Sunday, April 27, 2014

Don’t Vote For “A Pig In A Poke”

Ken O’Brien

The expression “Don't buy a pig in a poke” is very old, but actually it can be taken quite literally and remains good advice.

The advice being given is 'don't buy a pig until you have seen it'. This is enshrined in British commercial law as 'caveat emptor' - Latin for 'let the buyer beware'. This remains the guiding principle of commerce in many countries and, in essence, supports the view that if you buy something you take responsibility to make sure it is what you intended to buy. 

A poke is a sack or bag. It has a French origin as 'poque'. Poke is still in use in several English-speaking countries, notably Scotland and the USA, and describes just the sort of bag that would be useful for carrying a piglet to market.

A pig that's in a poke might turn out to be no pig at all. If a merchant tried to cheat by substituting a lower value animal, the trick could be uncovered by letting “the cat out of the bag”. The advice has stood the test of time and people have been repeating it in one form or the other for getting on to five hundred years, maybe longer.

This age-old advice applies to an item on Monday night’s Town Council Meeting agenda.

Item 9 on the agenda reads, in part, “Shall the Town vote to approve of a measure proposed by petition on March 31, 2014 in accordance with Chapter 12, Section 3 of the Town Charter, as summarized below?”

I assume that what is intended, though it is not so worded, is whether the Council will vote to put the item on the June ballot subject to a particular clause that is part of what is “summarized below”.

That particular clause is the crux of the problem. It reads: “If approved by the voters at this election, the proposed legislation would take effect upon enactment by the state legislature.”

Let’s examine that provision in light of some recent history.

Last year the town’s voters approved a number of amendments to the Town Charter. Prior to that action, the proposed amendments were submitted to the State Legislature for approval. The proposed amendments went through a number of alterations and one was eliminated as being unconstitutional.

Keeping that experience in mind, let’s return to the current matter.

Southbridge is proposing to embark upon a novel path in Massachusetts history. No other community has ever adopted a council/manager form of government and then subsequently returned to a selectmen/town meeting format.

Consequently it is by no means certain that the proposed legislation, as written, will not be amended by the Legislature in light of the numerous laws enacted and court decisions that have taken place over the last 40 years.

Last year’s vote only dealt with a half dozen or so amendments to the town charter, and that took a substantial amount of time and was subject to alteration. How much more likely is it that the proposed legislation which aims to change the entire structure of town government will emerge from the legislative process in a form different from the initial proposal?

Nevertheless, the action being considered by the Council would have the voters commit to accepting the result of whatever the legislature does before knowing what that result looks like. If the voters approve the motion currently before the Council as written, they will be stuck with “…the proposed legislation [taking] effect upon enactment by the state legislature”, regardless of how it then reads.

Now, I’ve made no secret that I believe that this course of action is a bad idea. However, if a majority of the voters decide that this is what they want, so be it.

What is unconscionable, though, is expecting the voters to commit to accepting whatever the legislature produces before they have a chance to see it.

The Council should submit the proposal to the legislature first, with the provision that adoption would be by a vote of the town subsequent to the legislature’s action. This would mirror the process that took place with last year’s Charter amendments. 

To adopt the current wording on the agenda would be nothing less than agreeing to buy the poke with no effort to determine what is in it.

See these points substantiated by Attorney Lauren Goldberg appearing before the Town Council.


  1. Follow Agawam for FreedomApril 27, 2014 at 8:47 PM

    Who told you that no other Town has returned to the Town Meeting form of Government from the Council Banager form?

    You usually research matters well before publishing-in fact I believe that there is more than one example.

    1. Please correct me. I see you mention Agawam, but they have a Mayor/Council form of government according to the town website.

    2. Is it fair to assume that, like me, you can't find any such example?

    3. Well, we can agree on one thing. Since I favor a Mayor/Council form of government, we should "Follow Agawam for Freedom'.

  2. Framingham, a teal city, had a town meeting/selectman form. They get it!

  3. Framingham has a Representative town meeting with 12 TM members from each of 18 precincts, a BOS and a town manager. So what is it they get? They haven't had a council /manager form either. And what is a teal city?

  4. The problem we have isn't the form of governement it's voter apathy. Any system we put in place is going to be ripe for abuse (or neglect) because the vast majority of the residents just don't care. I think this is partly due to the large number of rental units we have in town. It's likely that the people living in these homes don't plan on living in Southbridge for the long term so there's little incentive for them to improve the schools or vote in local elections or show up at town meetings. A strong mayor is an interesting idea but I wouldn't expect results to be different from what we have now.

    Councilors are also heavily dependent on the administration to feed them the information they use when coming to a decision, particularly when coming to a decision on the budget. Maybe things would be different if councilors were paid and required to work full time. They would then conceivably have the time to dig in to issues and come to conclusions independently of the town manager and the people he employs. A paying position might also attract more candidates so we'd have better choices on election day.

    I think these are our two biggest problems: apathy and part time representation. Our current form of government is clearly not up to the challenges facing the town. However, I haven't heard any suggestion that offers hope for climbing out of the hole we've dug for ourselves.

    1. Rich, I agree that the success of any form of government is far more dependent upon the people that make it up than on the form of government itself. I have recently posted sentiments to this effect on my own blog.
      However, the collegial structure of both the selectmen/town meeting and council/manager forms of government virtually preclude the emergence of strong leadership.
      Virtually all case studies of successful turnarounds (civic or corporate) emphasize the vital importance of a strong leader in accomplishing the change.
      While a strong mayor form of government couldn’t be any worse than any other option, it is the only form that would allow for the emergence of unitary leadership that could carry out the kind of turnaround this town needs – given the right person.
      It is for the reason that it at least offers the potential for change for the better that I prefer it over the other options that will merely serve to perpetuate division.

