As Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge examine how to share services, theoretical plan clears House hurdle
The state House of Representatives has approved a bill allowing Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge to share a town administrator on a regional or joint basis — if they want to.
So far, despite efforts by a tri-town committee assigned to explore the possibility, any move toward top-level collaboration has met strong resistance in Stockbridge, where a search for a new town administrator is continuing.
The House bill, sponsored by State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, now goes to the state Senate, where it is supported by Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield. Action is expected in the near future.
The joint effort with the State Ethics Commission grants the three towns a limited exception to a section of the state's conflict of interest law which has blocked shared administrator efforts.
Currently, while cities and towns can form joint agreements to share employees, the ethics commission requires a specific exemption to allow a shared administrator whose job requires discussions, recommendations and joint solutions to deliver municipal services.
Pignatelli has been a strong advocate for sharing services in southern Berkshire towns. Lee and Lenox have had a joint Building Department, which includes inspections, since last January.
In a phone interview, Pignatelli pointed out that while Lee and Lenox are continuing the conversation about possible shared leadership, "it's disappointing that Stockbridge is not."
He voiced optimism that "common sense will prevail as towns look long-term at financial sustainability. There's nothing to lose and great opportunities to gain."
"We can maintain the individual identity and character of towns while also saving money through common-sense collaboration," Pignatelli said, citing the major expense of a full-time town administrator in small communities.
Last December at a Great Barrington ceremony he arranged, Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito emphasized their commitment to a community compact involving 17 south Berkshire County towns to consider shared arrangements in education, public works, public safety and human services.
Since then, several towns have jointly purchased equipment while the Berkshire Hills and Shaker Mountain School districts are sharing Superintendent Peter Dillon.
But the retirement last summer of Stockbridge Town Administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden has not prompted the Select Board to pick up on Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen's invitation to explore shared leadership. Pignatelli also has offered an invitation to discuss the concept.
Amid some opposition in town, the Select Board voted 2-1 in August to exclude Ketchen from consideration as a shared town administrator, although he was included among three finalists recommended by Dalton Town Manager Kenneth Walto, Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason and former Williamstown manager Peter Fohlin. Acknowledging that "maintaining each town's identity is critically important," Pignatelli pointed to an equally critical need to streamline and enhance municipal services across town lines, thus saving taxpayers' money.
"These are achievable goals if we approach it the right way and we're in control," he declared. "It's up to local boards to drive this. What we're doing now isn't sustainable."
A team of officials from the state Department of Revenue visited Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge last spring to compile a report on how a shared leadership arrangement among two or three towns might work. That report has yet to be released.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.