Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Southbridge’s Axis Of Dumb

Ken O’Brien

Clichés are clichés precisely because they are true.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that back in August Salon Magazine ran an article titled “The definition of insanity” is the most overused cliché of all time.

For both of you unfamiliar with this aphorism, it goes, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”.

Southbridge has got to be the poster child for this particular bromide.

It seems that the town will never learn that giving in to political expediency always comes back to bite us in our collective asses.

Most recently we saw this in the shocking revelation that the life of the town landfill was nowhere near what people thought it would be.

That blunder was of course facilitated by monkeying around with the town charter in regards to the structure of the Board of Health.

The latest example of the unanticipated consequences of short term gratification for political convenience has to do with a petition being circulated to return Opa City to a Board of Selectmen/Town Meeting form of government.

This quixotic quest has been the long time obsession of local goad and former Town Councilor James (Joe) Marino. In addition to this fetish Mr. Marino is perhaps best remembered for confessing to having leaked executive session minutes to the press as well as homophobic remarks.

The last time he championed this crusade two years ago the petition failed to get the requisite number of signatures to appear on the ballot.

However, in the intervening 24 months things have changed.

Things have changed to the extent that Councilors felt it necessary to address the issue at last night’s Town Council Meeting.

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Why the concern of these Councilors now when they basically ignored the matter two years ago?

Thanks to the self-serving bumbling of former Town Manager Christopher Clark, former Town Council Chairman Catherine Nikolla and State Representative Peter Durant, Southbridge’s own Axis Of Dumb, Mr. Marino’s petition has a real chance of adoption.

Allow me to explain.

The last time this proposal was advanced, the fundamental objection to it resided in state law. Specifically Chapter 43B of Massachusetts General Law.

Chapter 43B, Section 10 states:

Section 10. (a) Amendments to a city or town charter previously adopted or revised under this chapter may be proposed by the city council of a city or the town meeting of a town by a two thirds vote in the manner provided by this section; provided, that amendments of a city charter may be proposed only with the concurrence of the mayor in every city that has a mayor, and that 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. In this section, the word “mayor” shall mean an officer elected by the voters as the chief executive officer of a city or an officer lawfully acting as such, and the term “two thirds vote” shall mean, in cities, a vote, taken by yeas and nays, of two thirds of the members of a city council present and voting thereon, and shall mean, in towns, the vote of two thirds of the voters present and voting at a duly called meeting. [Emphasis added]

It was for this very reason that the Charter Review Committee (of which I was a part) decided that it could not even consider advancing a proposal for a mayor/council form of government.

It was also one reason that the Committee decided that it could not consider a proposal by Town Manager Clark to change the number of votes by the Town Council required to remove the Manager from five to six.

Following a year of work, the recommendations of the Charter Review Committee were dispensed with in two meetings of the General Government subcommittee during Chairman Nikolla’s reign.

Among the amendments her rump subcommittee substituted was the aforementioned change in the number of votes required to remove the Town Manager – someone she recently emotionally referred to upon his departure as “MY Town Manager”.

It then fell to our newly elected State Representative, Peter Durant, to shepherd the Council-approved Charter amendments through the state legislature. This comedy of errors was documented on this site in a series of articles.

One proposed amendment that would have required any candidate for town office to be current on local taxes was dismissed by the Legislature as being unconstitutional – just as I had warned the Council during the meeting that approved these amendments.

However, when it came to the matter of the amendment to change the number of votes required to remove the Town Manager an interesting thing happened.

As the Southbridge Evening News reported on January 30, 2012 in an article titled “Charter changes filed in Legislature”

“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. “

Ever since that comment appeared in the local press, I and others have attempted to get a copy of that opinion.

To date, according to everything we have been able to ascertain, the opinion was merely verbal. The Attorney General’s Office has not committed it to writing.

So, let’s put the pieces together.

Just as Councilor Nikolla and her cronies supported former Town Manager Carlisle’s corruption of the Charter to stack the Board of Health to give us the landfill nightmare, similarly they undermined the process for removing the Town Manager.

Now, two years later, HER Town Manager is gone (strangely enough, shortly after the truth about the lifespan of the landfill and its truncated financial benefits became public).

But, additionally, we now have a new standard from the Attorney General regarding the means by which the Town Charter can be changed. Rather than the strictures imposed by Chapter 43B Section 10 of MGL, we can do whatever we want as long as any changes, “are all going to the voters anyway”.

What this means is that Mr. Marino’s petition, if it gets on the ballot, can result in an immediate change in the structure of town government – regardless of State Law.

The only alternative for the town would be a legal challenge which, if validated, would mean that the amendment relating to the votes required to remove the Town Manager was invalid.

Of course we, the taxpayers, would have to pick up the tab for all that.

In the meantime Clark has done the “boot scootin’ boogie” out of town. Nikolla can’t run for reelection (term limits ya’ know), and Petey Durant – their facilitator – comes up for reelection this year.

And if the petition gets adopted we’ll have five selectmen instead of nine councilors, a town administrator instead of a town manager, and town meetings where everyone knows how you voted on the most controversial issues.

Oh yeah – and a finance committee which we used to have under the current government and could have again without all the drawbacks.

As Forrest Gump reputedly said, “Stupid is as stupid does”.


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2 comments:

  1. I got to think that when Queen Cathy found out that Chrissy Clark was jumping ship she must have felt like John Hinkley felt when he found out that Jodie Foster was gay.

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  2. What a juxtaposition between Langevin and Moriarty. I was at the point of pressing stop if I heard "it isn't broken," one more time.

    Something is broken.

    I don't have the answer and I do applaud Shaun Moriarty in his explanation as to why he is opposed to the current petition.

    Back to Langevin, why the blinders? Why the lack of any accountability or recognition that this entire town is going down the drain? We're not "broken?" Look around and tell me where this council's wins are.

    What did Chris Clark do for this town? How did he earn his $130,000 salary? What aspect of the town is better now than it was when he started?

    I can name about a dozen that are far worse. If it isn't the form of government, then it's the people in charge. Can't wait for some new faces.

    Something needs to change.

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