    2. Logan for SelectmanApril 28, 2014 at 8:35 PM

      Once again, Rich Logan has offered refreshing perspective that is sorely missed, and if we had more Councilors with his abilities there would not be a need to recover some level of common sense to Town government by having to re-establish our original form of government that we had when we were a more respected community.

  5. Sees Through These PeopleApril 28, 2014 at 4:05 PM

    This whole movement is founded by a couple of Tea Party fanatics who aren’t happy with anything that doesn’t fit their ideology. Look at their code word slogans: ‘Take Back Our Town’, ‘We The People’, etc. A lot of the people who’ve been duped into their program don’t seem to be aware of the underlying bigotry and ultra-conservative agenda of those they are following. These are people who think Cliven Bundy is a hero, even after his recent comments. Just wait until they require two forms of photo ID proving town residency to be able to get into a Town Meeting.

    1. Bundy is a hero and a zeroApril 28, 2014 at 6:46 PM

      "founded by a couple of Tea Party fanatics"
      Really ??? You have proof of this or are you just spouting party politics.
      You should have to provide an ID to Vote but MA ID's are JUNK. They shouldn't be accepted to even fly on planes for the states liberal failure to comply with the REAL ID ACT. -

    2. Liberal for SelectmenApril 28, 2014 at 8:21 PM

      The whole movement is founded by Tea Oarty fanatics? Really? I signed the petition at Big Bunny and Marketti and Pulaski, two of the most liberal environmentalist you can find in the Community. I saw them collecting at Big Y the weekend before, and saw Arthur Theodos, a retired Union Federal employee. Whatever right wing tendencies Joe Mariino may have, the people that collected the signatures certainly balance out Joe with their liberal point of view. Also, I noticed both Helen Lenti and other Democrats signed the petition. And their Lawyer, the Sturbridge Tiwn Moderator, is certainly no Tea Party advocate.

      The way I see it, as long as more than nine people get involved in a Toen Meeting form of government, we are better off, but I believe a much larger quorum will be required.

      I hope the anti-Town Meeting people come up with better reasons than poking fun upon old Joe Marino and attempting to cast unfair political leanings on the hundreds of people that signed the petition. If you need to go after the messengers instead of the message, maybe it's an idea worth trying? When Monique Manna is coming up with better reasons than anyone else to stop this effort to take back our Town, that says a lot in itself. What is so wrong with giving people a chance to take the running of the Town back from nine amateurs?

    3. Sees Through These PeopleApril 29, 2014 at 3:44 PM

      The last two comments make my point better than I could. The first supports an ID Law that 15 states have passed laws against enforcing because of its fascist nature. The second displays typical ignorance. When was the last time you checked into the politics of Theodoss? As far as Pulaski and Marketti, well that brain trust will jump on anything in an effort to gain attention.

    4. It doesn't matter what 15 states have initiated-the Supreme Court will throw that out, probably in this session.
      Please note that everything Pulaski and Marketti and their assosiates warned us about related to the landfill and chloramines came true, only it was even worse than they suggested. I don't know the politics of Mr. Theodos, but after all this is a petition to INCREASE the ability of local voters to run their town. The entire argument
      that the petition is going to make Joe Marino and the Tea Party the OverLords of Southbridge is truly absurd. It would nake sense if we had a Town Meeting government and they wanted to put the voting power of potentially thousands into the hands of nine or 13 Councilors, but the inverse is true.
      What are the three greatest accomplishments of the Council form of government? Answer this question and I will come back with its three greatest failures, and I doubt any of these three failures would have ever passed at a Town Meeting.

    5. What you want to do is take decisions out of the hands of nine people, each of whom needed at least 500 votes to get elected, and put it in the hands of about 150 voters.
      There were no great accomplishments by the town meeting either. What made this town stable at the time was the industrial and financial underpinning provided by the AO.

  6. Anyone who paid attention to Attorney Goldberg's remarks will realize that she validated everything I said about voting for a pig in a poke.

  7. It appears that the question is " Pig in a Poke" or "Rig that's a Joke".

    1. The point is, you can't answer why anybody should vote for something without knowing how it's going to end up after the Legislature works its will.

  8. It is not at all unreasonable to trust that the Legislature will not burden us with something different than the other hundreds of Town Meeting/ Selectman town governments.
    You may recall how the legislature rejected the Council's Charter proposal to refuse a tardy taxpayer from running for office.
    They are by no means perfect, but in my opinion they act in our best interest better than our own Town Council.

    1. Well good luck with that.
      Who knows, you may be on to a whole new way of running an election.
      I can see the ballot now.
      It will read:
      “Do you want to vote for the candidate behind door #1, door #2 or door #3?”

    2. Can you suggest a few unacceptable changes that the Legislature might try to add to the petition? I can't even imagine why they would try to hurt the people of Southbridge by making our Selectmen/Town Meeting government different or less fair and democratic than in the other towns it serves rather well.

    3. I’m not going to be trolled into an endless round of speculation about how the blanks in a sloppy piece of work might be filled in. Your lack of imagination is merely reflective of the lack of effort that was put into preparing this abomination. Rather than produce a rigorously researched piece of legislation all that was produced was a feckless outline riddled with holes.

    4. Anyone genuinely interested in understanding some of the shortcomings of this petition, as it is written, can turn to Gus Steeves’ editorial piece on the opinion page of today’s Southbridge News.

  9. Where ignorance is Bliss it is folly to be wise.


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