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Charter Commission pens criticism of Select Board

Date: 2/13/2014

By Chris Maza

LONGMEADOW – Members of the Charter Commission, which developed the guidelines for the town’s current form of government, recently sent a letter criticizing the Select Board for its recent behavior and accused it of not following the town charter.

The commission specifically took aim at Selectman Alex Grant, who recently wrote an opinion piece for a local media outlet in which he outlined the board’s involvement in the application of grants associated with the Green Community designation bestowed on the town on Dec. 18, 2013.

He wrote that the Select Board had historically not embraced the strong town manager form of government since it was established in the charter and the current board followed suit.

“This flat-out flouting of the law is wrong. The citizens of the town need to understand that their government is not just the officials’ plaything; rather, it belongs to them,” the letter read. “The citizens called for a new structure, and it is the officials’ job to see that that law is followed.”

The letter later continues by stating that the “pattern of behavior exhibited at the Select Board meetings indicates that this reminder is warranted,” and indicates it has been an ongoing issue.

“The frequent insertion of Select Board members into town management functions has been occurring for years. What compels us to comment is the recent statement by one Select Board member that explicitly acknowledges this practice, but boldly stands for it as its prerogative,” the letter states.

The commission stressed that the town’s charter calls for a strong town manager to act as the primary administrative officer and to oversee the management of town departments.

“Several years ago the town voted in favor of this major change in governmental structure to cure persistent problems stemming from dueling department heads and an overall lack of administrative oversight,” the letter read. “It’s disheartening to see the need to remind the town’s Select Board about the differences in duties and powers outlined in Article 5 and Article 3 on town manager and Select Board.”

Select Board Chair Marie Angelides said at the board’s Feb. 3 meeting she found the discussion particularly appropriate because of recent debates among members of the board on where certain responsibilities fell.

“I’ve been on the board for three years and I know that it’s always been a border we’ve tried to not cross,” she said, adding that in the future the board would be vigilant in protecting the charter. Grant, however, rejected the accusations within the letter.

“As someone who took an oath to not only follow the law, but to uphold the law, I take that quite seriously,” he said. “I would reject the notion that anything at least that I have done was, as seems to be suggested, intentionally not following the law. I don’t think that’s the question here. I think the question is, ‘What is the law and how is the charter to be interpreted?’”

Citing his legal background as a federal prosecutor, he said he disagreed with the commission’s reading of the charter, pointing out that the Select Board is the executive branch of the town government; therefore meaning the town manager is not the chief executive officer of the town.

“If we’re going to have a mayor, then we ought to elect a mayor,” he said. “We’re not going to have an un-elected CEO.”

He went on to say that he and the commission were in agreement that the current board was not the only one to operate in the manner commission members were criticizing.

“Quite frankly, I think my reading of the charter and the reading that has been traditionally given is better than the one given by these letter writers,” he said.

Selectmen Paul Santaniello and Mark Gold criticized Angelides’ decision to openly discuss the matter, which was not on the published agenda.

“Our correspondence section [of the agenda] has been intended to have letters we receive that are public record go on the public record. That is the intent of the correspondence,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the obligation or the past practices of the Select Board to respond to every letter we get, especially when those letters are addressed to the Select Board asking for an answer from the Select Board when in fact we have five individuals. Until such time as we can take a vote as a Select Board, we can’t answer as the Select Board in a single letter and that’s why we don’t do that.

“We’re going down a slippery slope if every letter that comes to the Select Board requires a discussion and an answer by the entire Select Board,” Gold continued.

Addressing the commission’s letter, Gold said he felt it was unfair that the board was being “broad brushed” because of the writings of an individual member.

“I don’t think it’s Select Board business, very honestly, for us to address a letter that responds to an opinion piece in the Longmeadow News,” he said, adding he felt the proper thing to do would be to write a response to that publication, which he said he did.

Selectman Richard Foster also said he took exception to the notion that the board was willfully breaking the law.