New Beginning: 2010 Archives
The Chatham selectmen who decided not to rehire the Town Manager for a 13th year, but instead to search for a new manager in whom they could place their trust and confidence for the difficult years ahead describe the decision process.
The three -- Florence Seldin, Sean Summers and Tim Roper -- decided delaying the decision on a new town manager for a year made no sense. After months of negotiation on vacation pay, severance and the like the five selectmen and the Town Manager made and signed an agreement. It was subsequently ratified by a 5-0 vote in an open selectmen's meeting. That should have been the end of it.
Dissatisfaction with the Town Manager's performance has been increasing in recent years. His most recent performance evaluation by the selectmen (reported in February of 2010) was a D or C-, hardly a ringing endorsement. And that was before the horrific bungling of the start to the sewer piping work on Route 28. With virtually no notice and with no prior consultation with local businesses or residents, the Town Manager had the heavy equipment show up and disruption and hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions in lost business followed. So a decision not to re-hire the Town Manager for another year but to go forward for a fresh start made eminent good sense.
After the public meeting to ratify the agreement reached by the five selectmen and the Town Manager, close friends of the Town Manager and some favored town employees (or their spouses) began an unprecedented recall effort to throw out of office the majority of the selectmen whose votes carried the decision not to rehire the Town Manager. Recall has never been used in Chatham. It is in the charter for extraordinary cases such as fraud, malfeasance and crimes, not for protesting a routine decision such as the hiring of a new town manager. It is like impeachment at the federal level.
The most disturbing aspect of the public meeting to ratify the agreement the five selectmen and the Town Manager had reached was the behavior of Chairman Sussman and Selectman Whitcomb. Even though they had signed the agreement with the Town Manager and publicly joined in voting for it 5-0, they publicly criticized the majority and applied pressure at the meeting in an effort to get one of the three to buckle. Sussman's effort was obviously directed at Florence Seldin, which was a despicable thing for him to do. To her credit, she let it be known she would not be intimidated. She had agonized over the decision for many days and made the decision in the best interests of the town. Sussman concluded his demagogic behavior by waving the town charter at the audience and urging a recall action.
See for yourself (click on the photo to get rolling):
There may be a slight glitch; if it stops move the little black dot on the line at the bottom slightly to the right and it should start up. There is about 3:40 of Chatham scenes for introduction which can be skipped by moving the black dot to the right.
You can also view directly on the town website. Click here.
Town Counsel as recently as last year ruled that selectmen who vote for a matter must then publicly support it, even though they had initially objected to it. The Town Manager in late October, 2008, right after the successive market collapses of August and October, signed a very rich three-year union contract calling for compensation increases ranging between 5-7%. This was done despite the fact that many if not most town residents had suffered massive losses in their life savings. At the selectmen's meeting to approve the contract, Selectman Summers voted against approval, but it was approved 3 to 1. Subsequently, when it was incorporated into the budget, Summers voted with the other selectmen to recommend the warrant question on the budget, but said he would speak against it at town meeting. Town Counsel ruled he could not undermine the affirmative vote he had cast.
The obligation of Sussman and Whitcomb is the same. They signed the agreement with the Town Manager. They joined in a unanimous public vote to approve it. Therefore, they appear to be in violation of the rule enunciated by Town Counsel, as well as policies of the selectmen, particularly 3(c) and 3(d), in attacking the agreement made in executive session and urging hostile action against the three selectmen, as they both did at the selectmen's meeting after the unanimous approval vote.
The recall effort quickly turned ugly with unfounded charges lodged against the majority selectmen in flyers, letters to the local papers and the recall petitions themselves.
Citizens going to a special town meeting on school regionalization were harassed to sign recall petitions. People entering the public Community Center this past Friday met a bullying crowd in the lobby seeking their signatures on recall petitions set up on the reception desk used by the town employee on duty. It looked as if the recall was officially sanctioned by the town employee in charge. Outrageous.
The Cape Cod Chronicle fed the flames (indeed, set them) with a headline "Hinchey Lynching?" The paper referred to the decision not to renew as the Town Manager being "ousted," which it clearly was not. The Town Manager will complete his current contract as agreed. The Chronicle said the Town Manager had not been reviewed since 2008, even though the Chronicle itself published a report of the most recent review (the D or C- review) on February 4, 2010.
Each selectman voting not to renew the Town Manager's employment had his or her own reasons. As with any such personnel decision in any business, details about the reasons for non-renewal were kept confidential. There can be no question that Florence Seldin, as well as the other selectmen, did what they concluded was best for the town. Seldin had been a tireless volunteer on many committees for years before becoming a selectman. She works hard, she digs for the facts, she is honest, fair and open. She votes too often for more spending than CCT likes, but she has our respect. Tim Roper said at the selectmen's meeting he had been a friend of the Town Manager for years, so his decision was not personal, but made to take the town in a more responsible spending direction. Sean Summers has served the town faithfully and well, being a lone voice calling for more attention to taxpayer concerns and ending overstaffing and overspending, for seven years.
Chatham Concerned Taxpayers certainly supports, indeed, applauds, the decision to seek a new town manager. The reign of the present town manager has been characterized by chronic overspending and steadily rising tax bills. The tax rate is meaningless. It's the result of Chatham's inflated property assessments (6th highest per capita in the state) and the fact that annually the town benefits from property tax windfalls paid by non-residents who impose minimal cost burdens on the town.
