[Editor’s Note: In this article Amelia Peloquin responds to Question number 1, indicating she plans to respond to other questions at a later time.]
1. What is your position on the Town Council's proposed amendments to the Southbridge Home Rule Charter?
Suffice to say, as a follower of local government, I didn't like the Council's handling of the Charter Review Committee's work. On balance, as a voter, I will not be supporting most of the ballot questions. The fate of the Southbridge Home Rule Charter is the biggest local issue I've spent time dealing with this year. I've written about this topic extensively, and you are welcome to read my work here:
I actually felt strongly enough about this issue that I went to the State House on February 29 to talk about my problems with the Southbridge Charter change legislation (H.3900) at its hearing in front of the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government. There is a video of this hearing available on YouTube:
The one unified bill (H.3900) has since morphed into eleven different bills. The controversial Section 2-2-2 revision regarding financial qualifications for Town Council candidates lingers in the original bill (apparently in legal limbo) while nine other proposed charter revisions were pulled out and made into separate bills. And curiously enough, there's a new bill that came straight from Rep. Durant, that seems nearly identical to the 2006 special legislation amending our charter to specify that Southbridge is legally a town, but exempted from Ch 40, Section 32 of the MGL. (http://www.malegislature.gov/Laws/SessionLaws/Acts/2006/Chapter5)
Here's the breakdown of the charter change legislation, with links to each individual bill:
H.3900: An Act relative to the charter of the Town of Southbridge
Unless I'm mistaken, the only charter change proposal left behind in this bill was Section 2-2-2, pertaining to financial qualifications to ballot access for Town Council candidates. From what I've heard, the House Counsel is not sure as to whether or not this Charter change proposal would be legal under the MGL.
From a civil liberties perspective, I would not support this charter change provision whether or not the House Counsel decides it would be permissible under state law. Every citizen over the age of 18 has the right to vote, and every voter has the right to run. As an American, this is something that's deeply important to me in terms of my core values.
Generally speaking, I think ballot access (and election law in general) should be regulated at the state level, because these are incredibly important issues that are central to the democratic process that we rely on to have a functional system of government. As such, they deserve a higher level of regulatory oversight. Besides, remember what happened in Quartzsite, AZ? Link:http://www.statebrief.com/briefblog/2011/03/23/town-council-eliminates-competition-with-im proper-election-rules/
I am hesitant to think local politics in Southbridge would improve with the introduction of a policy that could arguably be subject to the manipulation or abuse of local officials who seek to limit competition in local elections. I'm comfortable with the idea of trusting voters to make the right choices.
H.4039: An Act exempting the town of Southbridge from attorney general approval of by-laws.
As I mentioned above, I'm not really sure why this bill has been filed. It seems intended to do the same thing as the 2006 Session Law, An Act Relative to the Charter of the Town of Southbridge
That being said, what's the deal with this law, anyhow? One of the many things that bothers me about our current charter is that we're some sort of strange hybrid between a city and a town. It causes a lot of confusion for a lot of people. We're a town, with a city form of government, ruled by state laws that apply to towns, except the attorney general is not required to review our by-laws? Why on Earth not? Just because we have a Council for a legislative body as opposed to a Town Meeting doesn't mean our by-laws are particularly well-written as a result. If you sit down and read our controversial trash by-law, for example, you will see that it's written in such a way that it doesn't even make sense. If we had the advantage of state oversight of our by-laws, perhaps they would be more well-written.
H.4040: An Act relative to non-councilors on committees in the town of Southbridge.
I don't have a strong opinion on this one. Voters, vote as you wish.
H.4042: An Act relative to the prohibition on multiple appointments to quasi-judicial boards in the town of Southbridge.
Again, in a general sense, I don't have a strong opinion on this one. That being said, it is widely stated by members of the community that this proposed Charter change is targeted at a particular local citizen who is currently serving terms as both a Liquor Board member and a Board of Health member. If this is true, it really rubs me the wrong way. I don't like the idea of changing our Town's constitution because there's a guy out there that a few people on the Council don't like.
H.4041: An Act relative to the removal of the vice chairperson of the council of the town of Southbridge.
I would support this, because it brings the removal process of Vice Chair position in line with that of the chair. There is currently no removal process for the Vice Chair specified in the current Charter.
H.4043: An Act relative to the addition of members to the Board of Health in the town of Southbridge.
Can of Worms, aisle three. Why is there a proposed Charter change to a five member appointed Board of Health in the works, when the Town Manager, Town Attorney and a majority of the Councilors already claim that a five-member Board of Health is currently legal?
At the October 3 Town Council meeting, I advocated for a move to an elected Board of Health, whether it be 3 or 5. The Council subsequently voted 5-4 to send the question of a five member elected Board of Health to the voters. But then, on October 24th, Councilor Regis moved to rescind her vote, and the council voted to send a five member appointed Board of Health to the voters. As Gus Steeves wrote in his October 24 editorial, entitled "Let Elected BOH Go To Voters" a ballot question as to whether the Health Board should be elected or appointed, along with a followup question as to whether it should be 3 or 5 members, would be the most legitimate way of putting an end to the ongoing Board of Health controversy.
I personally feel very strongly that the Board of Health (and any quasi-judicial board, for that matter) should have a number of sitting members that is in line with what is directly specified under the Charter. I believe it's a misinterpretation of our Charter to consider the Town Manager as having the power to change the number of people on a board under the reorganization provisions if the number of board members is specifically listed in the Charter. (See Section 4-5-1, "subject to...the terms of this Charter") It requires a Charter change, which explains the existence of H.4043: An Act relative to the addition of members to the Board of Health in the town of Southbridge.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'm one of the 21 citizens on the 3 vs. 5 Board of Health lawsuit. If this issue is still not resolved by the end of June, I will file appropriate disclosures with the Ethics Commission and recuse myself from any Council votes relating to the suit.
H.4044: An Act relative to the appointment of the liquor licensing board in the town of Southbridge.
I don't have a strong opinion as to whether or not the Liquor Board and the Conservation Commission have the same number of seats.
H.4045:An Act relative to the rescission of appointments to quasi-judicial bodies in the town of Southbridge.
I am opposed to this Charter change. The people who wrote our Charter put Section 4-4-2 there for a reason: it's an important check on the Town Manager position. Quasi-judicial boards should not be subordinate to the Town Manager position--they're independent entities whose decisions are legally binding, and as such, they need to be able to operate outside of the Town Manager's sphere of influence.
H.4046: An Act relative to the removal of the manager of the town of Southbridge.
I am opposed to this Charter change. The Town Manager's job is to do the day-to-day work of running the Town in such a way that the majority of the Council approves of his performance. If this is changed to a 2/3rds supermajority, then the Town Manager only needs to keep four people in the entire Town of Southbridge happy enough to want to continue employing him. I am comfortable with keeping the bar for performance set a bit higher than that.
At the October 3, 2011 Council meeting, the Chair asserted that many communities in Massachusetts were making the transition to a 2/3rds supermajority required for removal of a Manager, but in my ongoing review of municipal charters in Massachusetts, I haven't found evidence of this.
H.4047: An Act relative to the prohibition on commercial manufacturing or sale of alcohol by the members of the liquor licensing board of the town of Southbridge.
I would support this, as long as the restriction is limited to commercial manufacturing and sale. If a liquor board member is interested in homebrewing beer in their garage or attending a winemaking class, I don't see a problem with it.
H.4048: An Act relative to the recall of elective officers in the town of Southbridge.
I would support this. The current figure of 25% is way too high. 15% is a much more realistic figure, given the current state of voter turnout in local elections.
more to come.