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Orange’s troubles offer learning opportunities

ORANGE — Without a doubt, the past few years have been hard on Orange as town officials struggled to balance the budget in the face of diminishing state revenue, rising costs and all without the aid of a full-time town administrator.

But according to Kris Burns, who has led the Town Governance Study Committee, the stresses of the last few years proved to be an ideal laboratory for learning how the town government works in Orange — or doesn’t.

In the months ahead, selectmen will continue to discuss the committee’s recommendations for improving town operations. According to selectmen’s Chairwoman Kathy Reinig, some recommendations have already been implemented, but others that are more complex or controversial will be discussed in future meetings.

“We are taking the committee report very seriously,” Reinig said. “We will discuss all of the recommendations, but given the amount of work we have in front of us before the end of the fiscal year, some of the bigger ones will have to wait.”

Some highlights of their recommendations include:

The Board of Selectmen
and town administrator

Selectmen should focus on policy making and planning, leaving day-to-day operations to the administrator.

According to Committee Member Nate Johnson, “Having more clear responsibilities for the town administrator, the Board of Selectmen … would make day-to-day operations … more objective … we can leave out personalities … and focus on longer goals.”

Reinig said selectmen are drawing back from day-to-day operations now that a town administrator is in place. Selectmen updated the administrator’s job description to reflect these responsibilities.

The committee would add two selectmen. Committee members contend a five-person board is less susceptible to bias, and better able to function if one member is absent or incapacitated.

Bylaws and charter

A permanent Bylaw Committee should review town bylaws. Selectmen established this committee.

A town charter should be written that further defines town structures, consolidates departments and reviews necessity of different boards and commissions. Reinig said developing a town charter is a long, complex process that will need further discussion.

The budget

The town administrator should be responsible for creating the town budget in consultation with the selectmen and the Finance Committee.

The Committee recommends all budget submissions be made a month ahead of the date it is due to voters, and be posted on the town website two weeks in advance of town meeting.

Selectmen agreed to this process, setting March 1 as the deadline for the budget to be sent by the town administrator to the finance committee.

Employees

The committee’s report states that town “departments, committees and commissions seem to have been allowed to operate on their own. Instead, there needs to be a culture of ‘providing customer service’ when assisting residents, along with internal cooperation amongst employees.”

Town Hall employees should be cross-trained so they are more knowledgeable about each other’s jobs.

All employees should be required to adopt a “customer service orientation” and be evaluated in their performance to this standard.

The Human Resources Board should be more actively engaged in the human resource functions of the town.

Other committees

The committee said many of the town’s 30 committees are not active. Selectmen agreed to review all committees to reactivate, disband or consolidate them.

All appointed committees should report annually to the person or board that oversees them.

The town moderator appoints members of the Finance Committee and the Human Resources Board. As several residents complained their applications to these groups were overlooked, the report recommends the moderator adopt more objective standards in making these appointments.

Moderator Chris Woodcock said he makes appointments based on a candidate’s relevant experience, personal qualities, and ability to work as part of a team. He said he is willing to work with officials in reviewing criteria.

Town meeting

To improve attendance and engagement of residents in all town meetings, the committee recommends:

∎ Meeting on Saturday to make it easier for working people and elders to attend. Selectmen will poll voters on this question through a non-binding referendum next election.

∎ Moving town meetings to the more accessible Mahar Regional School. The selectmen agreed to the switch.

∎ Using paper ballots when personnel issues are discussed, and whenever a resident calls for one.

∎ Splitting the meeting into a spring session, dedicated to budget issues and a fall session dedicated to other concerns.

The selectmen agreed splitting town meeting into two sessions may be best, but wanted to retain flexibility about what items can be discussed at each meeting.

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