Charter Review Board Hopes Survey Will Spark Discussion On Changes

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Orleans news

Orleans Town Hall.

ORLEANS The town charter lays out how the town works – but is it working for everyone?

Every seven years, a charter review committee takes a look at the document (readable and searchable at ecode360.com/14345881). Under the chairmanship of former selectman Jon Fuller, the current committee is determined to reach out not only to department heads, elected officials, and appointed board members but also to the general public.

“To follow up Walter’s point,” member Mark Berson said March 1 about a comment by colleague Walter North, “there are the dogs that bark and the dogs that don’t bark. One of our roles in the public arena is to find out what’s really bothering the people that have to deal with the departments of the town. That’s what we’re here for, at least in part… Is the charter not addressing climate change adequately? Maybe that’s something a lot of people want.”

The committee, which begins its 5:30 p.m. meetings on the first and third Mondays of the month with a public comment period, has been hearing from citizens at charterideas@town.orleans.ma.us for some time. Members have met with Town Administrator John Kelly and the finance committee, and Fuller has spoken with the select board. The committee is working on a slate of questions for future meetings with department heads and committees.

Encouraged by the strong response to a town survey on the possible uses of the Governor Prence property, the charter review committee hopes to find similar interest in its own survey. Now in draft form, that document minces no words in stating, “The explicit purpose of the Orleans Town Charter is to ‘secure citizen control of local affairs; to establish and maintain efficient and financially sound government; and to ensure that elected and appointed officers are accountable to the electorate.’ How well do you think the town is doing?”

The draft survey asks whether there are adequate services for families, children and teenagers; the physically challenged and business; whether town regulations encourage economic growth; if town planning and zoning strike the right balance between encouraging growth and maintaining the community’s special character; and how easy it is to navigate town regulations and services, among others.

At the committee’s meeting this week, Fuller said he thought those questions, which appear in one section of the draft, were beyond the committee’s purview. Some other members said they could provide valuable information. “If we come up with a recommendation that perhaps the town could do a better job supporting economic growth,” North said, “it might be a more robust recommendation if it were bolstered by input from the business community with specific ideas.”

The committee took a preliminary vote to support changing the title of town administrator to town manager. Fuller said Kelly “felt there was some kind of stigma, so that when we went out to hire somebody else, they might balk at the title town administrator.” Kelly, by the way, was hired as the “town executive” in 1996. That title was changed to “town administrator” by a 1997 ballot vote.

Although the committee has discussed the change previously, member Gail Meyers Lavin, who was the sole dissenter, said even a preliminary vote was premature. “We need to speak with the select board before we go any further,” she said. “We’ve heard one side. It’s important to know whether the elected board has any interest in this.” The committee’s liaison, select board member Mefford Runyon, offered to find out.

Members discussed whether any title change should be accompanied by proposed alterations in the job description. Berson said a future candidate for the job would negotiate terms in any event. “My concern about the town executive and the select board has always been how much time the select board spends in the weeds compared to policy, and how much the select board is willing to give up in connection with actually administering the town government,” he said. “What I see and experience is that the select board is involved in just about every single matter, and it is overwhelming to me to imagine the time commitment.”

A preliminary vote to change the title “would be a start to being a vector in that discussion,” said Berson. “That’s why I think the time is probably right to have at least a preliminary probe in that direction, and then get into the particular powers and duties and lines of demarcation between the policy-making select board and the operations manager of the town.