Sixty miles west of Boston, Massachusetts there is the small New England town of Sturbridge. Located at the junction of I-90 (The Mass Pike), and I-84 it has become known as the "Crossroads of New England". The town was first settled over 300 years ago, and like other small New England towns it has grown just enough over the years to be in a difficult place today. How do we embrace the future without forgetting how we got to our present? How do we attract the right kind of growth, and maintain who we are? And, what about our culture out here in Central Massachusetts?
These pages will cause one to think about how to protect what we have, our future direction, and how to move on in the very best way.
Those thoughts, and other ramblings, will hopefully inspire more thought, conversation, action, and occasionally a smile...
...seems to be working so far
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
You Are Kidding Me, Right?
Now, it would be so much easier on this head of mine if I could see a pattern, a rationale, a simple reason, but it is beyond me.
Damn, I hate admitting that.
I'm sorry. Did I say that out loud? I've been muttering ever since I received a few emails from the Town of Sturbridge today. The emails had Board of Selectmen meeting minutes attached to them.
Yesterday I posted about the long time we had to wait for meeting minutes to become available to the residents of Sturbridge. I was flabbergasted when meeting minutes from June 27th were finally released. I expected that it was an oversight, or there was a more legitimate reason for the extraordinary delay. I expected some explanation, as usual, posted in the comment section, but I did not receive a comment, and now I know why.
Today I received more minutes from this months meetings held on the 14th and 4th. Excellent. Minutes from the same month the meeting was held. Awesome.
The other minutes I received today were from October 1, June 6, 13, 20, and May 23rd.
Yes, May 23rd of 2011. Six months ago.
But wait, it gets worse. The last email with meeting minutes attached was the best by far. The minutes were from a selectman's meeting on March 24, 2011.
Yes, eight months ago. Eight months after the meeting, the minutes are being released to the public.
Now, I am done asking why. I no longer need a reason, or excuse, posted in the the comment section of this blog by selectpeople offering a rationale explanation.
There is no rational explanation when meeting minutes from a meeting held twelve days ago are released within the same month as the meeting, and minutes from a meeting held eight months ago are casually sent out in the same batch.
I don't want an explanation. I've been down this road before, and I nodded, accepted, and moved on after that explanation. I trusted that explanation.
This is a simple thing to master, and for there to be an eight month delay in making minutes public it speaks of other more important issues with the board that this is only a symptom of.
No more excuses, and reasons for the simplest things. I'm done with it.
The smallest details always reveal the most, and when the time is right, I have a ballot, and I know how to use it.
For March 24, 2011 Selectmen Meeting Minutes click here
So, how do you suppose we citizens rate in importance on a scale from one to ten - I mean compared to those Town Hall employees, who for some reason, are still not doing their jobs? I know, they're just getting caught up...so how long is it going to take this time? You don't have to answer. How much good would it do? You don't have to answer that either.ReplyDelete
Please don't paint all "Town Hall employees" with the same brush. There are many people who work in these offices, who have no connection with the Selectmen's office, and who do their job efficiently on a daily basis. Place the responsibility where it belongs - directly with the Board of Selectmen.ReplyDelete
I agree, it is the BOS that is ultimately responsible. Whomever is assigned the task of getting the minutes distributed is not holding off on random meeting minutes for 6 to 8 months unless there is a reason to do so. Those reasons are coming from another source, unless the person assigned the task is totally incompetent, which I strongly doubt.ReplyDelete
Care to speculate on what that reason is?ReplyDelete
Based on having previously brought this up, and the issue is now worse than before, I don't have to speculate, nor would I. I only go with what is dealt to me. Poor followthrough, and leadership. Meeting minutes are a mundane, must-do-task, and they don't offer the limelight. Accountability always starts at the top, and from there they can work it out amongst themselves. The minutes do, however, document what our elected officials have done, and plan to do for our town. If the minutes that are released to the public are not accurate, as some that have attended the meetings contend, then the reasons go far beyond leadership and followthrough. We have yet to hear a reason as to why from those that know, and I am sure we won't. It's a non-issue to them, but to us a symptom of deeper issues.ReplyDelete
Such a small problem, but I have to agree that is a symptom of larger problems like the Article 48 controversy. I do not want to say that both problems are a matter of leadership so I won't.ReplyDelete
Wally, great post as always and I just wanted to share some background. Minutes in draft form are always available at the end of any meeting by request from anyone; and thankfully the existence of this law ensures public access to public meeting information. The only caveat is that said draft minutes must be clearly identified as DRAFT. Thus, no individual who desires access to the minutes is prevented from acquiring them upon request. The reality however is that many may not be aware of this Public Records Law and more importantly, they shouldn’t have to be in a position wherein they are forced to request same.ReplyDelete
In terms of the information that must be in the minutes, State law requires that the minutes "must state the date, time and place of the meeting, a list of the members present or absent, and the decisions made and actions taken including a record of all votes. While the minutes must also include a summary of the discussions on each subject, a transcript is not required".
