Administrator May Lose Authority Over Public Safety Depts.
By: Diana T. Barth
Bourne’s Charter Review Committee continued to discuss possible changes to the town’s charter this week, among them the possibility of not only giving selectmen back the power to appoint Bourne’s police and fire chiefs, but also the idea of explicitly taking control over those departments away from the town administrator.
A 2007 charter change took the power to hire those two department heads away from selectmen, and put it in the hands of the administrator, one of several changes to the document made to ensure that selectmen were policy-setters, not managers.
That action, however, resulted in weakening the positions of those chiefs.
This year’s charter review committee wants to return that hiring responsibility to selectmen, and perhaps take the language changes a step further.
Taking control over those departments away from the administrator, said committee member Joyce A. Lorman, would ensure that the chiefs were able to, insofar as they follow civil service rules, hire and fire those who are under them, something she said she did not think the fire chief could now do unilaterally.
The fire chief and police chief would, under some of the language discussed this week, have the same power over their departments as the administrator has over other town departments.
As discussion of the idea progressed, however, talk focused on the fact that, were selectmen to provide any day-to-day oversight over the two public safety departments, it would violate charter language restricting their role to that of policy makers.
Instead of taking a vote on any specific proposed language, members decided to think about the issues of departmental control, and how to propose changes to the charter language that would explicitly allow selectmen to fire as well as hire, taking no position this week.
Also as part of the discussion of possible changes to Section 3-5 of the charter, which sets out the selectmen’s “Appointing Powers,” and Section 4-6 of the document, which enumerates the “Powers and Duties” of the town administrator, committee members looked at the possibility of additionally granting selectmen the right to appoint the town’s finance director, as well as the police and fire chiefs.
That idea met with strong opposition from committee member and former selectman Judith W. Conron. Ms. Conron asked the committee to consider whether all of the changes being discussed, if actually implemented, would be tantamount to dismantling the town administrator form of government.
The committee members were in agreement, however, with the idea of recommending changes that would make “strong” police and fire chiefs. Stephen Mahoney, the committee member charged with looking at possible language in conjunction with that issue, suggested adding Sections 5-7 and 5-8 to the administrative section of the charter. Those sections would deal with the duties and responsibilities of the fire and police departments, respectively.
Mr. Mahoney said those sections could simply incorporate, by reference, the portions of state law describing a “strong” police chief and a “strong” fire chief, making them a part of Bourne’s charter. The committee could then provide a copy of that law for voters at Town Meeting so that they would know exactly what they were being asked to adopt in Bourne.
In other action, the charter review committee voted to recommend the language suggested by member William F. Rhatigan that would, if added to the charter, address what members thought would be a “hot issue”: whether any future town administrator needs to be a resident of Bourne.
Mr. Rhatigan and the majority of the committee agreed that the town administrator need not be a resident when hired, but had to establish legal residence in Barnstable, Bristol, or Plymouth counties within one year of being hired. The proposed language also, however, gave selectmen the right to extend the time beyond one year, or waive the requirement entirely, if they decided it was in the town’s best interest to do so.
Ms. Conron was the sole member present who voted against that language. Mr. Rhatigan said the language should create a strong preference for an administrator who lived in or near the town. Ms. Conron, however, wanted that preference to be stated explicitly in any recommended new charter language.
The committee also agreed that they would like see changes suggested by Ms. Conron that would create a body of sewer commissioners that is separate and distinct from the selectmen.
Selectmen now sit as sewer commissioners. If the changes being discussed by the charter review committee were to be adopted, the selectmen would need to appoint a separate commission no later than May 31, 2012.
That board of experts could then be asked by selectmen to look at sewer treatment and other wastewater issues across Bourne.
The newly revised charter could mandate that any new commission follow the applicable portions of the model sewer commission described in state law, Ms. Conron said. That law describes an appointed board whose members have the necessary qualifications to make technical recommendations. She volunteered to bring copies of that law to the next committee meeting, so that members could see what type of commission adopting it would create.
Ms. Conron also suggested finding a way to mandate that meetings of elected boards, such as the board of health and the planning board, be either televised or streamed on the town website, providing some needed “sunshine” to those proceedings.
Ms. Lorman said it would be difficult to mandate such a requirement, given that Comcast wants to discontinue running its current community television service, wondering whether such a requirement belongs in the charter. Members then discussed adding language that would allow those elected boards to conduct any scheduled meeting were technical difficulties to prevent a video recording from being made.
Members decided to consider the proposal further.
Committee member Malcolm P. McDowell recommended some charter language changes that committee members thought would make it easier for residents to understand what they needed to do to petition to place an article on the warrant for either the Annual or a Special Town Meeting. Committee members supported those changes.
While the committee members are currently making some decisions, they will be discussing those decisions with any stakeholders involved before they present their final recommendations to voters at Town Meeting.
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