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Northfield government forum draws experts, advice

NORTHFIELD — No matter what type of government runs the town, it won’t work without informed, active citizens.

That was the overarching theme at a forum on possible changes to the structure of Northfield’s government.

“There’s no magic in changing the form of government,” said panelist Donald Robinson. “It all depends on who’s in those positions.”

Northfield has been researching different forms of government since an unofficial committee on the subject formed last October. Through a March special town meeting vote, the official Town Governance Study Committee was formed. Thursday, the committee hosted a public forum.

Robinson, a former professor of government at Smith College, author of the 2011 book “Town Meeting: Practicing Democracy in Rural New England,” and former member of the Selectboard and Town Governance Study Committee in Ashfield, had a wealth of experience to share at Thursday’s forum, hosted by Northfield’s Town Governance Study Committee.

He was joined by Bernard Kubiak, Deerfield’s town administrator, member of the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s Form of Government Committee and 12-year former Belchertown selectman; and Joseph Markarian, consultant on financial management and government structure for more than 150 Massachusetts towns, including Northfield, current Swampscott town moderator and former member of the Finance Committee and other Swampscott committees.

Though panelists agreed that changing a town’s government structure isn’t a magic bullet, panelists agreed that it’s worth looking into, and also offered some suggestions to make things run more smoothly under Northfield’s current leadership.

One way, they agreed, is for the Selectboard to trust the town administrator to oversee the day-to-day functions of town government.

“As a town administrator, I operate with the consent of the Selectboard, and do whatever they want,” said Kubiak. “They give me a great deal of latitude on day-to-day operations and planning.”

A town administrator can’t do those day-to-day duties as efficiently, however, if his every move is called into question.

“If you’re going to hire someone to run the town, you have to let them run the town,” said Markarian.

That means giving the town administrator guidance, then letting him fulfill his role as liaison to the town’s employees and department heads, and report to the Selectboard, rather than the board micro-managing town workers. Adhering to the chain of command frees up busy board members to do the research and legwork they need to do to make informed decisions.

In the past, Northfield’s Selectboard has been accused by residents of micro-managing town departments, notably the Police. However, in this reporter’s experience, the board has been less scrutinizing of town departments recently.

Kubiak said it’s helpful to have the town administrator’s duties clearly defined in a bylaw, so there’s no question of the position’s role or authority.

Panelists were asked how the town might encourage more people to run for town offices, volunteer for committees, or otherwise participate in town government.

“The Selectboard needs to reach out, and make sure they’re reaching far into the community, so you don’t just have a half dozen people doing everything in town,” said Robinson. “If the town meeting form of government is to be anything besides a bad joke, it’s important that citizens get involved.”

“You need to get the word out on how town government works,” said Kubiak, suggesting that each town have a “user’s manual,” which would tell people who does what in town government, who to call for different matters, how to volunteer and other information.

“Also, stop calling people newcomers, and asking them how long they’ve lived in town,” he said. “Instead, say ‘Welcome to Northfield. What can you do for us, and how can we help you do it?’”

If residents feel that they would have the support of the town, they may feel more comfortable volunteering or running for office, he said. It’s only when people step forward that democracy can work, said Kubiak, who spends a lot of his working hours assisting town officials and volunteers.

That support, he said, makes it easier for people to fit town roles into their busy lives, in the days of two-income families and long commutes.

Asked about term limits for elected positions, panelists said that limits on how long someone may chair a permanent board or committee are a good idea, but that towns could lose valuable servants by enforcing overall term limits.

One resident asked whether it would be more democratic to move from an open town meeting, where all registered voters may come, speak to matters, and vote on them, or a representative town meeting, with voters in different districts electing people to represent them at town meeting. The resident felt that a representative town meeting would be more well-attended, and represent a broader population.

As a town of about 3,000, however, Northfield must stick with an open town meeting. State law only allows towns of 6,000 or more to move to representative town meetings.

“I’d encourage you not to move away from an open town meeting, anyway,” said Robinson. “What we have here is a unique form of government in human history. What we do in these towns is precious.”

Another option for town government is a town council and town manager, rather than a Board of Selectmen. The council acts as the policy and budget-setting body, and the manager has the duties of town administrator, with more authority.

Northfield could also keep its Selectboard, but change the town administrator position to town manager, though it would require a town vote and state approval.

Some worried a well-qualified, more authoritative administrator or town manager would cost too much.

“It’s true that my salary is 0.5 percent of Deerfield’s budget,” said Kubiak. “But I more than pay for myself in grants and opportunities (I bring to the town). When you lose grants or opportunities, I consider that a cost incurred.”

“Don’t look at a town administrator as an expense, look at it as an asset,” he said.

“To administer the town properly was more than we could do (as Selectmen),” said Robinson of his 12 years as an Ashfield selectman.

Whatever form of government Northfield has in the future, said Markarian, the town would be best served by having that structure, as well as municipal policies, spelled out in bylaws, providing a “road map” for town government.

The committee plans to hold another forum in three to six weeks. If you have questions, suggestions or comments you would like addressed, you can contact the Town Governance Study Committee at northfieldtgsc@gmail.com.

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

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