To that last point (a summary of discussions), one member of the Board has been openly critical of my continued efforts to include more in the minutes as opposed to less. The term critical here is not used in a negative connotation, but rather used merely to highlight a polite difference of opinion in terms of our approach as it relates to the summaries of our meetings. That said, I invite readers to review the minutes of other bodies and without exception, one would find that the BOS minutes are more inclusive of information and more detailed in summaries than any others, and that they go well beyond what is required by state law. To suggest as some have in your previous posts that the Board is trying to hide something, is completely in conflict with the fact that EVERY BOS meeting is live broadcast, recorded, and played continuously on cable access. That being the case, how could anyone hide anything as those video tapes become part of the public record under the Public Records Law.
Noteworthy however is the fact that the existence of this law does not address the concerns you have raised, as the more important issue here is that there is a significant responsibility held by the Board of Selectmen, and all committees for that matter, to have approved minutes published within a reasonable time so that residents do not have to request information that should be readily available to them. To that point, the release of these finally approved minutes clearly fails to reach the threshold level of reasonable; as such it is in fact truly unacceptable that this situation has manifested. As one member of the Board, I fully accept my share of responsibility for the delay as I could have pressed much harder, much sooner, but quite frankly, I allowed other Town matters - tornados, hurricanes, Town concerns that arise daily, Town Meeting preparation, an October nor'easter, etc, to dictate my focus. As all of our meetings are televised, recorded, and replayed daily, I have not been as assertive on this issue as I could have; and for that I will accept full responsibility and no level of other demands upon our time can alter the fact that we failed to ensure the release of the minutes in a timelier manner.
I can say unequivocally that the delay in these meeting minutes being presented to the Board for final approval has been publicly raised on a number of occasions over the last several months - though clearly not in as assertively as it could have been - at least in terms of my approach, as I and another member of the Board have raised this issue publicly and have both characterized this situation during these public discussions as "unacceptable" and one that needed to be corrected "immediately".
...continued from aboveReplyDelete
In response to our concerns there were reasons provided by the Town Administrator specific to the delay, some of which were valid and understandable in that the minutes have to be finally prepared by the Board's paid secretary, who herself has been burdened with a great deal of additional administrative duties due to the nature of this year's unprecedented weather challenges, which have resulted in a great deal of paperwork associated with recovery efforts required by FEMA. The Board's secretary is responsible for taking the draft minutes, reviewing the video tape for accuracy, while then creating a document for public review and approval by the Board and she has been focused on other required elements of her responsibilities. That said, I do not offer this to excuse the unprecedented delay as ultimately it is our responsibility to ensure - regardless of all other demands upon our time - that every aspect of our governance is prioritized in a timely manner. This is not offered as a criticism of the Board’s secretary as she takes her direction from us and the Town Administrator; this is as it should be offered as criticism of our – and more specifically my – failure to prioritize this at a higher level.
Recently, based upon direction from the Board over a month ago, as well as some proactive steps taken by the Town Administrator, there have been some modifications that will ensure the minutes are provided for review and approval in a timelier manner. This is in part the reason behind the release of so many minutes at once, in that the Board had them for review.
