Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Cool It

Ken O’Brien

The old saying goes, “Sin in haste, repent at leisure.”

In the context of government, the value of this aphorism was recognized by the founders of the Republic.

A key goal of the framers was to create a Senate differently constituted from the House so it would be less subject to popular passions and impulses. "The use of the Senate," wrote James Madison in Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 "is to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch." 

An oft-quoted story about the "coolness" of the Senate involves George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who was in France during the Constitutional Convention. Upon his return, Jefferson visited Washington and asked why the Convention delegates had created a Senate. "Why did you pour that tea into your saucer?" asked Washington. "To cool it," said Jefferson. "Even so," responded Washington, "we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."

While Southbridge lacks a Senate, I would nevertheless like to invoke this wisdom. I would do so in addressing the issue of the petition that has come before the Town Council regarding the effort to return Southbridge to a selectmen/town meeting form of government.

This year has been especially turbulent, even by the standards of Southbridge politics.

We’ve seen the departure of a town manager, disturbing revelations about the future of the town landfill, another round of increases in property taxes with the prospect of more on the way as well as jumps in water and sewer rates, bylaw changes that many consider onerous, and so on. And that’s just the town council. The school committee, and the school district in general, deserve a tome of their own.

In light of all this it comes as no surprise that town residents are outraged. In the midst of such outrage they are likely to seek change merely for the sake of change. There is always a fervent wish for a magic bullet that, all too often, ends up as lead poisoning in the body politic.

Unfortunately, it is that very sentiment that has given rise to many of the problems that currently exist, ranging from the landfill to the current composition of the school committee.

Such, I fear, may be the case with the current impetus behind the effort to return Southbridge to a Board of Selectmen/Town Meeting form of government.

After 40 years of efforts by certain local elements, this regressive option seems to have gained popularity.

Never mind that when the 2004 Town Charter was being drafted this option was a distant third in a survey of public opinion regarding preferences about the three alternatives being considered.

Never mind that the last effort to bring about this transformation couldn’t muster sufficient signatures to warrant consideration.

We hear about the 700 people who signed the petition.

That is not necessarily an indication of support.

Just as with candidates for public office, many people sign a petition because they feel that anyone has a right to be on the ballot.

Similarly in this case, many people have told me that they signed the petition because they felt that people had a right to vote on the question. Their signature did not necessarily indicate support.

My advice to the Town Council would be as follows
Vote to amend the petition to require that it be put before the public for approval. Attorney Goldberg indicated that this would be an acceptable amendment since it concerned process rather than the essential substance of the petition.
Vote to approve the petition and send it to the State Legislature as a request for Special Legislation.

As a consequence of this action the soonest the proposal could appear on the town ballot would be June of 2015. It is virtually impossible for the Legislature to act on the Special Legislation in a time frame that would make it eligible to appear on this year’s ballot. In this way the State Legislature would serve for the town a role similar to that envisioned by Washington and his colleagues for the Senate.

If approved, it would not take effect until 2016 at the earliest.

Such action would allow adequate time to properly debate all the implications of adopting the proposal. It would distance it from the immediate visceral reaction to the current dysfunctions of town government. It would, to paraphrase Washington, "pour legislation into a saucer to cool it”. Politically it would have the added advantage of allowing councilors to say that they had voted in favor of the petition as well as ultimately leaving it to a vote of the public.

Given the past consequences of acting in haste, I hope that the council will take my advice and cool it.


  1. Those supporting the petition make a big deal out of the fact that it would require the administrator to reside locally.
    Mike Coughlin was a resident. How did that work out? Clayton Carlisle rented an apartment in town. How did that work out?
    That argument holds as much water as a sieve.

  2. Assuming that the Council takes the path that you recommend in this post, what should they do about the Town Manager's position?

    1. I plan to make that the subject of an upcoming article.

  3. Steve Lazo former Town Council ChairmanApril 8, 2014 at 11:15 AM

    Which ever way the people of Soutbridge go on this issue its their decision, But it has alway been my stance that (ALL) department heads live it town including the Town manager. I believe that they being the highest paid should have a vested intrest in the town they serve. Lets see right now These are dept heads who live out of town, Town manager,Police chief. Fire chief, Assistant Fire chief, Treasurer.board of health director, DPW director. Im not saying they are not all qualified people because they are, But what kind of a signal does that give people who are looking to move into Southbridge.....


All comments subject to moderation. All commenters must use their own name or a screen name. No comments labelled as "Anonymous" will be published. To use your name or a screen name select "Name/URL" from the drop down menu. Insert you name in the "Name" space and leave the "URL" space blank.