Monday, July 30, 2012

More Southbridge Town Council Sleight Of Hand?


The O’Zone recently pointed out the extreme contrast between the conduct of oversight between the town council and the prior school committee. While the former has been dominated by laissez faire obsequiousness to town managers, the latter was dominated by a stifling micro-management of day to day operational and personnel matters.

While it failed to gain popular electoral endorsement, the campaign slogan of Dennis Martinek in his bids for town council has nevertheless seemed to have gained currency. People are beginning to realize that there is a need to “Restore Balance”.

The pendulum has clearly begun to swing toward restoring a balance of appropriate roles in the school department. It remains to be seen whether they will exercise appropriate oversight regarding the latitude they are now allowing management. 

As regards the town council, it is about to be seen whether the prior abdication of authority will continue. Specifically I am talking about an item on tonight’s town council agenda.

“13. Vote to authorize the School Business Manager to enter into contracts for the purchase of equipment related to the media center and the media classroom for the Middle / High School in the amount of $120,000 with said funding to come from 2 sources: 1) School Technology Budget up to $60,000 and 2) Cable Committee Capital Fund in the amount of $60,000, said amount to also be approved by the Cable Committee.”

I will candidly admit that when I first read the agenda I skipped past this item with little thought.

As I reviewed it, however, I became increasingly concerned about it from number of perspectives.

First and foremost, why is the council voting to approve a capital expenditure when half of the total amount is, “to also be approved by the Cable Committee?” If the council is going to cede a veto to another committee shouldn’t they see to it that it is voted on by the Cable Committee before it even comes to the council? What if the Cable Committee doesn’t approve it, then what?

Of course the Cable Committee will approve it, and there is the crux of the problem. We are at the point that not only the town council but every board, commission and committee has become a rubber stamp for the whims of the town manager.

The whole fundamental concept of checks and balances when applied to Southbridge town government has become a laughable sham.

But beyond the question of process, there are issues related to the proposal itself.

There is very little doubt that the management of Southbridge’s cable access operation has been a shambles for the last nine months. Unless I’m mistaken, the proposed budget transfer of $60,000 from the cable operation is approximately half of their annual receipts from Charter. What will the impact be on the ongoing operations of public access cable?

Then there are questions regarding the justification for the appropriation. What electronic video resources are currently possessed by the school system? How have those been used? What additions are these funds supposed to provide? Who, given the absence of a technology director in the school department, recommended or approved them? How will any additions be employed lacking any teacher certified to provide training in these areas and the questionable availability of funds to hire such a professional in the near future?

It will be interesting to see if the recent new additions to the town council will ask any of these questions, let alone have the intestinal fortitude to seek a delay until some answers are forthcoming. Don’t snow us with the typical excuse that “this was discussed in subcommittee”. If there is anybody out there who is not an administration, council or subcommittee member who knew anything about this I’d love to hear from them (other than anonymously).

Our new councilors talked endlessly about increased transparency. Now it’s time to show whether you meant it or whether you were just peddling pious platitudes.

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