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Committee says strong admin. good for Northfield

CORRECTION: There was a write-in candidate for the position of town clerk in the 2009 annual town election. The candidate was not included in a 10-year analysis of Northfield candidates provided in a town committee’s recent report that was summarized in the following story.

NORTHFIELD — The town’s government now has a road map to reorganization.

After months of examining the governments in Northfield and similar towns, the Town Governance Study Committee has issued its final report.

The most important recommendation, according to the committee, is already on its way to implementation as the town moves toward a special town meeting to give the town administrator’s position more power and more pay.

“We are recommending a reorganization of Northfield’s town government around the principle of placing a trained, experienced professional (town administrator) at the center of Town business,” reads the report.

“All of our research overwhelmingly indicates that an empowered Town Administrator should be put in place in the town of Northfield, Massachusetts.”

Every outside source consulted suggested a strong administrator, according to the report. These included other towns’ officials, employees and panelists at two forums held by the committee.

A more authoritative town administrator, the committee found, would be able to act on things in a more timely manner than the Selectboard. The board usually meets on a bi-weekly basis, and can only take official action on matters during meetings.

The Selectboard is made up of volunteer residents, with one member elected each year. Those volunteers don’t necessarily have as good a grasp on the workings of town government as a professional administrator would.

Volunteers also often have day jobs, and can’t commit as much time to the day-to-day aspects of town management as a full-time administrator can.

A highly qualified professional can do much of the legwork for the board, easing the burden on the volunteer officials, the committee said.

The committee also recommended that the elected offices of town clerk, treasurer and tax collector be appointed by the Selectboard instead. This would widen the candidate pool to anyone within driving distance, rather than the 1,700 residents eligible to run for the positions.

The report also suggested that the position of assessors clerk, now appointed by the Board of Assessors, be appointed by the Selectboard.

In addition to making more people eligible, making the positions appointed could also breed competition. The three elected positions have not been contested for more than 10 years, effectively making them “self-appointed,” according to the report.

The committee recommended that the town come up with a set of bylaws for general government, and compile these, along with existing bylaws, into a single document for easy access.

While the report suggests several changes to town government, it states that some things should remain as they are — at least for the time being.

The committee explored the possibility of adding another two members to the three-person Selectboard, but decided in the end that the town’s executive board should remain at three.

Though they found that adding two members could make the board more democratic and better spread the workload, the committee said that it’s premature to make such a change.

Currently, the report stated, it can be difficult to get people to run for the town’s executive board. Candidates often go uncontested or face a single challenger.

That could change, though.

If the beefed-up role of town administrator is approved and makes the Selectboard’s job easier, the committee feels that more people will run for the board.

The study committee strongly recommends that the town form another governance study committee in 2016 and revisit the size of the Selectboard, among other things.

The Town Governance Study Committee has its roots in an unofficial citizens’ committee. The town government working group was formed last October, by several residents who were concerned with the way the town was being run. The group pitched its mission to the May town meeting and voters approved the formation of the committee.

When the working group formed, Northfield still thought it would be the future home of 5,000-student Grand Canyon University and the working group members thought it was time for the town to get its act together before the institution moved into the former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus.

Though GCU pulled out of the deal, the unofficial committee stayed hard at work, researching government forms and taking trips to several similar-sized towns to meet with their officials and employees. The working group provided a foundation of facts that the current committee built upon and used for its findings.

The full report, including the proposed town administrator job description, can be viewed online at goo.gl/OsPjp6.

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

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