Selectmen Should Not Have Control Over Public Safety Chiefs, FinCom Says
By: Diana T. Barth
Bourne Finance Committee members voted unanimously on Monday not to support proposed charter changes that would give selectmen the right to hire and fire Bourne’s police and fire chiefs, saying those changes would give too much direct control over those departments to the town’s policy setters.
The charter must be reviewed at least every five years. This year’s charter review committee is the second one to recommend changes since the town’s first charter was given final approval in an April of 2001 town election. Its proposals will come before voters at the upcoming May 2 Town Meeting.
FinCom member Elinor D. Ripley called the changes involving public safety, which make the chiefs responsible to the board of selectmen, “a step backward.” Ms. Ripley said the proposal would “open the door” to involving selectmen in the day-to-day operation of the two departments.
Other FinCom members said the proposals would make it difficult for the town administrator, whoever might fill that office, to supervise those departments.
The proposed change to the selectmen’s appointing powers under the charter is as follows: “The Board of Selectmen shall appoint the Police Chief pursuant to M.G.L. Chapter 41:Section 97A and Fire Chief pursuant to M.G.L. Chapter 48:Section 42.”
Selectmen now only have appointing authority over the town administrator, town counsel, registrars of voters, constables, and members of all multi-member bodies for whom no other appointment provision is made in the charter or by bylaw.
FinCom members felt that the proposed wording, in combination with the language explicitly taking that control away from the town administrator, would increase selectmen’s control over the police and fire chiefs beyond that which was granted that board in the original charter.
In commenting on FinCom’s recommendation to indefinitely postpone the article, James A. Mulvey of Buzzards Bay suggested that the committee simply recommend against the proposal.
Recommending indefinite postponement, he said, would open the floor to continued discussion and the need for a fall-back position were that recommendation to fail.
FinCom Chairman Michele W. Ford assured Mr. Mulvey that FinCom’s reasoning would be heard at Town Meeting.
The committee’s vote came on the heels of last Friday’s decision by Town Counsel Robert S. Troy that it would be permissible to split the proposed Bourne Charter changes into separate Town Meeting warrant articles.
Mr. Troy had been asked for his opinion after last week’s FinCom meeting, when members suggested that the controversial public safety control issue be separated from the rest of the proposed changes.
One of three charter articles now coming before voters in May will contain all of the housekeeping changes, correcting typographical errors and the like. FinCom members voted unanimously, 9 to 0, to support that article.
Another would contain the police and fire chief proposal that FinCom members voted to recommend be indefinitely postponed.
The last article would contain all of the other proposals made by this year’s charter review committee.
FinCom was set to vote on that article when member William F. Grant raised a question regarding the advisability of one of those changes, one that would allow selectmen to appoint a separate board of sewer commissioners.
That provision suggested, but did not mandate, the adoption of the state law describing a model board of sewer commissioners.
Mr. Grant and Buzzards Bay resident James A. Mulvey, who spoke from the audience, both said that they thought an elected board would be better for the town. If the sewer commissioners would be able to recommend, for example, a multi-million dollar waste treatment plant for one area of town, that board should be responsible to the electorate, both men said.
After listening to their comments, Fin Com members decided to defer a vote on the article containing that provision until they were able to invite the members of the charter review committee in to discuss the reasoning behind their recommendation.
This week’s vote on the charter articles governing the fire chief and police chief and the one addressing housekeeping matters will allow FinCom’s recommendation to be incorporated into Spring Town Meeting’s Voter’s Handbook.
The recommendations made after this week will have to be communicated to the voters from Town Meeting floor.
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