There is nothing sinister as it relates to the lack of meeting minutes being released in a timelier manner as all meetings are live broadcast, video-taped, and replayed on cable access. Nor, is there anything nefarious in terms of the level of information recorded in the minutes as State law merely requires the date, time, & place, those in attendance, a summary of the discussion, actions taken and a record of the vote. To that end, this Board has extended meeting minutes well beyond the required minimum and that in my view is a good thing. There has been however a lapse of more specific focus on this issue - at least on my part - as I have allowed other Town concerns and challenges to distract my focus away from the minutes. For that, I apologize to you and all residents.
...continued from aboveReplyDelete
Finally, I would add that as a Constitutional Conservative, I welcome and encourage skepticism and doubt as it relates to government - at any level - as our Founding Fathers were firm believers that "healthy distrust of government, breeds greater accountability from those who we entrust to govern". To that end, residents and readers are encouraged to fact check and scrutinize everything that we say or do, including the responses/rationale we provide as it relates to concerns within the community. Our Constitution - wholly developed upon the principles of our Declaration of Independence is based upon the belief that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed". Thus, residents have a responsibility to question and challenge government on every issue or concern. In recognition of the challenges posted on this site, I am most appreciative and thankful to all.
I have a question because, well, I am skeptical; I have doubt; and yet, I attend and watch all Selectmen's meetings. Here are the Selectmen's meeting minutes of 6/27/11 and my question is below:ReplyDelete
Joel Bard of Kopelman and Paige appeared before the Board. There was a lengthy discussion about the AAB application for Town Hall. The Board and J.Bard engaged in brief discussion over the Shepard parcel and its status. J. Bard
said that the Article 97 vote would ensure the process.
MOTION: That the Board direct Town Counsel to pursue Article 97
protection, by M. Blanchard.
2nd: P. Gimas
Vote: All in favor.
Regarding the Shepard parcel, J. Bard suggested that Carol Childress and Erin Jacque, Conservation Agent, meet with the Board of Selectmen."
It is clear the Selectmen voted for an Article 97 Act of the Legislature which is the process municipalities are supposed to use to legally convert the properties like Shepard parcel that are under Conservation Commission management in accordance with Chapter 40, Section 8C - the Conservation Commission Act.
My question is, how did voters end up with Article 48, which attempts to do a "deed correction" to insert a use that was not only not intended, but also clearly omitted, according to Selectmen's 2004 Executive Session Meeting Minutes.
Next, I will provide an additional separate post or a couple posts, which is a transcription of the Selectmen's 6/27/11 meeting that took place - let's see how they match the actual minutes.
Transcript of 6/27/2011 Board of Selectmen’s meeting with Joel Bard of Kopelman & Page (K&P): discussion of the legal use of the Shepard parcel and vote to pursue an Article 97 Act of the Legislature. This discussion begins immediately after an approximate one-hour discussion about renewing the town’s contract with K&P.ReplyDelete
NOTE: this transcription is not word-for-word but it does capture the majority of words and statements made by town officials at this meeting; this transcript summarizes some discussions. See DVD of 6/27/11 for complete details.
Selectmen present: Mary Blanchard, Priscilla Gimas, Angeline Ellison, Thomas Creamer and Mary Dowling; also present, Town Administrator Shaun Suhoski.
[Also see the attached 6/27/11 meeting minutes under the heading, Town Counsel, which contains different language than this transcript.]
MD: I still don’t know if it’s Kopelman & Page’s (K&P) opinion that the parcel can be used for active recreation or it requires an Article 97 vote. My question is even the second opinion, to me, ended up being…for example, let me read you a couple of the lines. ‘In summary, it is my opinion that there is no bright line definition of the items in question, such as, there is a right or wrong answer to your question. In this situation, it is our role to provide you an opinion based on our knowledge and experience; I have done so but I am acknowledging that there is no law or case that would find that the proposed use of the parcel is contrary to law.’
I read that as, possibly you’re continuing to rely on your first opinion that says passive recreation only absent an Article 97 vote but we don’t have any law or case law that would prevent us from doing it…but with all due respect, Sturbridge, if you move forward you don’t have our blessing…you’ve kind of circumvented your own opinion.
JB: I was with you until the last part, so let’s…
TC: Go ahead, respond.
MD: …cause we don’t know what kind of guidance to give to the Rec Committee at this point; at least, I don’t.
