Officials Agree Town Meeting Timeline Adjustment Necessary

by William F. Galvin
Finance Committee Chair Peter Hughes presents his committee's report to town meeting. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO Finance Committee Chair Peter Hughes presents his committee's report to town meeting. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH – There was clear frustration with the dissemination of information relating to the annual town meeting warrant this year. “The preparation of and the review of materials to support this town meeting were time challenging,” Finance Committee Chair Peter Hughes wrote in his report to town meeting on opening night. “We had submitted a request for the release of public records to assist us in our review efforts.”

“Every year there is an issue. Some of the deadlines are unrealistic,” Select Board member Michael MacAskill said during a post-town meeting review of timelines and the process of assembling the annual warrant.

“I feel like we’re taking a different bus route, but getting to the same location at the same time,” Select Board member Donald Howell said of the timing of the finance committee’s receiving information. “They’re supposed to be equal to us. It’s shameful. It seemed really disjointed this year.”

Assistant Town Administrator Meggan Eldredge presented the select board with provisions in the town charter and bylaws which define “legally mandated” tasks associated with the annual town meeting.

Select Board Chair Julie Kavanagh agreed that there is a need to improve timelines, including starting the budget process earlier.

Eldredge said some of the necessary information is not available until later in the budget development process, which makes it difficult for the administration to provide accurate numbers. School budgets are not available until January or February and health insurance and retirement expenses usually come late in the process.

“We had delays with financial information this year,” said Kavanagh.

MacAskill said the board can start earlier in the fiscal year by looking at the larger departments’ budgets. He also said that the board can start building the warrant by adding articles as soon as the board makes a decision on them.

“The timeline doesn’t work, creating incredible frustration with the finance committee, and we start butting heads,” MacAskill said. “Drop dead dates don’t work and our budget messages are unrealistic.”

The town charter requires publication of the warrant in The Chronicle 14 days before the annual meeting. The town does not need to put the warrant in the newspaper so there is no need to meet The Chronicle’s deadline, said Kavanagh.

Finance Committee member Dana DeCosta said the warrant articles got to the finance committee too late. When he was a selectman in the 1990s, the finance committee received one-liners the day after the warrant closed and they could begin working with draft articles and the one-liners.

“This year you added some articles. We took articles out if they weren’t fully baked, if somebody didn’t have it complete,” said DeCosta. “We used to give the town administrator a pass on a couple of articles, if they were big and important. If it wasn’t done in a week, we’d start taking them out. If bids weren’t ready, we’d pull them out. We spent our time eliminating articles, not putting them back in. We just go things way too late.”

DeCosta said when he was a selectman the board had to have all articles submitted by the second Friday in January. The board now has a deadline a few weeks later.

According to the submission of articles provision in the town bylaws, “All articles to be inserted in the May Town Meeting shall be submitted in final form, in writing to the selectmen (select board) no later than noon on the second Friday in February.” An additional provision requires the select board to submit the warrant to the finance committee “no later than 14 days after the deadline for submission of the articles.”

There is an early deadline for filing petitioned articles and they can’t be changed, said DeCosta, so the finance committee should have had them early on. But this year the committee got them way too late. He said there needs to be much more communication from the select board’s liaison on changes taking place in the warrant.

“We’re doing parallel things and have to get to the same bus stop, but there are times when we’re off on different tracks,” DeCosta said.

“Ask for the information. We’re happy to give you the info,” said Kavanagh.

Howell noted that the finance committee had to file a public records request this year for the specification of a generator for the maintenance facility in the harbor department.

Former selectman Linda Cebula, chair of the bylaw/charter review committee, said when she was on the board the full article had to be submitted by the deadline date, but “we’ve gotten away from that.” She said overstepping that deadline does not do the public any good because the process becomes difficult to follow. She also recommended updated documents should be dated so that the public, committees and department heads know the latest information.

“You guys have to do a better job, and you have to go back to the old ways,” Cebula said.

DeCosta said the finance committee is ready to work with the select board. Cebula also said the bylaw/charter review committee stands ready to help with any changes the board sees necessary to improve the warrant development process.

There were also questions raised about free cash. MacAskill said the select board needs to have that number available earlier in the year so they can make funding decisions based on what’s available. Finance Director Kathleen Barrette cautioned the board on the timing of free cash certification from the state department of revenue this year, explaining one of the DOR employees who processes free cash accounts will be out on maternity leave, and Barrette has been told there would be a two- to four-week delay in receiving the information.

MacAskill also said the absence of a permanent town treasurer is concerning to him, and he wants to see the position filled as quickly as possible.