The issue in question is the proposition that Southbridge switch from its current town manager/council form of government to a mayor/council format.
In addition to the matter of the manager’s departure I believe that the proposal gains additional timeliness insofar as the current charter mandates a new charter review committee be appointed in the coming year. Having been intimately acquainted with the fate of the last such endeavor, I believe that a citizen initiative may be the only manner in which such a proposal can gain a proper airing.
The current system has resulted in a pattern of governmental drift that is lacking in leadership to the pronounced detriment of the welfare of the citizens of the Town of Southbridge.
For far too long we have witnessed a pattern where the power vested in the Council is not exercised in a substantial, consistent or productive manner due to constantly shifting coalitions of interest. In addition, the town manager is unable to exercise any serious leadership due to the need to maintain the support of a two-thirds majority of the council in the midst of these constant shifts in attitude and direction. Consequently his role has been overly tentative and/or manipulative serving the primary purpose of preserving his job, which is subject to the whim of a super majority of the council
As a result, I believe that the only realistic course of action is to establish a strong mayor who is ultimately responsible to the will of the people. By so doing, candidates for this office will have to outline a program for community action that will be subject to a referendum by the voters. This will provide a source of authority independent from the council. That body will nevertheless maintain its oversight responsibilities, and simultaneously be answerable to the public for their enactment of or resistance to the program put forward by a single chief executive.
There are two legal issues to be addressed. First, state law limits this form of government (defined as a city form) to communities with populations of 12,000 or more. In this regard, based on the most recent census data, Southbridge meets this threshold.
The second has to do with the provisions of Section 10 of Chapter 43B of the Massachusetts General Laws which states:
“…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.”
I had argued in the past that this provision ruled out both a citizens’ petition to change to a selectmen/town meeting form of government through referendum as well as a charter amendment put forward by the town council increasing the number of votes required to remove the town manager.
However, in the latter case, the amendment was approved by the Massachusetts Legislature and approved by the Attorney General. As the Southbridge Evening News reported on January 30, 2012, “The town is seeking such changes under Article 89 of the state constitution, which requires the Council to approve them by a two-thirds majority before sending them to the Legislature. The article, however, sets a specific restriction: “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 shall be made” only by an elected Charter Commission. Southbridge’s most recent charter review body was appointed, and this particular proposal didn’t even come from them — it came from the council itself.
“Durant said that issue was the one sticking point, since the changes include upping the vote required to fire the Town Manager from five councilors to six. The Attorney General approved it on the grounds that 'these are all going to the voters anyway,' he said.”
Given this precedent it would appear that an initiative petition, if ultimately put to the voters, could enact such a change.
The form for such an initiative petition is dictated by Chapter 15 of Section 43B of Massachusetts General Laws.
Section 15. (a) A petition for the adoption or revision of a charter shall conform with the requirements of subsection (c) and shall have a sentence in substantially the following form at the top of each page:
Each of the undersigned requests that the (city) (town) of ______ revise its present charter or adopt a new charter, and each of the undersigned certifies that he is a registered voter of said (city) (town) whose residence addresses at the times set forth below were as shown below, and that he has not signed this petition more than once.
(b) A petition suggesting a charter amendment under section ten shall conform with the requirements of subsection (c) and shall have a sentence in substantially the following form at the top of each page:
Each of the undersigned requests that the (city council) (town meeting) propose the charter amendment(s) attached hereto to the voters of the (city) (town) of ______, and each of the undersigned certifies that he is a registered voter of said (city) (town) whose residence addresses at the times set forth below were as shown below, and that he has not signed this petition more than once.
(c) The state secretary shall prescribe the form of all petitions under this chapter. Section seven of chapter fifty-three shall apply to all such petitions. No petition shall contain or be accompanied by any indication of party or political designation.
Again, I have prepared a draft amendment to the Charter which can be viewed HERE. This is merely a draft around which an organizing committee could formulate its discussion if there is sufficient public support for such an effort. It should in no way be viewed as a final document nor am I, in any way, doctrinaire about its contents.
In order to gauge public interest in such an effort I have created a poll which can be accessed on the upper right hand corner of this blog.
I encourage all of you to participate in this poll to give as realistic a view as possible regarding public support or opposition to this idea. I also realize that such a poll is not scientific and can only be viewed as indicative in nature.
The poll will be open until midnight on November 19.
The poll will be open until midnight on November 19.
I also encourage you to comment on the proposal itself as regards areas where you feel that it may be lacking or, conversely, too tightly strictured.