Collins Center contract approval contested

by Town Reminder

Officials worry over voter rights
By Kristin Will
Staff Writer

SOUTH HADLEY – Selectboard approval to sign a $10,000 contract with the Edward J. Collins Center for Public Management has some town officials and one board member worried about its effect on voter rights.
“I do not believe the Collins Center should be changing the way our elections go,” said Selectboard Member Marilyn Ishler Tuesday evening during the non-televised meeting. “Why is there such a rush [to sign the contract]? Why do we have to do it tonight when there’s no television?” she asked.
The Center was contacted following the departure of Paul Beecher as Town Administrator to assist the Selectboard in moving forward with filling the position. Richard Kobayashi, senior consultant for the center, met with the Selectboard Feb. 7, discussing the consulting services the Center could offer South Hadley.
At the same time, the Selectboard, in conjunction with the Appropriations Committee, has been reviewing and working to implement recommendations offered by the Department of Revenue [DOR] in a Financial Management Review completed by the Division of Local Services for the town in January of 2011. A Financial Policy Advisory Team [FINPAT] was created and tasked with implementing the report’s goals. In that report, the DOR found “opportunities to enhance financial operations,” including the establishment of a stronger town administrator position by giving him or her the authority to appoint and evaluate department heads, changing positions elected by voters to appointed ones and updating town bylaws.
The search for a town administrator has been put on hold in an effort to re-evaluate, with help from the Collins Center, the position as recommended by the DOR.
Included in the now-approved Collins Center contract is a plan for the Center and FINPAT to carry out the DOR recommendations regarding structural changing, including the conversion of elected positions, specifically the Town Clerk/Treasurer and Tax Collector, to those that are appointed. According to the contact’s scope of services, the Center will prepare a memorandum recommending “a course of action that will result in the conversion of currently elected financial positions to appointed positions” as well as a memorandum recommending a course of action “that will result in the strengthening of the position of the town administrator” and finally will prepare “a special act implementing the recommendations of the FINPAT.”
Additionally, the Center will assist in the preparation of a petition to the legislature to enact a special act. A special act would be required in order to apply the DOR recommendations.
“The residents must have the option to decide whether or not these positions should be appointed or elected,” said Ishler. “Has the Center done this to other communities? Why are we circumventing the voters? Has the AG’s [Attorney General] office looked at this?” she asked. Ishler requested the Selectboard wait one more week to discuss this contract at their next meeting, rather than during a meeting scheduled 30 minutes before an Appropriations Committee meeting. She made a motion to do so, but it was not seconded by any other member, and it subsequently failed.
William Schenker, a former town meeting member, told the Selectboard residents might think the board was circumventing the rights of people in town by approving the contract which would change elected positions to appointed without letting residents vote on the matter, leaving it solely up to Town Meeting to decide.
“It would be wise to wait,” he said. “You’re giving the impression of pushing it though whether you mean to or not.” Schenker emphasized he does not have a vested interest in the contract’s results. “But I think the people in town have a very strong feeling on this.”
Selectboard Chairman John Hine said the contract was not rushed and “has been in the works for several weeks.”
Schenker said, “You’d be wise to second Marilyn’s motion. I’m tired of listening to a lot of the coffee shop quarterbacks. [But] you do what you want – it’s your funeral.”
He said if the board had not yet spoken to Town Counsel Edward Ryan about the contract, they should do so. Selectboard Member Frank DeToma said, “It’s premature for him to be involved at this point.”
Finally, Ishler said, “We’re wasting a whole bunch of money to do something that could very well be used somewhere else.”
Selectboard Member Bruce MacCullagh said of the town contacting with Collins Center, “It’s a choice of FINPAT proceeding with knowledgeable advice or without knowledgeable advice.”
Town Clerk/Treasurer Carlene C. Hamlin said it was unfortunate this was going to hold up the process of hiring a town administrator. Of the Collins Center contract, she said, “Frankly, it usurps the voters’ rights by seeking special legislation, so then town meeting usurps the electoral.” In a phone interview Wednesday, she said, “I’m confused. I just don’t understand why we need to hire a consultant. I don’t disagree that the positions shouldn’t be appointed; I just don’t understand the process that’s being looked at. There’s just been no dialog with the Selectboard and current elected officials.”
To town officials concerned about the potential to have to apply for their current positions should the Selectboard approve FINPAT’s recommendations from these consultations with the Collins Center, Hine said, “There is nothing specific as to what is going to happen. There are no specifics developed. There is nothing – nothing – that has been decided at this point.”
The Selectboard approved of the contract, 4-1, with Ishler in opposition.