20 Aug 2014
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Lasser Report: CRC Recommendations

Selectman Howard Lasser on two of the Charter Revision Commission's recommendations.

Hopefully you know that the Board of Selectmen appointed a committee to review the Town’s Charter (our governing document). The Town is required by law to review the charter periodically. There were several things the Selectmen specifically asked that they review, though that in no way limits the scope of what they may look at.

The process requires this committee to hold at least two public hearings prior to making a preliminary report to the Selectmen. The Selectmen then have an opportunity to comment and ask for further review. After that, the committee must turn in its final report. All this must happen within a 16-month period. Once the Selectmen have the final report they must hold a public hearing and decide what will actually be presented to the voters, though the voters have the ability, through petition, to require any or all of the report to be voted on.

The Charter Revision Commission (CRC) . There are two key changes that I will comment on here and while I have some concerns I remain open minded about them.

Additionally, I have committed to the members of the Commission that I would not object to bring to the voters for their ultimate decision any recommendation that has been well thought out with sufficient rationale, where alternatives were considered and there is support for their recommendation as the best of the alternatives.

A Five member Board of Selectmen: The CRC is recommending the Board of Selectmen be expended from two to five members. I support this recommendation. It is my belief that the more people engaged in the decision making process the better the decision. 

Every other policy making Board and Commission in town has five or more members. Why? The Board of Selectmen is in most cases the legislative body of our Town. With three members, it only requires two votes to adopt ordinances that have a significant impact on our lives. A group of five, hopefully a more diverse group, would provide greater representation of multiple views and enhance the process by which we reach decisions. In my own readings of studies of decision making and organizational productivity, contrary to some suggestions, adding more people does not slow the process but makes it more efficient by ensuring issues are brought forward in a proactive way, considering more alternatives and providing a better foundation for their decisions.   

The other reason for adding members is a practical one. Under current state law, three members are restricted in their communication with each other. Since two of three members meeting would create a quorum, members from different political parties may not meet without posting a formal meeting notice 24 hours in advance. Although two members of the same party may meet they cannot have anyone else present.

What that means is that if two Selectmen want to discuss the budget and possible alternatives, even if it is only brainstorming, they cannot do it except in a formal meeting. While it is important that we not do anything that would reduce transparency in our government, this limitation reduces efficiencies and makes things take longer and complex issues are less fully discussed and understood than they would be otherwise.

A Town Manager: The CRC is recommending that our government would be enhanced by the addition of a Town Manager. A Town Manager would be a professional manager hired to take on the day-to-day management of operations of the Town.

Anyone who has run, or participated in running, a complex organization — and make no mistake a municipality is a complex organization — knows and understands there is a distinction between executive functions and operational functions. Whether it is in the military, government or industry there are clear distinctions between leading and managing, between setting policy and ensuring that practice is consistent with that policy. 

There is no question in my mind that, whether you call it an Operations manager, a Chief Operating Officer or a Town Manager, Brookfield would benefit from having the constancy of a professional manager overseeing the day to day operations as well as managing the many long-term projects. 

As we have grown and the challenges we take on — buildings, water lines and other infrastructure — become more complex and take years to complete, often over multiple terms of office spanning several First Selectmen terms the opportunity for problems because of poor communication from one administration to the next or one commission to another become magnified, impacting the timing and most likely the cost of those projects.

I do however, have some concerns. I raise these, not to cast doubt on the CRC’s recommendations but to open a dialog and perhaps guide my own judgment as the process moves forward. While there is no doubt (at least for me) that a professional operations manager will enhance the functioning of town hall and improve on services to the community, I wrestle with my own feeling that we need a full time elected executive, the people’s representative, to ensure their interests are paramount. I am concerned that a Board of Selectmen that dedicates only a few hours a month will not be as effective in that representation and will grow to rely too much on the professional and fail to challenge him/her or themselves when necessary. 

I note that many have said of this and prior administrations that our First Selectmen and Selectmen have failed in this responsibility even though the First Selectmen were full time employees. In fact, I think the constant seesawing of capabilities and competencies of elected representatives is part of the underlying rationale for bringing the constancy of a professional manager.

I realize no system is perfect and frankly I have no solution to my quandary. So I invite you to share your thoughts with me as I continue to learn and inform my judgment.

Thanks for reading,
Howard

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