Monday, July 16, 2012

Tradition is Good - Ineffectiveness is Bad

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on July 16, 2012

By Bill Gouveia

As is often the case in our society, what makes us great can also be among our biggest weaknesses. In the case of local government in Massachusetts and specifically this area, that strength/weakness is our local independence and determination to keep our municipal governmental structures unique to the towns they serve.

What do I mean by that complicated sentence? Just that our local area governments sometimes place more value on being different than on being representative and efficient. It appears being unique and having our own local customs and traditions is much important than streamlining, standardizing and regionalizing local governments to adapt to the present day fiscal and social realities.

If you have lived all of your life in this region like I have, you may not know how most local governments outside of Massachusetts differ from ours. Heck, judging by the voting records and levels of participation in some towns, you may not know much about the structure in the town where you reside. But suffice to say the New England region in general has a very different idea of local government than most of the rest of the country.

Across most of America, county government is the rule. The counties all vary at least somewhat in structure, but generally consist of collections of communities that share resources and spread out costs. They jointly fund things like school districts, public safety departments, medical care facilities, sewer districts, prisons and other basic services which are pretty much the responsibility of individual communities or the state here. They operate as real counties, not the few phony “faux counties” that exist locally.

Here in Massachusetts we rightfully take great pride in our individual city and town governments, and we cling to keeping them fully independent. Unlike communities across the Midwest, we don’t have “county executive directors” who oversee the combined financial affairs of the communities. Instead we have a wide variety of individual professional positions guiding our local governments, each with somewhat different duties and responsibilities.

For example, Norton and Mansfield have strong town manager positions. While there are differences in their responsibilities, they are somewhat similar. Both are in charge of formulating and presenting the town budget. Both hire and fire key town positions such as police and fire chief. Both play an active and leading role in negotiating contracts with town employees.

But in North Attleboro and Rehoboth there are no town managers. Instead there are town administrators, positions which are weaker by design so as to allow more control for elected selectmen and other part-time officials. They lack the authority of town managers. These positions remain today largely because those controlling the government – and often the people they serve – believe it is better to concentrate power in the hands of “ordinary citizens”.

Throughout most of the country towns are run by some version of a town council, which serves as the legislative body. They represent the citizenry and pass local laws and ordinances.

In New England, there are relatively few town councils. Instead we have Town Meeting, our most cherished and revered form of true democratic government. Town Meeting gives citizens a direct voice, although in this day and age that is sometimes more of a handicap. The fact fewer and fewer people seem to understand it and participate in it over time has not diminished our passion for it.

And each community’s Town Meeting is different, with different rules, customs and traditions. It is part of what makes this area so interesting and unique. It is also directly connected to the fact Massachusetts has some of the highest property taxes in the nation. We pay a price for our municipal individuality, one many consider worth it.

But the time has come to face the fact we may just not be smarter than the rest of the country. Maybe it is we who need to consider some basic changes to our 18th century form of government, rather than stubbornly clinging to the very New England attitude that there is our way, and then the wrong way.

We do not have to sell our souls to improve our town governments. But we do need to open our eyes and our minds to the possibility of logical change.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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