Archive for February 2012

Delegation, Oversight, and the Duxbury Town Manager Act

By William F. Zachmann for the Duxbury Clipper

Using the Duxbury Town Manager Act to prevent transparency in the conduct of Town government is even more pernicious than perverting the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law to close meetings and avoid discussion of topics a majority of the Board of Selectmen prefers not to discuss. Both are fundamental violations of the basic rights of citizens and taxpayer to know exactly what is being done on their behalf and with their money.

In this instance it take the form of claims that because the Town Manager Act delegates certain responsibilities to a “professional Town Manager” it is therefore improper not only for citizens but for the Board of Selectmen as well to inquire into the details of the management of Town government. To do so it is said (or at least implied) is improper and maybe even illegal. To do so, it is claimed, is a wrongful and illegitimate attempt to “micromanage” or to “second guess” our Town Manager.

Such claims are as logically absurd as they are legally baseless. The Board of Selectmen appoints the Town Manager and can legally remove him at any time according to the statute. Moreover the Act specifically reads: “The Board of Selectmen shall exercise, through the town manager, general supervision over all matters affecting the interests or welfare of the town.”

In short, the ultimate authority resides with the Board of Selectmen, as the executive, on behalf of the citizen of Duxbury and not with the Town Manager. The Town Manager Act formalizes the office of Town Manager and the delegation to him of the roles of chief administrative officer and chief financial officer of the Town. But delegation is not abdication. The Town Manager reports to and is responsible to the Board of Selectmen who in fact control him far more than they admit.

So there can be no question of impropriety (let alone illegality) concerning any inquiry from a duly elected member of the Board of Selectmen for information about any aspect of the operation of Town Government under the administration of the Town Manager. Such inquiries are not only legitimate, but are a clear responsibility of the Board of Selectmen as the ultimate authority for the “general supervision over all matters affecting the interests of welfare of the town.”

For that matter, any and all such inquiries are equally proper and legitimate coming from any citizen, voter, and taxpayer in the Town of Duxbury. This is an essential part of the transparency of government operation required to ensure that citizens have full and unencumbered access to information on how their government is run and how their tax dollars are spent. We have a right to know and we should not permit our elected representatives to deny us such information.

So the majority of the Board of Selectmen should stop playing games and stop trying wrongly to use the Open Meeting Law and the Town Manager Act as excuses to restrict information and avoid discussion of uncomfortable topics they prefer to avoid. “The truth never hurts,” it is said, “unless it ought to.” Hiding the truth however always hurts more, in the end.

 

Open Meeting Law Myths Debunked

By William F. Zachmann for the Duxbury Clipper

If you believed what some members of the Board of Selectmen have claimed about the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law over the past year, you might think it really ought to be called the “Closed Meeting Law” instead. This began with the ridiculous assertion that the latest revision of the Open Meeting Law required the Selectmen to drop the “Open Forum” item that for over two decades have provided citizens with an opportunity to bring up any issues of concern to them from the agenda. It did not.

More recently it was claimed, by Chairman Shawn Dahlen and Selectman Ted Flynn, that Selectmen, Chris Donato, was “in possible violation” of the Open Meeting Law because he tried to discuss an item that Dahlen did not want to discuss. Their dark mutterings about possibly filing ethics complaints against Donato for his supposed transgressions were duly and uncritically echoed in some local press reports.

Donato, however, was in violation of nothing. In fact, if anyone should be charged with transgressions, Dahlen and Flynn should be charged with intentionally misrepresenting the Open Meeting Law in an attempt to turn it from what it is meant to be, a measure to insure greater transparency in local government, into a means to obscure matters, to muzzle discussion, and to stifle debate of topics they just do not want to talk about.

The intent of the law is to ensure deliberations of government bodies do not take place in back rooms and behind clothes doors. It requires posting of an agenda that includes topics that the chairman “reasonably expects” to come up for discussion during the meeting. It does not, however, forbid bringing up or discussing topics that are not explicitly on the agenda, as Dahlen and Flynn recently claim. To the contrary, guidelines on the Massachusetts Attorney General’s web site explicitly state:

“May a public body list a section for “New Business” to cover topics which come up for the first time at the meeting in the meeting notice?

“Yes, this category may be used for topics that the Chair did not reasonably anticipate for discussion when filing the meeting notice to be posted. Some public bodies use this to category for their public comment or open forum periods. The best practice would be to explicitly state in the notice that the time is being reserved for topics that the chair did not reasonably anticipate would be discussed.”

There should regularly be both an “Open Forum” at the start of each meeting of the Board of Selectman as well as a “New Business” section toward the end of it, to ensure that the meeting really is open to the discussion of all matters of concern or interest to Duxbury’s citizens.

Dahlen and Flynn owe Chris Donato an apology. Duxbury’s citizens and taxpayers should make it very clear to the Board of Selectmen that twisting the Open Meeting Law into a tool to keep meetings closed and to avoid discussion of controversial topics is not acceptable behavior on the part of our elected representatives. We deserve better than that!