A wide range of issues relative to the Bourne town charter was addressed by the town’s Charter Review Committee during a lengthy discussion with Bourne Town Administrator Anthony E. Schiavi.
Mr. Schiavi was interviewed for an hour and a half during a remote Zoom meeting on Wednesday last week, January 13, offering his recommendations for potential charter changes. One change discussed at length was the language relative to the Bourne police and fire chiefs.
Mr. Schiavi noted that the charter language provides both department heads with “strong chief” authority. As a strong chief, each person enjoys absolute control over their departments and staff.
That level of authority, Mr. Schiavi said, conflicts with the language in the charter for the town administrator, who enjoys similar “strong administrator” status. He noted that the charter’s directive, relative to the town administrator, states that “the daily administration of the affairs of the town shall be the responsibility of the town administrator only.”
The charter imbues the administrator with responsibility over all town employees in all town departments. However, descriptions of the police and fire departments, he said, contain “a meshing of Mass General Laws” that creates a conflict with the strong town administrator setup.
“I think that needs to get—frankly, in my mind, needs to—get taken out,” he said.
Mr. Schiavi said the language in the town charter for the fire chief in particular was troublesome. He pointed out the section that gives the fire chief “full and absolute authority in the administration of the fire department” and allows the chief to “make all rules and regulations for its operation.” Such language, he said, has caused problems.
“Essentially, what that creates is a department that’s become an island,” he said. “There’s no oversight there.”
Mr. Schiavi said he did not have as much of an issue with the section pertinent to the police chief. That section, he said, makes the town administrator the appointing authority for all police officers. Also, the chief may make suitable regulations governing the police department and its officers, “subject to approval of the town administrator.”
However, Mr. Schiavi still had a problem with the section that gives the police chief complete authority over the officers, their equipment and the running of the department. He reiterated that the strong chief language is in conflict with other sections of the charter, specifically the responsibilities of the town administrator.
Mr. Schiavi allowed for the possibility that, even given the language currently in the charter, there might never be a problem between the administrator and either chief. He was bringing it to the committee’s attention, he said, because “it provides the opportunity” that could happen.
Mr. Schiavi said he was not looking to make the town administrator responsible for running either the police or fire department. He asserted that the department’s day-to-day operations are the chiefs’ responsibility. He said he was looking to ensure that the town administrator is able to carry out the “very specific and important duties over every department.”
The issue of strong chief versus weak chief was raised five years ago during the last review of the town charter. Former Bourne Fire Chief Norman P. Sylvester argued back then that Massachusetts General Law provides a strong chief with singular authority over a fire department.
Chief Sylvester said at the time that, according to his contract, he was hired under the provisions of that state law, which granted him “full and absolute authority in the administration of his department.” Former Bourne Police Chief Dennis R. Woodside concurred with Chief Sylvester about the strong chief status accorded both men in their contracts, but he did not offer an opinion on whether the charter should be changed.
The change in charter language was amended and approved at Bourne Town Meeting in 2016.
Last week, committee member Anne-Marie Siroonian commented that the sections pertaining to the police and fire chiefs were “somewhat of a red flag for the committee as well.” She concurred with Mr. Schiavi’s assessment of the discrepancy in language between the town administrator’s authority versus that of the police and fire chiefs.
“The charter needs to be very much a cohesive tool,” Ms. Siroonian said, “not just in the functioning of it but also in the language.”
Other sections of the charter that Mr. Schiavi opined on included those pertaining to the Bourne Department of Public Works and the Department of Integrated Solid Waste Management. Both sections acknowledge the Bourne Board of Selectmen’s role in assigning various department functions.
However, according to the charter, the selectmen are not to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the town. Similarly, the charter grants the selectmen authority to establish departmental priorities and policies, Mr. Schiavi said.
Both sections suggest selectmen participation in the daily operations of the town, he said. He suggested that as other sections of the charter changed over time, those sections may have been overlooked, and no one questioned whether the language matched what was in the section on the selectmen’s responsibilities.
Committee chairman Stephen F. Mealy asked if Mr. Schiavi was comfortable with the timeline stipulated in the budget for creating and presenting the annual town budget. The town administrator said he was not.
The charter gives a mid-January date for the town administrator to present the new budget. The budget is then handed off to the board of selectmen, who must approve it by February 1 for subsequent handoff to the Bourne Finance Committee.
Mr. Schiavi suggested giving the board of selectmen more time to work on the budget by taking back some of the time the Bourne Finance Committee is given under the charter. He pointed out that the budget belongs to the board of selectmen.
“They’re the ones that are presenting that to Town Meeting,” he said, “and I feel that they should have more time with the budget.”
Mr. Schiavi did not offer a specific stance on whether the position of Bourne Town Clerk should be changed from an elected to an appointed position. He did suggest that the charter not be too specific relative to the responsibilities of the assistant town administrator, arguing that the duties of that position should be flexible. He also spoke in favor of setting term limits for board and committee members.
“I don’t think it hurts anything,” he said. “It provides a changeover, different points of view, different ideas, things don’t become stale,” he said, adding that forced turnover can better the community.
The charter review committee plans to complete its analysis of the town charter in time for the spring Annual Town Meeting in May. The committee first submits a report to the selectmen. It is then presented to residents at Town Meeting to vote on adoption of all or parts of the recommended changes.
The result of the Town Meeting vote is then reviewed and ultimately adopted by the state Legislature. If the group is not finished with its work in time for Annual Town Meeting, its results will be presented at Special Town Meeting in the fall.