Presuming the articles on this year’s Town Meeting warrant are taken in order, the final proposal to be taken up, Article 54, would require the town to create “standard operating procedures manuals” for four elected boards and commissions — the Select Board, Board of Health, Harbors & Waters Board and Recreation & Parks Commission.
On paper, the subject may sound dry. But we would encourage voters to resist the urge to flee for the exits.
Article 54 is a revised version of a proposal that failed by only seven votes at last year’s Town Meeting. Lead sponsor Megan Sweeney says that almost immediately after that vote, she and the other sponsors were “inundated” by people asking them to bring it back.
This year’s iteration appears to address some of the main issues that prompted Select Board Chair Moses Grader to speak against last year’s article. No longer does the proposal direct the town administrator to impose vague “procedures” and “structures” on duly elected executive bodies, which Grader felt could have led to improper interference with those boards’ prerogatives.
Nor is it as aggressive in creating the type of unenforceable recommendation Grader believed was embodied in last year’s article. Massachusetts law instructs that a municipality’s legislative branch — in this case, Town Meeting — should not direct or interfere with the decision-making of the executive branch.
Especially with those concerns mitigated, there is much to recommend the mandatory creation of policy manuals for local boards and commissions.
As Sweeney explains, the measure should foster civic participation, as those with relevant experience will be able to get a better understanding of just what they would be committing to when deciding to put their name on the ballot.
This year’s proposal was scaled back to target solely the boards overseeing enterprise funds, which seems like a wise choice. As money regularly passes through a board or commission — be it from user fees, grants or tax dollars — the importance of that body not being a “black box” grows.
Sweeney says the hope would be that once the four specified boards created their manuals, it would serve as a catalyst to prompt other boards and commissions to create their own manuals, once they see that it is not so burdensome.
Perhaps one of the more compelling pieces of evidence that this is doable is that the School Committee — like its counterparts around the state — already has quite a comprehensive and dynamic policy manual. You can go online now and click through each of the 12 major categories of policies organized using a classification system developed by the National School Boards Association. Within some of those categories are dozens of individual policy statements. As the School Committee notes, it adds to and revises the policy manual as new problems, issues and needs arise.
Granted, the four boards selected for inclusion in Article 54 — especially smaller departments like Harbors and Waters or Rec and Parks — will not be able to replicate overnight a manual that has taken years to evolve with the School Committee.
But the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. By their nature, policy manuals are living documents that can begin modestly and be built out over time.
Grader says that he suspects that when a vote is taken on Article 54, it will be in the form of a “recommendation to the executive.”
If Town Meeting cannot, as a practical matter, effectively bind the executive branch to take a certain action, we would at least hope that its recommendation would be as precise as possible, offering a timetable to get this important process underway.
And if Town Meeting does choose to make such a recommendation, we would hope and expect the boards and commissions subject to it would make a good faith effort to honor it.
The Current Editorial Board
The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.