Stockbridge voters weaken town administrator post, keep strong police chief

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STOCKBRIDGE — Annual town meeting voters on Monday approved funding for a new town administrator, but with diminished powers.

But toward the end of a session that exceeded three and a half hours on Monday night, a citizens petition to dilute the authority of the police chief was shot down.

The action authorizing the town to pay a successor to retiring Town Administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden up to $110,000 a year includes a motion by resident Terry Flynn stipulating that the new leader will not have the power to negotiate contracts or to hire and fire employees, keeping those powers with the Select Board.

Flynn said he was concerned about a "major change in how the town is doing business if we go to what essentially is the town manager model." He proposed that a decision on such a change be left to voters at the next town meeting.

"The town is at a crossroads," he argued, "and it has been heading in recent years to heavier reliance on consultants and a greater comfort on the part of some town officials, not all, that they'd rather have professionals leading boards and committees, and a greater discomfort at trusting talented people from all walks of life in this town who are perfectly capable of self-governing."

He acknowledged that "professional people" may be needed at times, but claimed that consultants have dominated certain town committees.

Flynn urged that residents maintain "that ultimate sense of skepticism where just because somebody's a professional or whatever, you don't shut your mind off."

He suggested the town hire an interim administrator for a year to allow citizen involvement in the town's future management, given that exploration of a shared-services leader with Lenox and possibly Lee is underway.

In response, Select Board Chairman Charles Gillett told voters that "while I agree with Terry for the most part about having consultants run the town, that hasn't happened yet, and I can't imagine it will happen."

He backed hiring "a professional town manager that has these enhanced powers" because, although that person would not run the town single-handedly, "it's important to have these powers in the hands of an individual so that the work of the town can get done."

Noting the town's budget exceeds $11 million, Selectman Stephen Shatz declared that "every $11 million business that I've been familiar with has had professional management. because the complexities of running an $11 million municipal business that has all kinds of mandates from the federal or state government are incredibly complex. This has not become a simpler job for a town administrator or a Board of Selectmen."

According to Shatz, "we're trying to attract to this town an administrator of equal caliber" to Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason and Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen.

"I think the attempt here to handcuff us, the Board of Selectmen and the committee screening the applicants, in our attempt to find a person of quality to help this town go into the future is just misguided," Shatz said.

Resident Nina Ryan countered that "this is a real shift in the way the town is managed and citizens need to have more input into that discussion."

"If there's a take-home for the Select Board, this might be a little bit of a backlash about something that seems like it's coming a little bit fast," said Laura Dubester. "We as citizens want to be involved have our concerns aired and questions answered" about future town leadership.

Marsden, who's retiring on July 15 after 31 years in local government, emphasized that "we're not looking for a town manager to replace a town administrator; we're looking for a town administrator, which is totally different than a town manager."

She said that since all future decisions would be ratified by the Select Board, "they're not losing their power, they're just allocating different things, which I've already been doing in this authorization. It's nothing new."

But voters still on hand at 10 p.m. approved by 70-56 Flynn's motion to dial back the authority of the next town administrator.

The citizens petition, presented by local activist John Hart, proposed repealing the 1997 town meeting's adoption of the state's "strong police chief" law and return to the "weak chief" statute.

"This article was born in a different time than we're in today, signed by people who felt very passionately what they felt," Hart said, a reference to former Chief Robert Eaton's two-year tenure. He was succeeded by the department's sergeant, Darrell Fennelly, on May 1.

"Things have changed," Hart said, "yet there are people in this room who feel this should move forward and I feel that everybody in this room should vote their conscience."

Town Counsel J. Raymond Miyares advised voters that the practical difference between the two state laws is "very slight." Strong chiefs regulate their departments subject to Select Board approval, while weak chiefs have to get the board to make rules regulating their departments, he said.

Gillett, the board chairman, called the petition "a very bad idea. I don't think you want the Selectmen to micromanage the day to day operation of the police, fire or highway department." Shatz said that under the strong chief provision, policy decisions affecting the police remain under Select Board control.

Former Police Chief Rick Wilcox strongly opposed the petition in an Eagle letter to the editor last week.

The citizens petition lost by voice vote overwhelmingly, with only a handful supporting repeal of the strong chief law.

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

In their own words ...

"At times we're nostalgic about the past, but we're not living in the past with an enterprise like this. To be sure, it's an enterprise of people, a community, but it's one in which we have the responsibility to properly manage a budget and it just simply cannot be done in the old way."

— Stockbridge Selectman Stephen Shatz

"We are more than able to keep running as a small town, despite what other towns may have done in terms of having a formal town manager kind of system and despite the way other towns feel they should rely more on experts. I don't think we need to go as fast as we're going toward a town where we basically have trained professionals managing the town, running the town in many different ways."

— Resident Terry Flynn

"The town manager structure is new to many of us, we weren't aware of it, and we want to participate in that discussion just as we want to participate in a number of other decisions that have happened around town. It's important that we move forward in a way that gives voice to the concerns and considerations of the town residents at the same time."

— Resident David McCarthy


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