JB: I actually gave three opinions. The first was a short one and they got [?]deeper as you asked questions.
MD: I don’t have a third opinion, I only have two, so if you can provide us with that third, maybe you just gave it to Shaun.
JB: I gave all to Shaun.
SS: Whatever I got your board got.
MD: I just read you the concluding paragraph of the second opinion.
TC: That was dated on 5/16/11.
JB: That sounds like the third, but I can’t be sure.
MD: I had asked about the Quinn Opinion and I never got another answer. So, if you provided three opinions, I, at least, have two. I don’t know about anyone…
TC: I’ll try to find it, Joel, you go ahead.
JB: It’s not a black and white answer to the question but Mary, you were doing a good job of summarizing it until the very end, so let me, umm….
So, the original question was a brief question, which is why I gave a brief answer, and um, then I was given the benefit of the Conservation Agent’s research and I responded to the points raised there; and then, Mary, I got another set of your questions which asked for the detail on some of the points, and actually, what you see is my second opinion. You don’t have the third because I remember you said why didn’t I address the Quinn Opinion cause I remember saying in the third one I went into that in greater detail and we refer to it as the AG’s opinion but were talking about the same thing. One of the points I made, I didn’t address it directly, I did indirectly, some of my comments were based on the AG’s opinion, but I didn’t address directly because in the Conservation Agent’s e-mail, it really appears in her e-mail as a quote taken from somebody else, but eventually I got the question you asked.
Cont'd from above:ReplyDelete
JB (Cont'd:) But the bottom line is, let me talk about the substance and then we can circle back to my opinion if you want, but here’s the situation…the um, Town Meeting voted and I think maybe it’s only in the third opinion, about the history of that Town Meeting vote, the differences…is that gonna ring a bell? Cause if not, then this is in the third opinion…
[MD asks TC if he found a third opinion; TC says he’s not sure, but…MD apologizes for getting away from the discussion.]
JB: See if this rings a bell – I was mentioning the difference in the Town Meeting article from the Town Meeting vote. I think that was in the third opinion.
TC: What I have here for the third opinion from Shaun – this is dated 6/1 – “since the land was acquired for open space and conservation purposes, and it was acquired pursuant to Chapter 40, Section 8C, it cannot be used for playing fields unless there is an Article 97 vote of the legislature.” I’m thinking this is the first…[JB confirms that it is the first]…it’s part of this string but go ahead…I’m still trying to find the…
JB: Okay, so there are a lot of pieces to this but one of the um, points I make in the third opinion is that the actual vote taken, the Substitute Motion at Town Meeting, was different from the way it appeared in the article, and Mary, you had pointed it out in one of your e-mails, it was acquired for community preservation purposes. Some of the questions I addressed had to do with the CPA and I pointed out that the motion that actually got voted did mention the CPA, it was approved by the CPC, but it didn’t mention the CPA – there are a lot of moving parts here.
There’s the Article 97 issue but I think we all agree on most of the issues, that it is certainly under CPA, CPA funds can be used to fund an active recreation project and we agree that Article 97 protects active recreation lands, and those seem to have been issues you were most concerned about Mary, and I totally agree, and I hope that made it clear.
The tough issue is this: the vote ultimately taken did talk about acquiring the land for open space and conservation, and you know open space and conservation is a widely-used phrase and the fundamental question is, if land is acquired for open space and conservation purposes, can it be used for active recreation?
Honestly, the first exchange between Shaun and me, while it was devoid of a lot of the important background, the answer I gave you has been the answer that people who do open space and conservation, environmental work, have believed for years; but you pushed back on it and I went deeper and started to look for case law, because the answer I gave, which is ‘no’, it can’t be used for recreation – that’s the answer that people have been going with for the 30+ years I’ve been in practice in this area.
But, interestingly, there has been – CPA has accelerated – there’s been pressure to use conservation land for active recreation purposes. I’ve surveyed everyone in my office if there was case law; then I asked experts in the field. There is a trend toward using conservation land for recreation land.
People in the conservation world have this sense that you can’t find case law – it’s only a widely held belief…the reason why my e-mails are gray is, your question is gray.
