Charter Review Committee Keeps Getting, Asking Questions About Town Governance

By: Ed Maroney

Orleans town seal.

ORLEANS — The town’s charter answers question about how to conduct the town’s business. The charter review committee asks questions about those answers and listens for better ones.

The committee met last month with Fire Chief Geof Deering to hear his comments on how the charter can be more responsive and effective, and will entertain Police Chief Scott MacDonald at its next meeting on July 19 at 5:30 p.m. Health Agent Bob Canning and Director of Planning and Community Development George Meservey are due to meet with the committee Aug. 2. Suggestions from the public are flowing in at charterideas@town.orleans.ma.us/.

Discussing and eventually putting together a list for the select board of recommendations based on all this information is a committee of seven chaired by former selectman Jon Fuller. “We’re getting pretty thorough,” he said at the end of the June 21 meeting. “I think our recommendations will be pretty sound.”

The committee has talked about the pluses and minuses of moving from a town administrator to a town manager form of government in which that individual would have hiring authority for all town positions. Under the current “strong chief” standard in Orleans, the fire and police chiefs do their own hiring.

“I don’t like the term ‘strong chief,’” Deering told the committee last month. “I particularly don’t like the term ‘weak chief.’… I feel our current practice serves us well. Having the ability to run our hiring process as it’s been run over the years is valuable to ensuring we get the right people.” That said, “we work very closely with town hall and the administrator’s office to go through the appropriate channels to bring these people in.”

At present, fire department hopefuls submit a cover letter, resume and Orleans employment application to a hiring committee that includes the department’s four captains and the deputy chief. They check to make sure applicants meet the qualifications, conduct interviews and recommend candidates to Deering, who will conduct his own interviews before hiring.

Deering told the committee that work is underway on updating the town’s comprehensive emergency plan. “We’re nearing a point where that’s almost ready for review with the select board,” he said. “The document has not been significantly updated (but) it should be reviewed every year. We’re intending to have that done this summer.”

The charter calls for a town emergency plan to be developed, updated, and published, but “that clearly hasn’t been happening,” committee member Gail Meyers Lavin said. “I’m really glad to hear it’s happening through your department. We do want to put something in the charter to strengthen that and advise people where they can go (for information).”

“If we were to recommend something more specific in the charter, that the select board or the emergency management team must present a plan and review it at a particular time each year,” Fuller asked Deering, “would you recommend that be the approach we might take?” “It’s reasonable (to have it) updated and presented on a yearly basis,” Deering said. “These documents have to be reviewed.”

After the chief departed, the committee worked through a long list of ideas and concerns. One item focused on the quorum needed for town meeting. Member Robin Hubbard, who’s been researching the minimum required in other communities, said, “Having 200 is a high number compared to towns that are much larger than ours.”

“The issue with me on the quorum is not so much getting the quorum as keeping the quorum,” Fuller said. “When I was a selectman, I’d get upset when people would start walking out and someone would call the quorum.” “It was very close (at the end of) town meeting this year,” Hubbard said. Fuller suggested that shorter warrants with fewer articles would help.