said that the emotional pressure of the board’s poor relations, “Wears on us, on every single one of us. It wears on Mark and wears on Dawn and it wears on the town hall employees and it wears on the citizens of Groton.”

Despite agreement that reconciling requires willingness to forgive and forget past grudges, it became clear as the meeting progressed that the goal of achieving a fresh working relationship would not be easy because of deep-seated resentments and reservoirs of ill-will.

The first step toward reconciling, Petropoulos said, is to apologize for past behavior. He mentioned Selectman Degen’s calling for the resignation of member Eliot as one of the disruptive acts needing reconciliation. He then asked Degen if he felt he could withdraw his demand for Eliot’s resignation. At first, Degen was adamant that he had been wronged by Eliot’s charges and said, “I’m not ready to take that leap.”

But a few minutes later, Degen thought better of his rigid stance and apologized unreservedly to Selectman Eliot saying, “Anna, I’m sorry I called for your resignation. I did so in my own mind with good reason … I’m willing to retract and apologize for the sake of us continuing to try to work together. I say that sincerely.”

Eliot was asked if she would, likewise, apologize to Chairman Degen for her accusations. But she demurred, saying, “I think we need to start fresh.”

After the exchange with Eliot, Petropoulos then turned to Cunningham and asked whether he was ready to resolve Cunningham’s Public Information Request for Petropoulous’ email correspondence with Art Campbell (editor of The Groton Line) in 2014. Cunningham said he wanted to resolve the issue with Petropoulos but, “… not right now” adding that he needed to think about it.

Degen said that any resolution of the Board’s interpersonal difficulties would need to include Town Manager Mark Haddad. Petropoulos asked the Town Manager if it might be possible for him, too, to apologize for some of his actions asking him, “How can we walk this back?”

Haddad responded, “My reputation is gone. My public career is over because of the two of you [Degen and Petropoulos] and if you want me to apologize, I’m not going to do it.”

Selectmen agreed that engaging a mediator experienced in resolving conflicts on municipal boards would be worthwhile and further agreed to search for and research an appropriate mediator to work with them. Once they decide on a mediator, their next conflict-resolution workshop will be scheduled.

Reprinted with permission from the April 9 edition of The Groton Herald. — Ed.

(At the Board of Selectman’s April 6 meeting, it scheduled another “Workshop on Board Relations” session for Monday, April 13 at 6:15 p.m. in Town Hall. The regular BoS meeting will begin at 7:30 p.m. — Ed.)