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Power struggle between Select Board, town manger heats up meeting

Date: 6/12/2014

By Chris Maza

LONGMEADOW – Town Manager Stephen Crane’s two and a half hour performance review on June 4 became a discussion of more than just that, rather, it often times devolved into conflict and raised voices over the division of power between the Select Board and town manager.

The review, which was open to the public and broadcast on Longmeadow Cable Access Television and livestreamed online through the town’s website, illustrated the growing divide centered around opposing views on the roles and responsibilities of the town manager and the Select Board.

After the meeting, Dr. Rebecca Townsend, who served as clerk of the Charter Commission, told Reminder Publications that attitudes must change in several areas.

“As a communications professor, I pay attention to the way people talk to one another and I see just so much resentment there,” she said. “It depends on the attitudes of everyone involved. If everyone wants to make things work, they will find a way to do that. If they find that the relationship is unsalvageable and that this other person is not the right person, then they are not going to put a lot of effort into making things better.”

Crane was hired after the board voted 4-1 in his favor after two previous unsuccessful attempts to find a replacement for former Town Manager Robin Crosbie. A brief deadlock occurred when Selectmen Mark Gold and Paul Santaniello initially voted for another candidate, Edward Gil De Rubio. By the charter, at least four members must vote for a town manager to be chosen, so Gold eventually changed his vote to end the deadlock.

In April 2013, with a salary of $105,000, Crane took over for Barry Del Castilho, who was chosen as acting town manager after the second failed attempt to fill the full-time position. Del Castilho had also assisted in drafting the charter in 2003.

At the June 4 meeting, the Select Board voted to establish an improvement plan for Crane in which his progress in areas deemed unsatisfactory by an average of the members’ evaluation scores would be evaluated in 30, 60 and 90 days. He also received a 4 percent raise.

Improved attitudes toward each other, Townsend said, was important, but attitudes toward the charter and the intentions of the Charter Commission also need adjusting.

Townsend was one of three members of the Charter Commission who previously penned a letter to the Select Board criticizing Selectman Alex Grant’s opinion piece in a local publication in which he suggested that the current board, and those before it, did not embrace the “strong town manager” form of government established by the commission and voted upon by residents.

After Crane’s evaluation, Townsend was once again critical of the Select Board’s attitudes toward the position, stating the level of involvement they seek is not supported by the charter.

“The board sets the vision of how the town is to be run and the town manager implements that vision. The level of detail or specifics in operations is not within the Select Board’s purview,” she said. “That level of detail is what they were used to in the old system. That is a major sticking point, I think. The level of detail that some of the Select Board members still see as their rights or obligations to the voters just are not there. Historically, the Select Board has been used to a tighter level of control of the operations.”

When asked directly if in her opinion members of the Select Board had attempted to supersede their responsibilities and inject themselves in town manager operations, she said they had, citing Gold’s comments during the meeting when he said, “Do we micromanage? Yeah, we do at times.” Gold went on to explain that micromanaging occurs when “we need to understand what’s going on because we’re being asked questions and we need to be able to answer the questions that we’re asked.”

Townsend said, “He answered the question for you. The Select Board is not supposed to be micromanaging. When you admit that you micromanage a town manager, you are overstepping your boundaries.”

She also criticized Gold’s assertions in the assessment meeting that the board should be involved in the budgeting process, stating that that goes against language of the charter that states that budget preparation is the responsibility of the town manager.

“Everyone on the Charter Commission, even the dissenter who voted against the proposed charter, agreed that this new process was a great improvement over the previous one and an excellent set of procedures,”?she said.

Santaniello has previously objected to any assertions that the board has violated the charter and did so again at the June 4 meeting, accusing Crane of “playing the victim.”

He told Crane, “We have a role and responsibility as a Select Board and none of those responsibilities were given up under the charter, except those defined in the charter. Under Massachusetts General Law, we still have roles and responsibilities to the safety of this town, to the residents and so forth.”

One of the Select Board’s major criticisms of Crane voiced in the meeting and in the written evaluation was what they perceived to be a lack of communication. Every member of the board raised this issue at least once.

“Operating in a silo was one of the problems cited by the Charter Commission as to why we needed a strong town manager form of government. I don’t think they ever envisioned that the town manager would create a silo in which to operate,” one selectman wrote in their evaluation. Selectmen’s names were not included in the written evaluation.

Grant was among those who said during the meeting that the current relationship was not a “satisfactory supervisory” one, but Crane said the board’s supervision over him was limited to policy issues. Grant equated the charter to the U.S. Constitution, stating it was a “bare document” and open to interpretation.

“It’s a very hazy line and to say anything with complete certainty where one form of power ends and the other begins is very hazardous,” he said.

Crane later continued to defend his understanding of the charter. “The essence of working together and being the executive branch [as the Select Board] is understanding what everybody’s role and responsibility is and I’m going to follow this,” he said, holding up a copy of the charter.

Townsend agreed that the town manager and Select Board were not meant to be “completely divorced from one another and they’re intended to work together,” but added that does not allow the Select Board to insert itself into matters that should be handled by Crane.

“We had wanted one person in charge of personnel and other operational functions of the government because in Charter Commission research, we found that it was the administration of government that was not efficient, effective or responsive to town needs and, in fact, causing us problems,” she said. “Now we have someone who is trained, educated and experienced in preparing a budget and dealing with personnel matters and there has to be some degree of trust to say, ‘Here, town manager, we trust that you will do a good job and we will check in with you periodically and we expect that you will report things that are significant.’”

Charter Commission Chair Roger Wojcik and Del Castilho were not available for comment.