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EDITORIAL: Serious Flaw In Charter Needs Attention

   The recent problems between the Board of Assessors on one side and the Town Manager and the so-called ‘Principal Assessor’ on the other have revealed a serious organizational flaw in how Assessing Department relationships are structured in Groton’s Charter.

   As Charter Review member John Giger discovered on studying state law Article 25, Board of Assessors have the power to choose assistant assessors to help them carry out their duties. The assistant assessor[s] become paid employees of the town and are primarily responsible for the technicalities of property valuations and dealing with the public on issues such as abatements. This is a clear, unambiguous and important job function.

    However, the Groton Charter muddles this straightforward job structure in ways that are detrimental to the clear and transparent functioning of government.

   First, the Charter bestows the title of ‘Principal Assessor’ on the person who functions as assistant to the Board of Assessors. The Charter-bestowed title is unfortunate because it leads to the mistaken belief that the job is separate from the elected Board of Assessors or has greater authority than the Board. We suggest that for the sake of clarity that the Charter title for this position be changed to: ‘Senior Assistant to the Board of Assessors.’

    Second, the Charter grants the person titled ‘Principal Assessor’ a policy-making role in town government. In the Charter, the person who functions in this job also serves on the Town Manager’s Department of Finance. [See Charter reference below.]

     Including an assistant to the Board of Assessors in a formal policy-making role in our town government makes for unclear lines of authority, muddles loyalties and introduces a highly political element to a straight-forward, technical job function. Such divided political, organizational and institutional loyalties could influence decisions and actions of the person in the conduct of his/her primary job function of assisting elected assessors in their duties.

   We believe it is bad policy for the person serving as a technical assistant to the Board of Assessors to also be granted a policy-making role in general government. In our view the Charter Review Committee should recommend removing the Senior Assistant Assessor from the town Finance Team for this reason.  Surely, whenever technical advice or an opinion is needed, one of the elected Assessors or an assistant Assessor could be called on by the Town Manager’s finance department.

   Finally, the Charter removed the power of the Board of Assessors to name their assistant[s], and gave that authority to the Town Manager. Perhaps, this would be acceptable if the person in this job function was being evaluated purely on input from the Board of Assessors and their ability to function as their assistant. Unfortunately, by also granting this job a policy-making role in town government, the Town Manager will have additional criteria in mind when evaluating a person for this job. These criteria could run counter to the best interests of taxpayers and the Board of Assessors.

   We have reviewed the Charters of many towns including Acton, Townsend, North Andover, Reading and Scituate. Not a single one of the these towns have an assistant Assessor with a policy-making role. It just doesn’t make sense.

   This serious flaw needs the full attention of the Charter Review Committee while they are still in session and able to make recommendations for changes to the Charter.

 

    Section 5-3: Department of Finance
(a) There shall be a department of finance in the town, reporting to the town manager, including an appointed town accountant, an appointed treasurer/collector and an appointed principal assessor. The department shall be responsible for the performance of all the fiscal and financial activities of the town.

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