Proposition 2 1/2 in Massachusetts was meant to be a restraint on spending and the rise of property taxes in cities and towns. But in Chatham over the past decade the average spending increase each year has been about 6%, far above 21/2%. Indeed, according to state records, our neighbor Orleans, about the same size geographically and about the same in population, spends about 30% less per year than Chatham does. That's currently a difference of $9-$10 million per year. That gap will get larger as debt services charges for the enormously expensive sewer (CCT estimate: $450-$500 million) start hitting.
Chatham capital projects always seem to be bigger and more expensive than many thought they should be. To replace a 3,000 square foot community center for the children a 22,000 square foot project costing $10 million resulted. The children only use about 3,000 square feet. The rest of the building is underutilized. Some functions were added to use up the extra space, such as an exercise room for adults. Poor planning for children and adults: No locker rooms, no showers. Meeting rooms are empty most of the time since there is ample public meeting space elsewhere in town.
Nearing completion is a kind of second town hall to house the police and planning and permit issue people. At most about eight police will be on duty at any one time, we're told; nonetheless, they will have 19,000 square feet to luxuriate in. Despite the police having access to the exercise room at the community center, they will have their own gym in their new headquarters. As for the planning/permitting folks, they will rattle around in 20,000 square feet. The $17 million structure, dubbed the Taj Mahal by some, actually will cost more than that because it was built without a wastewater disposal system. Running piping up George Ryder Road from Route 28 will add at least a few hundred thousand if not more to the cost. Early plans for a new fire station also include a gym. And so it goes.
Readers can scroll through earlier entries on this website and find many, many reasons to be dismayed about the present Town Manager's years in office.
But, one may argue, aren't all these decisions made by the selectmen or town meeting?
In function, yes, in reality, no.
Why is the president of the United States limited to eight years? Because one administration over time acquires more and more power and controls more and more of the flow of information.
This is true in Chatham as well, but the administration in this town is the Town Manager.
This Town Manager has negotiated every contract establishing salaries and benefits for all unionized non-school employees. He has set the salary for almost every other non-school employee. He has hired many if not most of them. Needless to say, they are responsive to his wishes.
All information flows to and through the Town Manager. The Town Manager not only carries out the policies set by the selectmen, he is their principal advisor on setting policies, establishing budgets and proposing projects. It's no surprise that what he proposes usually gets rubber stamped by the board of selectmen and carried at town meeting. He says he doesn't set policy, only executes what the selectmen decide. Hogwash. He's in control.
Do the selectmen know about what they're voting for? Do they know all their options? Does town meeting? In many cases the answer is "No." From our close observation over the past two years, the Town Manager presents information to support his position and does his best (usually successfully) to keep contrary information from getting to the selectmen or town meeting or voters in general. At town meeting, town employees, their relatives and friends are a formidable bloc of votes and budgets with fat raises and increases in pension and health benefits always seem to get approved. The first town meeting spending plan after the October 2008 market collapse proposed by the Town Manager provided raises of 5-7% for all town employees. The public employee bloc vote prevailed over the objections of some 300 plus voters. Did the Warrant detail how rich the raises were? No.
Were Chatham voters, reeling from losses in their savings, told that they were voting compensation increases for public employees who already earned far more than most of the households in town are living on? No.
Mean household income in Chatham is $57,379 or less (2008 Census figures). CCT calculates that the average full-time town employee has total annual compensation in excess of $70,000.
In fact, the Town Manager's FY10 spending plan not only contained those rich increases in compensation, overall it exceeded expected FY10 revenues by more than $1 million. The Town Manager used off-budget money such as the emergency fund to fill the gap; how could there be an emergency when town employees are getting such handsome raises?
The FY10 spending plan deficit may have been closer to $2 million than $1 million since non-property tax revenues were in decline. How much they were down was not known because the Town Manager refused to provide that information to CCT and the Finance Committee despite repeated requests.
That FY10 deficit spending made for an unbalanced FY11 stuation, which the Town Manager "solved" by pushing as much as he could into FY12. "Cuts" in spending were minimal. The FY12 crisis is the culmination of years of overspending under the direction of this Town Manager made dramatically worse by the FY10 spending plan that was far, far in the red. At a time when CCT called for fiscal prudence, level spending with FY09 and deferral of all non-emergency capital projects until good economic times returned, the Town Manager imprudently continued his overspending ways.
As for how the Town Manager planned to and did ram the centralized sewer through town meeting without any vote on the overall plan or providing any honest information about taxpayer costs, please review our many entries on that. He wanted a hugely expensive 19th century centralized sewer for Chatham and he got it. Will it really improve Chatham's embayments as claimed? No one knows. That's why nine Cape towns are now discussing with the National Academy of Sciences a peer review of the state plan which Chatham alone forged ahead with. Before these towns spend hundreds of millions of dollars of their taxpayers' dollars, they want to know the science is good and what they're being told to do by the state will in fact make an improvement in their coastal waters. Was Chatham's Town Manager irresponsible in making Chatham the guinea pig of an unproven, untested state plan? We think so.
We hope the citizens of Chatham will show their good sense and that the recall actions will fail. It is astonishing that the Town Manager has not asked his friends and supporters to desist, but has allowed the poison to spread. He signed an agreement. He was not under duress. Even his two supporters on the board signed it, a clear indication that the agreement was acceptable to the Town Manager if not what he had hoped.
It's time to move on.
The seach process for a new town manager is beginning. Chatham is an attractive assignment and a host of qualified applicants is assured. We hope many folks will volunteer to serve on the five-person search committee being established by the Board of Selectmen.