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Northfielders call for stronger leadership model

NORTHFIELD — With a new college bearing down on the town, hoping to have classes in session two years from now, some Northfield residents want a stronger town government to get the town ready to face the change.

Recently, about three dozen residents came together to talk about what it would take to bring stronger leadership to the town. Though the effort is just getting under way, the topic has been a talked about for years.

“In the last 10 years, I have been in discussions with residents about whether our town government could be more responsive, more effective and more proactive,” wrote Sam Richardson in the mission statement for an unnamed citizens’ committee. He said the subject came up in many social situations, but Thursday was the first time people organized around the issue.

Thursday night, they filled every available seat in the Dickinson Memorial Library’s meeting room, and began to hash it out. A handful of late-comers had to stand, and the group may reserve a larger Town Hall space for future meetings.

“No matter what happens, we need a strong, coherent leadership before the college comes in,” said Dan Campbell. “Everyone needs to be involved.”

“We need to embrace the college; they’re going to be part of the community. But we’ve got to keep the upper hand,” he said. “It’s our town.”

The question now is “how?”

A steering committee and two sub-committees were formed at the meeting. One sub-committee will look into the possibility of having a town manager, the other will explore adding two members to the three-person Selectboard.

Though the town recently changed the administrative assistant position to a town administrator, the change was superficial.

“The position was changed to a town administrator in name only,” said Bonnie L’Etoile, who was on the Selectboard that hired Tom Hutcheson as administrative assistant, and also when a town meeting vote changed his title.

She suggested looking into changing the position to a town manager, or adding to the town administrator’s job description.

A subset of the Northfield Campus Collaborative Committee, which discusses the transition to a college town and reports to the Selectboard, visited Henniker, N.H., and Williamstown, both small towns with colleges. They found that both had town managers, though the job descriptions varied a bit.

Many agreed that a town manager would assist the Selectboard by doing a lot of the legwork and research, so those duties wouldn’t fall on the volunteer board members. They also felt that the town’s departments, boards and committees could also help with that work where it overlaps with their areas of focus.

This would better inform the selectboard members, so they could use their time more efficiently and focus on making decisions and enacting town policy, rather than scrambling to get all the information themselves.

“A selectboard can’t possibly have the breadth of knowledge (needed to face the town’s varied issues on its own),” said Jed Proujansky. He’s a member of the School Committee, which regularly delegates research to specialized sub-committees that report back to the full committee to inform its decisions.

“The only way you could have the time to do all that research as a member of a three-member board is if you’re retired, or have a very flexible work schedule,” said Richardson.

The group also ponders whether the role of the town’s executive board needs to be changed.

Many at Thursday’s meeting agreed that the town’s Selectboard is too overburdened and lacks the authority to take a strong leadership role. Some think a five-member board would be able to spread the workload and get more accomplished, while others think the key is to elect stronger leaders.

There is no bylaw in Northfield that sets its Selectboard at three members, and some at the meeting wondered if one would need to be created to increase its number to five. Proposed bylaws require a public hearing process, and once voted in by residents, they need to be approved by the state attorney general’s office and Legislature, a lengthy process.

For instance, an article passed at the May 2011 town meeting will eventually allow the town to hold recall elections of town officials by petition.

The bylaw was sent to the state Senate that July, and was enacted by the House of Representatives Thursday and sent to the governor’s desk.

The group hopes it can elicit change in a more timely fashion.

Sam and Barbara Richardson said Thursday’s meeting went well.

“It was productive, civil and respectful,” said Sam Richardson. “Several people commented that they were pleased that it was a very diverse group. There were a lot of people there who have disagreed on other issues, all in one room, having a good meeting.”

Though at times some town board and committee meetings can become heated, people at Thursday’s meeting put their differences aside and rallied around a common goal, with hope for the future of the town. Rather than pointing fingers at boards or their members, the conversation stayed focused on how they could make things better.

All residents are invited to sign up for the committees, participate in the discussion, or simply attend a meeting. As of Friday, a date for the next meeting had not been set, though Thursday’s contingent agreed that they need to meet again soon so their work can begin.

To get involved, contact Barbara Richardson, at 413 498-5931 or brichardson0928@comcast.net. You may also reach out to the Steering Committee; call Deborah Taricano at 413 498-4483 or email Robin McKeon at robinmckeon@comcast.net.

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