By Mark E. Vogler
Voters will get to decide in the Nov. 7 town election if Saugus’ current form of government should be studied by a nine-member Charter Commission and whether to elect candidates to serve on that commission.
“We’re going to be telling the Board of Selectmen that the petitions have enough signatures to be voted on,” Town Clerk Ellen Schena said Wednesday (Aug. 9) at the Board of Registrars meeting.
Schena, who is a member of the board, said that a petition drive spearheaded by Board of Selectmen Chair Anthony Cogliano had obtained 3,305 certified voter signatures – more than enough to guarantee a ballot question will be put before voters in November.
“The petitions needed 3,007 signatures to qualify for the ballot,” Schena said after the meeting. “That’s 15 percent of registered voters as of the last state election – Nov. 8, 2022 – 20,046,” she said.
Cogliano and a handful of supporters – several relatives – who worked on the petition drive gathered in the first floor conference room at Town Hall to get official confirmation of what they were expecting and hoping for: a chance for voters to consider a thorough study of potential changes in the Saugus Town Charter, essentially the constitution that determines how the community is governed.
“Now, the real work begins,” Cogliano said. “It’s all about educating the public and finding nine people that are willing to run for Charter Commission,” he said.
Armed with a new legal opinion from Town Counsel John Vasapolli that revises an earlier one challenged by Cogliano (see related story), he said he plans to run for reelection and also for a seat on the Charter Commission.
Schena told the Board of Registers that she would be sending an official report to the Board of Selectmen (Thursday, Aug. 10) notifying them that the petitions obtained enough valid signatures for the ballot question to be put on a warrant for the next local election. “Town Counsel and I have spoken about the actual wording for the warrant,” Schena said. “John [Vasapolli] and I will get with the state to see what wording is used for the ballot,” she said.
Meanwhile, Schena announced that a two-day review period will begin this morning at the Town Clerk’s Office and conclude at 5 p.m. Monday (Aug. 14) so “people can come in and challenge their signatures.”
Saugus citizens who want to run for one of the nine seats on the Charter Commission must obtain 50 certified signatures from registered voters to have their name placed on the ballot.
The ballot question for a Charter Commission could set the tone for the fall elections. Cogliano has been outspoken in his advocacy for a change in Saugus’ form of government. He has proposed that Saugus change from a town to a city. If it remains a town, he would prefer to see the town manager elected rather than serve at the pleasure of the Board of Selectmen.
Selectmen offer mixed reviews
Selectman Corinne Riley – Cogliano’s key ally on the board – said she was pleased with this week’s outcome. “I want to congratulate Chairman Cogliano on obtaining enough certified signatures to get the Charter Commission question on this November’s ballot,” said Riley, who signed the petition and supports the creation of a Charter Commission.
“It was a huge undertaking and he showed great determination,” Riley said. “With over 4,000 signatures obtained, it’s clear that there is a strong appetite to form a Charter Commission to review the current Charter,” she said.
Riley said she supports a new Charter Commission “so that the charter can be reviewed as a public process with public discussion and input, and ultimately accepted or rejected by the voters.”
“Speaking for myself, I’d like to see the charter amended to put more authority in the hands of the voters,” she said.
Riley said she is not interested in running for a seat on the Charter Commission. “However, whenever I have the opportunity to attend the meetings, I’ll provide my inputs there,” she said.
Selectman Michael Serino said he has some concerns about creating a Charter Commission. “Overwhelmingly, when Towns vote to form a Charter Commission, the final plan proposed to the voters is to change a municipality’s form of government from a Town to a City form of government,” Serino said.
“In Saugus, this would mean eliminating your five (5) elected Selectmen and your fifty (50) elected Town Meeting Members, thereby, replacing them with an elected Town Manager or Administrator and/or Mayor along with an elected nine (9) member City / Town Council,” he said.
“As to a run for Charter Commission, I am undecided. I have obtained my nomination papers to run for re-election to the Board of Selectmen this November.”
While the creation of a Charter Commission has the potential to polarize the Board of Selectmen, Selectman Jeffrey Cicolini seems to be keeping an open mind on the process.
“As I stated before, I will always continue to support the will of the people,” Cicolini told The Saugus Advocate. “Obviously the desire is there to establish a commission and I will fully support the decision and the commission. At this time, my plan is to run for reelection to the Board of Selectmen and I have yet to decide if I will run for the Charter Commission,” Cicolini said.
“My dad served as the Charter Commission chairman back in the 80’s and my mom served on the most recent commission, so I will never say ‘never.’ I do support the desire to take a fresh look at our governance and how we operate as there are always things that can improve,” he said.
“I look forward to the election and no matter who comprises the nine-member commission, I am sure they each will do a great job and have Saugus’ best interest at heart,” he said.
Panetta supports current system: Board of Selectmen Vice Chair Debra Panetta recalled how she had to make a choice back in 2007 on whether to run for the Board of Selectmen or the Charter Commission. Panetta said she wanted to run for both offices, but was told she could only serve in one of the offices, so she decided to run for Charter Commission and served as the vice chair. “At that time, our Town was in dismal financial condition, and we almost went into receivership,” Panetta recalled.
“The Essex Street Fire Station didn’t have enough funds to stay open full-time, and there was talk about closing our Library, Senior Center, and Youth and Recreation Center. The Town of Saugus was in financial ruin,” Panetta said.
“I knew we could do better as a Town, and we certainly have made huge strides since I was elected to the Board of Selectmen back in 2011. Today, we have earned an AA+ from Standard and Poor’s due to our strong economy and budget performance, saving taxpayers millions of dollars. We were able to maintain that high quality rating even through the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said.
“We have built a beautiful new Middle/High School, new parks and playgrounds, and we are even discussing building a third fire station. Being involved in Saugus government for over three decades, I’ve seen vast improvements. This has been due to the outstanding work of our Town Manager, Scott Crabtree, the Finance Committee, Town Meeting, our Treasurer/Collector Wendy Hatch, the Board of Selectmen, and all the Department heads and various Boards and Commissions in Town working for the betterment of our community. People always need to work together to achieve the best results for Saugus.”
Panetta noted that “one talking point in favor of the Charter Commission” is the ability to put staggered elections on the ballot, something the previous Charter Commission recommended. Although the Charter change did not pass in 2009 (53% voted no; 47% voted yes), the voters got another opportunity in November 2013 to vote for staggered elections. This also didn’t pass by the same margin, she noted.
“I supported staggered elections back in 2009, and I support it today. With that said, we do not need a Charter Commission to put staggered elections on the ballot – just like we didn’t need a Committee back in 2013. If this is something that people want, this should be placed on the November ballot,” Panetta said.
She noted that another “talking point” in the debate is that the Charter change would allow voters to vote for a Town Manager. “I think everyone would agree that the most educated, qualified, and experienced individual should be chosen to oversee our Town,” Panetta said.
“When you choose to elect the top position, you are changing from a ‘Town’ form of government to a ‘City’ form of government. So really, the discussion will revert back to ‘City’ vs. ‘Town.’ The biggest representative form of government is a Selectmen / Town Meeting form of government with Town Meeting members, Selectmen, and School Committee members, all elected by residents,” she said.
“This is what we have today. I’ve always felt that centralizing governmental power is never a good idea,” she said. “In the end, it is up to the Saugus voters on whether they are satisfied with our form of government, or whether they want to see major change.”