EDITORIAL: Selectmen Need To Uphold the Town Charter
There is no such thing as a ‘cookie-cutter’ Charter. Every Massachusetts town adopting a charter form of government writes their own Charter, their own governing document. There are often similarities between towns’ charters, but there are also many differences. The Massachusetts legislature developed the charter system to give towns flexibility to design a government to meet their special needs and challenges.
A town charter is somewhat similar to the US Constitution. It is the very document that transfers certain powers from the People to elected and appointed officials. Because each Charter is written by town residents and is unique, each town is the expert on its own charter, and is the interpreter of their own governing document.
There are many advantages to having a town charter. But one of the disadvantages, as Attorney Lauren Goldberg of Kopleman and Paige pointed out, is enforcement. Who enforces the Charter? She pointed out that Charters get violated all the time and there is usually not much consequence because there is no enforcement mechanism, except the ballot box.
Citizens must trust town officials, and especially Selectmen, to take their town Charter seriously, read it, understand it and live up to it.
Unfortunately, it appears that our Board of Selectmen and Town Manager, by granting IHM a building permit fee waiver without establishing a clear policy, violated Charter language approved by town meeting, language specifically related to the process of granting fee waivers. Perhaps, an even greater concern is that they may not have been aware they were violating the Charter because they had not read it.T
The People need to trust elected officials to live up to the Charter. Trust is the crux of it. Selectmen are the default guardians of the Charter. It appears that our Board of Selectmen has violated Charter language approved at town meeting this Spring.
As we mentioned in last week’s paper, the Charter Review Committee recognized that fees are an important source of town revenue. They recommended putting commonsense control on the administration of such fees. The voters agreed with this change and approved the following language at Spring Town Meeting:
"Section 7.10: Waiver of Administrative Fees
Administrative fees, fines, and penalties that may be charged by any Town department shall not be waived unless such waiver is authorized by a written policy, available to the public, adopted by that Town department, official, or board; such policy to authorize the waiver of a fee, fine or penalty may be made on an individual basis or as part of a policy decision of uniform applicability."
In our view, there can be little doubt that the Board of Selectmen, whether intentionally or not, violated Section 7.10 in granting Indian Hill Music Center a building permit fee reduction.
Selectmen are in the process of defining their goals for the year. We have heard lots of talk about a ‘strategic vision’ for the town and the importance of becoming more ‘business friendly’ but heard no mention of a goal of understanding, interpreting and upholding the Charter. We have Open Meeting Law and Sexual Harassment training. Perhaps there should be training on understanding and upholding the Town Charter.