By Michael J. Serino
Over the past several months, many residents have asked me questions regarding the election of a Town Manager. Many residents believe that we can elect a Town Manager and still retain our elected, five-member Board of Selectmen and our elected 50 Town Meeting Members.
Municipalities that elect the top position can use different names such as “Town or City” Manager, Administrator and Mayor. However, when you choose to elect the top position, you are changing your “Town” form of government to a “City” form of government with an elected Council. Of the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts, 44 have made the conversion to a city form of government. Thirty-five of the 44 municipalities have between nine and/or 11 council members, usually depending on population.
One example of changing Saugus’s “Town” form of government to a “City” form of government, by electing a Town Manager and a nine member “Council” would result in the following:
TOWN BUDGET: (Saugus has a 120 million dollar a year town budget and 10 million dollars in free cash). State law requires a majority vote to spend funds. A charter change would result in the elimination of our elected 50 town meeting members, in which a majority of 26 votes is needed to pass a budget. Consequently, this would be replaced by a nine member council who would be responsible for approving all budgets with a majority of five votes.
STABILIZATION FUND: (Saugus has 10 million dollars in its stabilization fund). State law requires a two-thirds vote to spend these funds. A charter change would result in the elimination of our elected 50 town meeting members, in which 34 votes would be needed to spend any funds. Consequently, this would be replaced by a nine member council who would be responsible for spending funds with six votes.
TOWN BYLAWS and ZONING: State law requires a two-thirds vote to pass a town bylaw or the zoning of property. Examples of zoning changes can include changing single family house lots to multi-family house lots or mixed use lots, increasing building heights and the number of apartments allowed on a lot. A charter change would result in the elimination of our elected 50 town meeting members, in which 34 votes would be needed to change zoning. This would be replaced by a nine member council who would be responsible for changing our bylaws and zoning with six votes.
Other options are available to update our present town charter, without changing our form of government. In 2009, under Town Moderator Bob Long, a nine member Town Meeting Charter Committee was formed to make updates to our existing town charter.
Town Meeting Member Peter Rossetti, served as chairman. Donald Wong and myself serving as vice-chair, represented the Board of Selectmen. Wendy Reed and Tom Stewart represented the School Committee.
In 2010 the committee recommended five charter changes to Town Meeting. Members did approve the charter changes by the required two-thirds vote. The charter changes include: the Board of Selectmen are the town’s chief policy makers (38-2). A five year Capital Plan must be implemented and updated every year (40-4). The submission of the School Committee Budget to the town manager was moved up to February 1st, the beginning of the budget process (39-5). A candidate shall not run for more than one town-wide public office to include, the Board of Selectmen, School Committee and Housing Authority (31-15). Any Leasing of Town Property, for more than 180 days, would need approval by a majority vote of the Board of Selectmen (40-6). The Massachusetts State Legislature did approve the charter changes.
Furthermore, in 2011 Town Meeting Members did approve by the required two-thirds vote of (41-0), a charter change regarding the process to fill a vacancy on the School Committee. The Massachusetts State Legislature did approve the charter change.
Moreover, in 2013, Town Meeting Members did approve by the required two-thirds vote of (29-11), a charter change regarding the number of votes to “renew” an existing Town Manager’s contract from four votes to three votes of the five member of the Board of Selectmen. The (1982) requirement of four votes to originally hire a town manager and the (1984) requirement of four votes to fire a manager has not changed.
The Massachusetts State Legislature did approve the charter change.
Also in 2013, Town Meeting Members did approve by the required two-thirds vote of (36-3), a charter change to have STAGGERED ELECTIONS for our elected offices of Board of Selectmen and School Committee and the required establishment of “annual” town elections. However, Massachusetts General Law requires any change in “election cycles” and/or “elected positions” of government must be approved by the residents/voters of the community. Consequently, Saugus voters went to the polls in November of 2013. While 47% voted in Favor of staggered elections, 53% voted No.
In conclusion, if the intent is to elect the top position in government, our present form of government must be changed from a “Town” charter to a “City” charter (council) form of government (MGL Ch 43). Consequently, a Charter Commission must be formed. However, if you want to make changes within our present “town” charter, you can accomplish this through the town meeting process. I hope this information is helpful to the residents of our community.
Selectman Mike Serino
Editor’s Note: Michael J. Serino is a lifelong Saugus resident who has been active in local government for many years. Serino, 69, is a 1971 Saugus High School graduate. He is completing his second consecutive two-year term on the Board of Selectmen. But he served as chair during his previous time on the board. His public service also includes chairing the Conservation Commission, Board of Assessors, the Open Space Committee and the Saugus Resident (First-Time) Homebuyer Program. In addition, he has served as an elected Town Meeting Member from Precinct 10, Vice-Chairman of the Town Meeting Charter Committee and a member of the Saugus Planning Board. He has devoted many hours to planning and zoning issues.