SOUTH HADLEY – Only days away from an historical vote, South Hadley voters filled the Town Hall auditorium last Thursday night for a third and final debate on whether the town should adopt a mayor and city council form of government or stay on the present course of governance.
The town, divided for the past few weeks between the ‘blues’ or the “Yes” for mayor side and the ‘yellows’ or “No” mayor contingent, will decide on the proposed charter next Monday.
A year ago the nine member charter commission were elected to review the current form of town government and present a proposed charter. In the final report, a majority of the commission members recommended that the South Hadley remain a town but adopt a mayoral form with a town council and eliminate the town meeting.
A town council would be comprised of seven members, five from each precinct with two at-large members. Neither the mayor nor a member of the town council could serve as town employee once they took office.
The commission also recommended to increase the school committee to seven elected members, with six of the seven elected to two-year terms and the mayor as the seventh, voting member.
The minority opinion in the report wrote that they would scrap the selectboard and replace it with a town council and that the current position of town administrator would be replaced by a town manager. The town manager would have greater authority and the town meeting would continue, but be reduced to 60 members or 12 elected from each precinct.
The debate, part of the “Know Your Town Forum,” featured Charter Commission Members Constance “Connie” Clancy and Evelyn Chesky of the “blues’ and Linda Young and Ira Brezinsky of the “yellows.”
While blue and yellow signs have popped up on front lawns all over town, the auditorium reflected the same divide as supporters either sat on the “yes” or “no” side.
WWLP 22-News Anchor Jaclyn Cashman moderated the debate and tried her best to limit the length of audience questions that bordered, in some cases, on protracted and drawn out speeches. The questions for the main part of the debate were submitted by both sides.
As the debate began, it became clear that both sides wanted to claim the accountability mantel. Clancy said that it was “not change just for change,” but from residents who signed the petition to bring about the Charter Commission.
She said that the town deserves a leader that is a resident and who works full-time and for the best interest of the community. “Just as business needs someone in charge, so also does our community,” said Clancy.
Young said that no cost analysis had been done and spoke of a lack of transparency on the true cost of switching to the proposed mayor and town council format. She added that a professional town manager is needed for day-to-day operations.
She questioned whether such a drastic change was needed, especially when the town is experiencing a time of fiscal stability despite the economic downturn statewide. She said that South Hadley is the “envy of our neighbors.”
The theme of accountability came up again when Young and Brezinsky were asked about the lack of transparency with the votes of town meeting members not made public, while town council members votes would be publicly recorded.
Young agreed and that she and her fellow commission members against the proposed charter want more accountability. “That Citizens Against Mayoral Politics and the three of us on the charter commission has been saying since day one that we need change,” said Young. “There are many things that we can approve with our town form of government without throwing out the baby with the bath water.”
She wants votes of town meeting members recorded and published. Young also advocated that attendance records of meeting members be published and that ex-officio members not be counted in town meetings. Finally, she wants a warrant issued, if the proposed charter is defeated, for the next town meeting that would include the changes she discussed.
Chesky said that votes of town meeting members are not recorded. “There is a mystery there, there is nobody accountable,” Chesky said. “There is only meetings twice a year; these are facts. The antidotal stories are ‘yes, they didn’t pick up their packets and yes they didn’t look at them in time, and yes they did go to lunch and didn’t come back, and there wasn’t a quorum.’”
She added that during the research stage for the proposed charter, officials in town hall spoke to commission members and told them of town meeting members who changed their votes on a whim.
“This is what you heard. To be creating scenario that you’re going to have seven councilors who are going to be the check-and-balance on the mayor, whose vote is going to be recorded, whose going to be accountable,” said Chesky. “To say that some sort of tsunami is going to come into our town and that you’re going to wave the magic wand and everybody, over one issue, is going to be destroyed, is really not palatable.”
Afterwards Brezinsky said that most of the audience members have already decided how they would vote on the proposed charter. He said that he and others have been going door-to-door to explain why they are opposed to the mayor and town council format.
“What we found, and we’ve been turning a lot of heads by simply giving them facts,” said Brezinsky. “Our feeling is that, and I’ve been very outspoken about it, the process was flawed. That the process did not result in the kind analysis and the kind of documentation that was going to lead us in a particular direction.”
He added, “Our concern is that the law of unattended consequences, if the study is not done, if the research is not done in a scientific way, and it doesn’t get out there the way it should, then you go with a seat-of-your-pants since of what the community wants by who you talk to in the Big Y or who you see in the bank, or what have you. That’s not what we were elected to do.”
He said in that case, they (the commissioners) should have forgone the entire year and took a non-binding vote on the issue. Though research had been done by the Charter Commission, said Brezinsky, he believes little or no analysis was conducted on the material gathered thoughout the process.
Clancy sees the issue and voter intent differently. She said that a year ago when the town agreed to form the Charter Commission, voters that she spoke to then and who had signed the petition, assumed it was to propose a mayor-led town government. At that time, according to Clancy, she or others in the early-stages had not arrived at that conclusion.
“People were telling us that’s what they wanted for our community,” said Clancy. “And so we felt that was a driving force and we felt we had to be responsive for all of those people.”
When asked why at this point the town’s history to propose a new form of government? Clancy said, “I was a selectmen myself for six-years and you’re a part-time person doing the job and grant it we had an administrative assistant who was doing a lot day-to-day work, but it was hard to speak as one voice for the town of South Hadley because with five different people, you could have five completely different opinions and Ideas on how something should be done. You really need to have somebody who is the head.”
She added that the participation in town meeting is waning and that only 19 persons will stand for town meeting out of the 41 slots available. “They talk about reducing the size, but it’s already been reduced a couple of times. If you keep reducing it, it’s going to be down to the seven councilors before you know it,” said Clancy.
While it was clear by those on both sides of the debate that some change is needed in South Hadley, the level of change to be allowed by voters will be answered after the polls close Monday night.