Harwich Seeks Advice On Charter Review

by William F. Galvin

HARWICH – As some residents push to establish an elected charter commission to review the nearly 35-year-old document that serves as the town’s constitution, the select board is seeking direction on governance from the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s Form of Government (FOG) Committee.

FOG committee co-chair Andrew Sheehan, town manager in Sudbury, provided a virtual presentation to the board, making it clear from the onset that it is not the practice of his committee to make particular recommendations to a community.

Sheehan emphasized some changes are driven by issues within the community at a specific time.

“There is no right and wrong, it’s about what fits the community,” said Sheehan. “The overarching goal can vary from community to community and the community should be the final arbiter of that. The community must have the structure it wants.”

Over the past few years the governance of the community through the town charter has drawn controversy. There are residents who want a provision that holds town officials accountable to the directives of the charter. There is a petition circulating calling for an elected citizen review to update the document. Two years ago the town appropriated $75,000 to retain a consultant to assist with an updating. The select board is seeking direction from FOG, which assists communities at no cost.

Sheehan told the board that in some communities, governance is less about efficiency and more about dispersal of authority. Those are decisions the community must make. Sheehan said government function is different than it was 20 years ago. There is less trust in government at all levels now, and in many respects it’s harder to bring more efficiencies to government because there is less trust today, he said.

Sheehan said he has reviewed the charter amendments the town adopted this year, and while it is not FOG’s practice to recommend in a particular direction, one of the amendments stood out: the addition of the human resources officer position and the shared administrative oversight by the town administrator and a select board.

“It’s very difficult when you have two masters,” he said. “On the face of it, I’ve seen it can be problematic, and that jumped out at me.”

Select Board Chair Julie Kavanagh asked about committees that oversee the charter. She said Harwich has a standing charter/bylaw review committee. Sheehan said in his 30 years in government he has had no body or provision mandating review in the communities he has served. Some towns have requirements for charter review every decade and bylaw review every five years.

“I think it is a good practice to take the charter out and review it to make sure it’s functioning the way you want,” Sheehan said.

Regarding the powers of administration, Sheehan said there is no hard and fast rule in Massachusetts. The state is less prescriptive than in other states when determining the form of government. Population determines whether it’s town meeting, representative town meeting, town council or mayoral governance.

Sheehan also said the town should not get hung up on the title of the chief administrator. It can be town manager or town administrator, and the strength of the position can be designated through the charter. There is no right or wrong, said Sheehan, explaining that the state’s 351 municipalities all have provisions that are a little different. He recommended the town look at comparable communities to see what they are doing. He also said there is a lot of information in the Harwich charter that does not need to be there.

FOG can work with the town and provide access to charter provisions used in other towns to address particular items the community is seeking to implement, said Sheehan. But it will be up to the community to pick what is right for Harwich, he said.