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Gov’t study committee on Northfield warrant

A resident exits the Northfield town hall building after completing town business
STORY
11/5/10 MacDonald

A resident exits the Northfield town hall building after completing town business STORY 11/5/10 MacDonald

NORTHFIELD — Voters will be asked to form a committee to study town government at the Feb. 25 special town meeting.

Since October, members of the unofficial Town Government Working Group have been researching different forms of municipal government, and meeting to discuss their findings.

Last week, the Selectboard declined to ask town meeting to form an official committee to pick up the working group’s task, and issue a report to the town within 90 days. So the working group bypassed the board by collecting 142 signatures on a petition, forcing the issue onto town meeting floor.

The formal committee’s scope would include the optimal size of the Selectboard, and what type of professional assistance would best allow the board to do its duties. The petition stated that the committee may or may not give recommendations for change along with its findings.

Specifics of the committee would be hammered out on the meeting floor, said working group members. They said the town moderator had suggested keeping the article vague, so the actual motion would not be constricted by specifics in the article.

The idea was originally shot down in a 2-1 vote, with Selectboard member Dan Gray casting the lone vote in support of the article. By Friday evening, the working group had gotten 142 people to sign their petition, and 131 of those signatures were verified as registered Northfield voters, securing the article’s spot on the warrant.

The group has said that the motion made at the meeting would likely set the committee’s size at five or more members appointed by the town moderator. One member would be chosen by the Selectboard, and one by the working group. The motion would also ask that the committee give an interim report to the May annual town meeting.

Working group members have asserted that a study of town government is necessary to make sure the town’s business can be conducted effectively and efficiently. Topics of discussion have included whether increasing the board’s size from three to five members would reduce the workload and make the board more democratic, and whether the board should have a town manager rather than a town administrator.

The evaluation of town government is needed now more than ever, say group members, because of the uncertainty over the former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus, along with difficulties among members of the three-person Selectboard.

The 90-day window may seem like a short time frame, but the official committee would have a running start. The working group would give its research to the official committee, which could review it, identify any gaps or additional areas of study, and complete them.

The group’s research has included meeting with town managers in other western Massachusetts towns, reviewing the process by which towns have made the move to a five-member board or town manager, and looking into the charters and bylaws that define town government in Northfield and other towns.

Northfield lacks a bylaw defining the town government’s structure, and it’s not spelled out in the town charter, either.

Changes to town government structure may be done in two ways.

The home rule charter process involves the formation of a Charter Commission, which involves a petition signed by 15 percent of the town’s registered voters. The nine-member commission would then have 10 to 18 months to draft a proposal for a new charter. In that time, it must hold at least two public hearings. That proposal would be voted on in a town election. If it passes, it would be sent for state approval.

The town could also form a charter study committee, which may be appointed by the Selectboard, or elected by town meeting. The state does not set out a timeline for a study committee, or require it to hold public hearings or issue any sort of report.

The committee, after completing its work, would submit its recommendations to town meeting, which would then vote on them. Anything approved by town meeting would then be sent to the state Legislature, then the governor, for approval.

Working group organizer Sam Richardson said this would be the fastest route to change town government. He said it’s possible that the committee that would be formed by the special town meeting could propose such changes in time for a vote at the May annual town meeting.

If the charter commission route is taken, he said, it could take about two years before the town could change its government structure.

By then, said Richardson, the campus could be in the hands of a new owner, with developments already in progress on the 217-acre campus on the town’s Main Street.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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