'Strong' Town Administrator Proposed
Selectmen would cede power, turning attention to becoming a five-member policy board.
The Town Administrator as Belmont's "CEO."
A newly-constructed, independent and expanded Light Board.
And a five-member Board of Selectmen directing town policy rather than approving one-day liquor licenses.
Those recommendations, which will dramatically shift power from elected officials to the town's chief administrative officer, were presented by the little-known Government Structure Review Committee to the Belmont Board of Selectmen at its scheduled meeting Monday, Sept. 24 at Town Hall.
"These are recommendations that make sense for the future of Belmont," said Committee Chairman Paul Solomon to Belmont Patch after the meeting.
Solomon said the Committee is eager to begin working with David Kale, Belmont's new town administrator, on discussing his opinion on the recommendations.
While the preliminary suggestions included greatly increasing the Town Administrator's day-to-day powers to become the town's "CEO," according to Solomon, were met with general approval by the three-member Selectmen, one department head expressed his skepticism of the Committee's guidance.
"We have concerns on centralizing that type of power under a Town Administrator because you can't possibly be an expert in all the unique departments of the town," said Dr. David Alper, chairman of the town's Board of Health.
"To have a central person that knows the needs and qualifications to run a health department or a library department, well, it's just impossible," said Alper.
Solomon, a former Selectman and active in Belmont governance – he also chairs the Community Preservation Committee – said the creation of the final report in the next month will be a transparent process with ample opportunities for town and elected officials and the public to make their own recommendations.
"Yes, we'll give them another shot at this," said Solomon, noting that department heads have been before the committee on the recommendations.
The most prominent change proposed by the committee will be strengthening the Town Administrator's role, given him full authority over town departments and in the preparation of the town's annual budget by centralizing the budget and personnel functions of all elected and appointed boards.
The new Town Administrator position would have the power to appoint, remove, and discipline department heads, and appoint, remove and discipline the directors of all elected and appointed boards.
The TA's power would not extend to the School Committee, the Municipal Light Department and the Housing Authority since they were created by state statute.
In addition the new TA would have sole control over the lines of authority and control over buildings, parks, fields, grounds, information technology, purchasing and health insurance.
Finally, delving into human resources, the Town Administrator would lead the town's collective bargaining and labor relations with all of the town's unions.
Selectmen: Policy Board
Having ceded power to the Town Administrator, the Board of Selectmen will be transformed into a "strong" policy board, making decisions on Belmont's long-term direction, said Solomon.
It would then be possible and advantageous for the board to expand to five positions to allow for a greater diversity of thought on issues impacting the community.
Finally, the committee is seeking to take power away from the existing Belmont Light Board, made up by the three Selectmen, and set up a board that have members with utility management and operations experience.
"The entire subject of electrical generation is so arcane that you need people who understand it to make knowledgeable decisions. The Selectmen just don't have the expertise that we need," said Solomon.
But Alper – while speaking for himself, is expressing concerns raised by other town department heads – said that the creation of a CEO-like Town Administrator has numerous flaws.
"This idea of a CEO overseeing the town rather then the people who we elected to do that job is hard to see," said Alper, adding that town departments are unlike corporate offices.
"The only common thread linking town departments is their budgets. And that is the only way you control departments and elected boards like the Health Board," said Alper, who was re-elected to the board in April. He fears that a town administrator could control the actions of independent regulatory boards such as the Health Board by reining in its budget.
"At the end of the day, we just want our concerns heard and I think a lot of people in town want that same courtesy," he said.
Becky Vose, a member of the Review Committee, said that some town boards have legislative authority that nothing can change without a vote at Town Meeting and then on Beacon Hill.
"In reality, we have not settled on a final set of recommendations. We do have a general idea but we do want this to be a collaborative effort which we will walk our way through," said Vose, who recently was a member of the School Committee.
The committee made recommendations in 2009 which two – a recall measure for all elected officials and increased power to the Police Chief – were approved by town voters while another that would have reduced the size of the 290 representative Town Meeting by 60 members was defeated.
The committee hopes to have a final version of their recommendations in the Selectmen's hands by late October, fast tracking the process in an attempt to have an article before Town Meeting for the Special Town Meeting that usually occurs after the November general elections.