Charter Reviewers To Seek Wider Input With Citizen Survey

By: Ed Maroney

ORLEANS The charter review committee, which is examining the town’s organizing document for possible changes, heard from a citizen at its meeting Feb. 2. That’s news.

Rick Francolini was the first ever to take advantage of the public comment opportunity the committee’s offered at its semi-monthly sessions. “You’re kidding,” he said. “I’m glad to be the first. I hope I’m not the last.”

So does the committee, which has been working on public outreach since its first meeting in October. This week, inspired by the strong response to a survey on re-use of the Governor Prence property, the committee decided to conduct a citizen survey.

“We heard that the Governor Prence survey participation was over 700,” member Walter North said. “That was quite amazing. I don’t know if it’s part of COVID craziness with people sitting at home willing to take surveys. It would also be a good outreach effort to find out what citizens think about how the town is doing.”

In addition, the committee is drawing up a list of town officials and board members to invite for discussions and is preparing a list of questions for them to consider. Town Administrator John Kelly has already visited with the group to talk about possible changes to streamline government operations. Both the recreation advisory committee and Recreation Director Alan Harrison have asked for meetings.

Members have heard from other citizens via email and have set up a tracking system to make sure their concerns are addressed. As an appointed committee, they are tasked with making recommendations to the select board, which would then decide whether to bring them to town meeting. If that body agreed, the changes would be on the ballot at the following year’s annual election.

An elected charter commission, on the other hand, would bring its recommendations directly to the voters. That’s what would be needed to, say, change an elected board to one that’s appointed. There has been interest in whether the board of health should undergo that change.

Decades ago, the board of selectmen served as the health board as well. Charter review chair Jon Fuller said a separate elected health board was created because people “didn’t want the board of selectmen trying to influence the decisions of the board of health.” But, he added, “most of the decisions are made by (Health Agent) Bob Canning.”

In his experience, member Mark Berson said, “a lot of people who run for the board of health are dentists, nurses, civil engineers. If you don’t get that kind of critical mass, then many communities have turned to an appointed board so you can select people in the community to do that… If someone has no background or qualifications, you can get whatever the electorate elects, but if it’s working and you consistently get people who are good people, fine.”

“We occasionally have had people elected to the board of health that had no business being there,” said member Robin Hubbard.

The committee is also looking at the question of whether Orleans should have a town administrator or town manager. Of the Cape towns from Dennis out, only Chatham, Provincetown, and Truro have managers.

Francolini joined the session to talk about town meeting. After that body voted to fund electronic voting, he said, “the initial decision maker on whether or not to use it was the town moderator. Although it all worked out, for a while things were a little uncomfortable. The moderator, at the time, was not necessarily a supporter of it. Through that process, what I learned was there is language in our charter that provides a greater degree of responsibility to the town moderator than even he or she may even want. It was also clear that there were things in the charter that control town meeting protocols and rules and regs that could be unnecessarily limiting if we wanted to make town meeting more inclusive, more flexible.”

There are community members who believe that some of the changes necessitated by the pandemic could actually point the way to improved operations, and the committee welcomes all comments on that and other matters at charterideas@town.orleans.ma.us/ as it proceeds with a chapter-by-chapter review of the charter. Fuller has told the select board it’s unlikely that any changes will be proposed for this May’s annual town meeting.