So, good news is, if you advocate strongly, there’s nothing that says you can’t…but that wisdom may not be backed by law.
No law says you can’t do it.
Article 97 does include active recreation as a protected use; Town vote clearly ??? AG’s opinion gets constantly cited.
Cont'd from above:ReplyDelete
TC: The Town Meeting vote, as it was presented, as open space and conservation, we’re at a disadvantage – we have to make a decision as to whether the Shepard parcel can be used for active recreation. There’s already been money spent – Mary’s concern, as is mine, is not so much that we support or don’t support active recreation, but what is legally allowable --- I’m not comfortable making a decision on the parcel yet and I’m not sure that the information…a wealth of information has been provided to the board in the last few weeks, that would bear out that the Shepard parcel cannot be used for active recreation.
On the other hand, other information has been provided that would suggest the opposite is true.
You say there’s no case law, but that doesn’t provide me with a guarantee that we won’t end up with some form of potential litigation. We have to have a line in the sand drawn that is defensible one way or the other. Or we run the risk of subjecting the community to an awful lot of grief, aggravation, and the potential for litigation.
MD: Bottom line is, do you think it requires an Article 97 Act of the Legislature or not? Because I don’t want to be a year into building these fields, and we are subjecting ourselves to a lawsuit by moving forward without an Article 97 Act of the Legislature which was your original opinion and even in your second opinion you said there’s no case law…well that really doesn’t mean too much. We could be the first case, and I guess what I’m ask you is, based on all your knowledge, and we could get another legal opinion, too, which is what I might request of the board so we have a different opinion, but do you feel, based on your first opinion, your second opinion, Erin’s research, the trend that for decades only passive recreation was allowed…do you feel that the town needs to seek an Article 97 Act of the Legislature?
TC: Have you reviewed the opposing information (from Carol Childress?) If he answers that without benefit of other information…[JB agreed to review Carol’s e-mails and letters on this subject.]
MD: I want K&Ps opinion if town is opening itself up to litigation by an environmental group or a resident, if we move forward without an Article 97 action. Do you feel the best course of action is an Article 97 or do you feel we have solid ground to move forward, fact specific? That’s what we pay your for; I want to have your honest opinion. [MD mentions a preliminary injunction which would freeze everything.]
[Insert other here]
JB: Are we subjecting ourselves to a lawsuit? Depends on the community; I can’t answer that.
The following are summaries of JB’s statements in his effort to answer the above question:
How to move forward – best way to move forward is Article 97. When you go to the Legislature to remove land from Article 97 purposes, EOEEA exacts a serious pound of flesh.
You wouldn’t be looking to remove it from Article 97; you’re changing the purposes for which land was acquired from open space and conservation to open space, conservation, and active recreation.
Must talk with DCR first to be sure they’re okay with it first.
He hasn’t been involved in changing Article 97 purposes to another but it should be clear sailing.
Best thing is that it goes back to Town Meeting.
MD and SS conversation here: Shaun said, “let them sue.”
SS: Town Counsel already said the most conservative way to go is Article 97.
TC: Are you willing to say that the Article 97 is the safest and most appropriate way to go?
TC: There you go, that’s what we’ll do. Carol, you satisfied with that?
JB: It’s the only way to answer “are we subjecting ourselves to a lawsuit.”
TC: You are comfortable that that’s the safest and most expeditious approach?
CC: That’s really what I’ve been wanting since the very beginning, since I brought this up.
TC: It doesn’t do us any justice to circumvent the…
PG: What is Article 97?
Cont'd from above:ReplyDelete
JB explains what Article 97, the Amendment to the state’s Constitution is to PG…this will eliminate the gray area and open it to the town. Town Meeting first, then the legislature.
MD: This is not an acknowledgement that what the town has done so far is wrong; it’s to avoid litigation.
TC: This board seems to be having to fix or react to problems that didn’t get vetted originally. Does the board support a proposal for Article 97? Article 97 eliminates all that gray…
MB yes; AE yes; TC: yes; MD: yes.
MB: Motion to authorize Town Counsel to direct Town Counsel to pursue Article 97 for next Special Town Meeting. PG 2nd; all in favor.