Sunday, December 11, 2011

Southbridge Town Council - A Year in Review

Ken O’Brien

The last year has been a tumultuous one in Southbridge politics ("So what else is new?").

The year was marked by a major power shift on the town council as a result of a special election in February to fill the unexpired term of Councilor Laurent E. McDonald who passed away in November of 2010.

The election resulted in the councilorship of Larry Spinelli, widely perceived as the candidate of the Future of Southbridge coalition.

The power shift was consolidated in the June election which returned councilor Nikolla for her third term (and re-ascension to the chair) and the election of Darlene Marcucci and David Langevin, both of whom had served on the council in previous years. All of these were similarly viewed as the candidates of the same coalition.

Now, as 2011 comes to a close, and before the inevitable emergence of a new campaign season, it seems appropriate to review and analyze what the result of this shift in power has been on Southbridge's town council.

In my opinion the new council has been motivated by three primary objectives. These are:
1.To serve the interest of the Casella Waste Management operation (SRD), commonly referred to as the landfill.
2. To enhance and amplify the power of the town manager in contravention of the intent of the Southbridge Home Rule Charter adopted by the voters of Southbridge in June 2003.
3. To constrain and restrict the freedom of residents to voice opposition to the policies and will of the town administration and the council.

In support of these contentions I put forward the following facts:

1.To serve the interest of the Casella Waste Management operation (SRD), commonly referred to as the landfill.

First, there was the repeated effort to institute the "Smart Cart" program. Initially defeated before the June election it was raised again by the new council only to go down to defeat because of concerted public opposition.

Second, the proposed amendment to the Town Charter to change the composition of the Board of Health.

Third, the actions involved in the removal of Anne Beinema as a member of the Board of Health as well as the rumored notice by the town manager to Rinaldo Bernadone that he would not be renominated to the BOH. Both, of course, opposed the landfill site assignment.

Fourth, The institution of several new positions including a "recycling coordinator", a  "trash cop", and a special consultant. These are all intended to further a draconian bylaw provision that would fine citizens $250 to $300 for not conforming to trash collection dictates. The only other town bylaw with penalties like this are for a second violation of the sex offender residency bylaw. In October I set forward reasons why I believe these actions violate state law and local bylaws. I'm still waiting for a response despite the town attorney's promise to investigate the issue.

Fifth, The attempt to surreptitiously institute an Industrial Development Finance Authority. As has been pointed out, the enabling state law heavily favors landfill operators. The council thought that it had accomplished this until someone (i.e. me) pointed out to the town attorney that the council had failed to conform to the charter which requires that a bylaw must be read in its entirety before being voted upon. When the council had to vote again their ignorance of the consequences of the bylaw was amply demonstrated.

2. To enhance and amplify the power of the town manager in contravention of the intent of the Southbridge Home Rule Charter adopted by the voters of Southbridge in June 2003.

First, it is interesting to note that the copy of the town charter available on the town website omits the prologue by the original charter commission. In it they explicitly state that part of their intent was to weaken the power of the town manager and amplify that of the council.

Second, in considering the report of the charter review committee, the council proposed an amendment to change the following section of the Town Charter:

                      "4-6-1:Final removal of the manager shall be effected by a majority vote of the entire council (i.e., a minimum of 5 votes) at an open council meeting."
                      The Council proposes that the vote required to remove the Town Manager be increased from 5 to 6. However, Chapter 43 B of Mass. General laws states in Section 10:

                     " ...only a charter commission elected under this chapter may propose any change in a charter relating in any way to the composition, mode of election or appointment, or terms of office of the legislative body, the mayor or city manager, or the board of selectmen or town manager."

Third, in similar fashion The Council voted to amend the power of the Town Manager to
rescind appointments as they relate to quasi-judicial boards by deleting Section 4-4-2  of the
                            "4-4-1:The town manager shall have the power to rescind, subject to confirmation by the town council, for cause, including but not limited to excessive and un-excused absenteeism, incapacity other than temporary illness, inefficiency, insubordination or conduct unbecoming the officer, any appointment made by him or her to any board, commission, committee or individual office under the authority of this charter, provided that the appointee shall first have been served with written notice of the town manager’s intention specifying the reasons for the proposed removal  and informing the appointee of his or her right to be heard at a public hearing if requested.

           4-4-2: Said power shall not apply to quasi-judicial bodies as determined by the town attorney.

3. To constrain and restrict the freedom of residents to voice opposition to the policies and will of
the town administration and the council.

First, was their effort to redefine the right of citizens to speak at citizen's forum as well as the
time they were allowed to speak on agenda items. To some extent these were limited, but not
to the extent that they had desired.

Second was the effort to limit citizen access by holding a "Council of the Whole" meeting
out of town.

Third has been the incessant hectoring of citizens and non conformist councilors by the
council chair who has clearly stated that she has her mind made up on agenda items before
the council meeting. (That worked out well for you on the Industrial Development Finance
Authority debate, right Cathy?}

Now, I’m sure that there are those who will disagree with my assessment of what this council
has seen as their primary mission. For them I make the following suggestion. With kudos to
Amelia Peloquin for providing the resource, I suggest that you go to her blog, The Greater
Southbridge Project, and click on the link for Public Meeting Videos. This contains videos
for council meetings going back to July 25, 2011. Then, if you have the patience, watch
with a stopwatch, eliminate the pro forma (Pledge of Allegiance, Chairman’s
announcements, town manager’s announcements, committee reports, etc.) and see what
percentage of time is devoted to the matters upon which I’ve focused.

