Monday, November 11, 2013

Southbridge - Mayor Maybe? (Vote in our poll)

With the imminent departure of Town Manager Christopher Clark I believe that it is time to resurrect a proposal that I have put forward in the past. I have been encouraged as well by several people asking me to create a poll gauging public interest in such a proposal.

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.

In order to implement such a proposal, I propose that Chapters 4 and 5 of the current Home Rule Charter be amended as outlined in a draft for discussion document I have prepared (available here). If adopted, other sections of the Charter would be amended to achieve consistency with these changes.

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.

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.


  1. I have read your draft and it is a good one, but as long as we are interested in changing the charter, there are a few other things that need to be changed or modified:

    1) The term of Mayor should be 4 years to coincide and be concurrent with that of POTUS.
    2) The Town Elections should be moved to the National Election Day in November.
    [Changes 1&2 would guarantee a larger voter turnout]
    3) Town Council and School Committee members should be elected by precinct to ensure the entire town is fairly represented.
    4) Polling places should be moved back to the precincts. (Many voters in this town find it hard to get to the Community Center because of transportation issues.)

    Again, as long as we are changing things.

    1. It should be noted that a four year term requires a special vote under chapter 43 of MGL, to wit:

      Section 17C. Upon the filing with the city clerk of a petition, which petition shall be subject to the provisions of section seven or section seven A of chapter fifty-three, signed by at least five per cent of the number of registered voters residing in the city at the last regular city election, the city clerk shall place upon the ballot for the next regular city election to be held not less than sixty days after the date of the filing of such petitions the following question:—

      “Shall the term of office of mayor of the city of
      ___ be four years?”

      If a majority of the votes cast in answer to said question is in the affirmative, the term of office of the mayor of said city shall thereafter be for four years and until the election and qualification of his successor, beginning with the next regular city election following the acceptance of this question.

      This section shall apply only in cities which have adopted Plan A, Plan B or Plan F under this chapter and in cities which have, under the provisions of any special act or any charter adopted under the provisions of Article LXXXIX of the Amendments to the Constitution, a mayor, as defined in subsection (a) of section ten of chapter forty-three B.

      The provisions of this section shall be applicable notwithstanding the provisions of section eighteen of said chapter forty-three B. Nothing contained herein shall be construed to prevent the amendment of a city charter by any method available under said Article LXXXIX of the Amendments to the Constitution or under said chapter forty-three B.

    2. However, I would think that if the electorate approves a charter amendment with a mayor that specifies a four year term, then it would pass muster.

      Thanks for your comment.

    3. Also, since we have five precincts, and since the mayor would be chair of the school committee, it would be difficult for this body to be elected strictly by precinct and maintain an odd number to prevent (as far as possible) repeated tie votes.

    4. Similarly for the council, we would have to have 4 at large members if the body were to remain at 9 members.

  2. Again, as long as we are changing things at 1 at large member to the school committee and have 4 for the council. The point is to make sure that everyone feels they have a voice in town government. Right now, I think that many people feel that their vote does not count and therefore they don't vote.

    1. Thanks again. Your thoughtful input is greatly appreciated.

  3. Ref. Document:


    Learn the Facts About Council-Manager Government:

    One of my favorite segment reads as follows:

    Neighborhoods Strengthen Their Voice:

    *The council-manager form encourages open communication between citizens and their government.* Under this form, each member of the governing body has an equal voice in policy development and administrative oversight. This gives neighborhoods and diverse groups a greater opportunity to influence policy.

    1. And how is this not the case in a council/mayor form of government?

    2. In my humble opinion; open communication between citizens and their gov’t has NOT always been a successful venture even under Southbridge’s Town Council/Manager format.

    3. I agree. Why do you think that is?

    4. Simply Stated: Flagrant Abuse of Public Trust.


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