Voters To Settle Matter Of Who Hires, Fires Public Safety Chiefs
By: Diana T. Barth
Sentiment on the Bourne Finance Committee, and in the wider community, is divided over the proposed change to the Bourne charter that would return the hiring and firing of the town’s police and fire chiefs to selectmen.
FinCom members heard the presentation of Bourne Charter Review Committee Chairman John A. Johnson on Monday, and recommended that the proposed change to Bourne’s charter be spelled out in a separate May Town Meeting warrant article. If the issues were to be addressed separately, FinCom members said, any action on that one proposal would not affect the town’s vote on the rest of the proposed changes.
One of those changes the charter review committee is recommending is that selectmen set a wide variety of policies and publish them in a policy book that would be available to everyone from the town administrator to the public at-large.
A discussion of that proposed change started the conversation regarding selectmen’s duty to set policy, as opposed to becoming mired in day-to-day town affairs.
FinCom member Hal DeWaltoff Jr. said selectmen should not be making policy for specific departments, something he thought would be “confusing and bad for the town.” He did not want to see selectmen interfering in the relationship between the town administrator and the departments.
FinCom’s Glenn Galusha worried that “policy” might become so narrowly defined as to allow selectmen to direct the percentage of salary increases to be put on the bargaining table during union negotiations, as opposed to giving the administrator broader guidelines.
Former selectman Judith W. Conron, a member of the charter review committee, said Town Counsel Robert S. Troy told her group that policy was what selectmen wanted for the town. If selectmen wanted, for example, a “drug testing” policy, they could set one.
Ms. Conron said she did not think selectmen would make ill-considered or “frivolous” policies. If they did, one FinCom member noted, they could be voted out.
Mary Jane Mastrangelo said she wanted to see selectmen generate more policy, as does the school committee, which sets policies for everything from district budget priorities to bee stings on school grounds. If Bourne’s town administrator had written policies to work from, that job would be easier, adding that if the administrator takes action in the absence of such policies, that person could be hung for it, and that could be unfair.
When the discussion reached the issue of returning the duty of hiring and firing the police and fire chiefs to selectmen, the discussion of how far selectmen’s actions should impinge on the day-to-day running of the town continued.
“I think it’s five steps backward,” FinCom member Elinor D. Ripley said of the proposal.
Mr. DeWaltoff agreed. “Quite frankly, we’ve had some horrendous boards,” he said of the past, going on to say he thought it was “irresponsible” to take the duty of hiring and firing of the public safety chiefs away from the administrator, but asking him to retain supervisory authority over those department heads.
Another FinCom member noted that for the majority of the time that selectmen had that hiring authority, they held full-time positions and ran the town day-to-day.
With the passage of the first charter a little more than 10 years ago, that changed.
Last year, town counsel noted that the current charter, as amended in 2007, tipped the balance of power slightly in favor of the administrator. Some of the suggested changes that had been made by members of that committee were designed to encourage selectmen to exercise their powers through policy, and leave the day-to-day administration to the hired professional.
One of the objections to the change involved the possibility that allowing selectmen to hire police and fire chiefs would inject political considerations into those decisions. In response to that, Mr. Johnson said that politics is not necessarily a dirty word.
The charter changes coming before voters in May also include a proposal to adopt the state law creating “strong” police and fire chiefs, respectively. Those provisions allow each of those chiefs more internal control over their departments, including over the hiring and firing of personnel.
At the end of Monday’s discussion, members of FinCom and of the charter review committee were in agreement that the proposed changes regarding police and fire chiefs should be addressed separately at Town Meeting.
As of Wednesday, Town Administrator Thomas M. Guerino had asked town counsel whether a new article could be created at this late date in the process, the warrant having already been closed.
If not, someone would have to stand up on Town Meeting floor and ask that the charter article be split, so that the issues might be addressed separately, something that Ms. Conron recalled was technically difficult to do and was not successful in 2005, the last time charter changes were put before voters.
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