In closing this year-end review, I leave you with some selected quotes from the four
councilors elected this year back when they were running for council. I think they provide
a nice basis for an essay on irony.

OH, before I forget, they also increased your taxes. Let's see what happens to your water and sewer rates.

From the Southbridge Evening News of February 11, 2011
. ‘We need to cultivate our town again’

To Larry Spinelli, the Town Council really needs to become a role model for Southbridge, showing its members can respect differing opinions while promoting the value of service to the community. Although he admits he doesn’t always know a lot of
details of specific issues, he said if they come to the council, he’s willing to do serious research before deciding upon them. “I don’t want to pay a penny more [in property taxes] … but we have all of these things [community needs] that pull against us,” he said. Pledging to “look at every expenditure right down to the minute penny,” he noted budgeting isn’t a once-a-year-and-it’s-done issue — it’s something the council should watch all the time.

From the Southbridge Evening News of June 24, 2011
‘An awful lot of people’ have good ideas

“By definition, I’m a mouthpiece for the people of this community — all the people, not just little groups,” Nikolla said, summarizing how she sees her role. “… Help me do my job. Tell me what you really want, and some idea of how to get from point A to point B is
even better.”

We need small growth before big companies’

“We’ve been saying that for 15 years, but we’re not getting anywhere,” she admitted. But she also thinks there’s a solution — a small business incubator.

What’s key to making that happen, Marcucci observed, is “a brainstorming of the minds.” She suggested sending out community surveys with the annual town census simply seeking opinions regarding what people want Southbridge to look like in a few years, what small businesses they want, and related issues.

‘We have to be very business friendly’

Among other things, Langevin supports the idea of using TIFs (tax-increment
financing deals) to attract business investment, but to him that should require “living in
our community.” Similarly, he’d like to see the town “give an extra break” to residents
trying to start small companies, expand the Building Department, and create something akin to Putnam’s “Waterfire” events to attract people to town. The fact Southbridge has
begun attracting colleges — Quinsigamond, with Westfield State still in process — is a good building base, he noted. Once the new middle/high school opens, he sees a chance to put a “small college” in Wells Middle School or convert it to senior housing, while potentially making the current high school either residential space or leveling it to create parking. Getting to any of those, though, requires both listening to the town manager’s experience and giving him clear goals

One overlooked issue is the “huge, huge problem” of absentee landlords, he said. Especially when they own multifamily complexes, they are in fact “running a business, and they should be held accountable” financially when they fail to maintain the properties, he added.


  1. Just FYI, I'm somewhat behind on listing the meeting videos in the archives. You can see a more up to date list via the "Meeting Videos" category:

    Anyhow, thanks for the kudos. Digitizing & uploading each meeting typically takes about 6 hours, but I'm happy to do it if it means there are more people out there who are able to follow local issues as a result.

  2. Yet we keep electing them. Southbridge, time and again, gets the government it deserves.

  3. Stephanie J DeMartinoDecember 11, 2011 at 8:39 PM

    Good job. General Gov't meets on Wed. Dec. 12th, 7pm, Rice Conf room to go over the Cable dept's finalizing the three postions. Voting no again since I don't believe we need three jobs to video tape 4 meetings a month. My vote won't matter because I'm only one on a subcommittee.

  4. Great archeologically video find ! Enjoyed it,

    The Preacher - got screwed in the tornado relief effort.
    The Teacher - got screwed in the budget process.
    The Cable Access Director got screwed and now... the band no longer plays on.

  5. I welcome all comments that are civil. I think, however, that it is reasonable to ask those who wish to remain anonymous to use the OPEN ID option and employ a pseudonym. To simply call yourself "anonymous" creates confusion for those who wish to respond to your comments. Unfortunately I cannot control the options offered by Google, the sponsor of this website.

  6. Once again, another well done analysis provided by Ken O'Brien, one of our areas most prominent bearers of the proverbial torch of common sense.

  7. aka Jester

    I sense Deepak Chopra’s “The Law of Least Effort” taking root. Unfortunately, it appears to come at a high price.

  8. "The Preacher - got screwed in the tornado relief effort" don't even get me going on this topic again.....the "preacher" screwed US TORNADO VICTIMS by taking our much needed food and supplies donated to us by caring people and then completely lied to everyone about how it all happened. i was there every day of the whole incident....and the day the tractor trailer full of supplies that had been collected for 3 days at the CVS on route 20 arrived at the warehouse, he chose not to unload any of it for us, but to redirect it all to charities that he felt needed the donation more....and locked the doors to our warehouse without any warning. THEN when all we asked on numerous occasions was for a simple apology, he cried "poor me" on all the news stations. we are still waiting for that apology "preacher"

  9. Stephanie DeMartinoDecember 13, 2011 at 8:19 PM

    Sorry, I meant Wednesday Dec. 14th, 7pm. In looking at what they want to pay all three positions to start, it comes to 54k a year. The Cable Directors salary was 43k a year. I don't get it. Why would the town want to spend more money?


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