Special bill would help clear the way for shared municipal services
LENOX — A bill filed in the state legislature by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli and state Sen. Benjamin Downing would help clear the way for progress on regional shared services, including potential tri-town management in Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge.
Representatives of the three towns have been holding exploratory meetings since last March to lay the groundwork for considering a range of shared services, including a joint town executive, to fill the gap left by the retirement a month ago of Stockbridge Town Administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden. In addition, Lee Administrator Robert Nason is set to retire next June.
A stumbling block that could have doomed a tri-town agreement had been a conflict of interest law cited by the State Ethics Commission.
The law, as interpreted by the commission, would prevent a shared town administrator "from acting on issues directly and substantially affecting two or more communities, such as discussing, recommending and implementing regional or joint solutions for the delivery of municipal services," Pignatelli said.
"Therefore, clarifying language is desperately needed for these three towns who are in conversation regarding a shared town administrator," he explained.
The new legislation he and Downing co-sponsored was developed in consultation with the ethics commission.
It would create a limited exception to the law, thus allowing Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge to share a town administrator, other official or employee on a regional or joint basis.
Pignatelli said the bill filed on Thursday would be considered during the state lawmakers' informal session over the next four months, first in the House Committee on Rules and then by the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government.
Downing's co-sponsorship is designed "to ensure that the bill moves as smoothly through the Legislature as possible," Pignatelli pointed out.
The best-case scenario would be passage of the special legislation for Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge by the end of the year, he told The Eagle.
"There's nothing stopping the three towns from moving forward regardless," said Pignatelli. "I have every confidence this will pass, we've been encouraged by the State House leadership to file it, and we'll push it as hard as we need to, but it's got to go through the process."
The need for the bill arose because in 2012 the State Ethics Commission cited a potential conflict of interest in a shared-administrator arrangement in the towns of Ashby and Ashburnham. The commission pointed out a state law preventing an employee of one town from advocating for the interests of another town by working together on shared services.
If passed, the Pignatelli-Downing legislation would take effect immediately.
It states that despite the current conflict of interest provision or any other state law, town employees in Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge "shall not be prohibited from receiving or requesting compensation from, or from acting as an agent or attorney for" any of the three towns as long as the employees are performing their official duties as outlined by an approved inter-municipal agreement.
The tri-town Administrative Review Committee set up to explore potential shared services last met on June 21 at Lee Town Hall. Members heard a generally optimistic report from officials representing the state Department of Revenue's Division of Local Services.
A seven-member team from that department interviewed Town Hall personnel in the three communities last May to gather opinions on how potential shared town management could work.
A detailed report was being prepared, said Zack Blake of the DOR's Division of Local Services, with budget and population details and an organizational chart showing how local government functions in each of the three towns.
"There's really a possibility that if these three communities can't get together, there's still a two-community opportunity here, and that will be a success just as much as the three communities, in looking at efficiencies," Blake explained.
He acknowledged that interviews with municipal employees raised questions on how their Town Halls could be managed with less than a full-time presence by a manager or administrator.
Since Stockbridge is in urgent need of a new manager to succeed Marsden, a two-town shared arrangement could move to the front burner. Before her retirement, Marsden was a passionate advocate of a shared administrator setup.
Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen is among three finalists chosen from a field of nine qualified candidates by a Stockbridge vetting committee consisting of Nason, Dalton Town Manager Kenneth Walto and former Williamstown Manager Peter Fohlin.
But Ketchen's interest is limited to a joint management role, since he intends to keep his post in Lenox. The other finalists are Susan Carmel, former finance director and treasurer of Pittsfield, and Heather Budrewicz, the current town administrator in Southampton.
So far, the Stockbridge Select Board has not signaled a consensus for shared executive leadership and is not expected to interview the finalists for administrator until late September.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.