Monday, September 10, 2012

Can't Do Your Job With Your Eyes Closed

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Monday, September 10, 2012.

By Bill Gouveia

            Local government is all about getting people involved and active in their community.  Or at least, it ought to be.  But in Seekonk, there seems to be a different philosophy at work.

            In a joint meeting last week, selectmen and Housing Authority members appointed Selectman Francis Cavaco to a recently vacated post on the elected Housing Authority.  Cavaco will now serve until the unexpired term is filled at the April town election.

            The vacancy was not advertised to the general public.  It was not posted on the town web site.  It was not advertised in the local newspapers.  Unless you are a local political insider or activist, you probably didn’t know there was an opportunity available to serve your town.

            This is not the first time selectmen have chosen one or more of their own to be appointed to another town board.  Last year Carvaco and fellow selectman Robert McLintock effectively took control of the local Board of Health when helped appoint themselves to fill vacancies there.  That resulted in a new bylaw being overwhelmingly approved at Town Meeting which prevents sitting selectmen from serving on other town boards.

            Selectmen reacted to that mandate by joining their lawyer in claiming it to be illegal.  The law is currently under review by the state attorney general’s office.  But while the legality of the statute itself may be in question, there is no doubt Town Meeting was sending a clear message to their leaders.  But those leaders have deliberately chosen to ignore it.

            Selectman McLintock said he is opposed to the way selectmen fill vacancies via public interviews, claiming it makes the board “look like a bunch of buffoons”.  While he may well be correct about the result, he is absolutely wrong about what is causing it.

            The mistake selectmen have made here is not just appointing their own to fill important government roles.  Their gravest error is showing disrespect to the citizens they represent.  They continue to keep talking when they should be listening.  They are spending considerable time and effort to deny ordinary citizens an active role in government, rather than aggressively recruiting them for public service. 

            Housing Authority chairman James Tusino defended the action of selectmen, noting the difficulty of attracting good candidates.  “We have somebody on the hook that’s actually interested in giving another night to the community,” he said.  “I’m afraid if we let the person get off the hook, we’ll be left with no candidates in another month.”

            The chairman is right about how difficult it is to attract strong candidates to fill boards and committees these days.  But it is worth noting you cannot hook anything unless you first cast your line.  If the Housing Authority or the Board of Health openings had been better advertised or more sincerely pursued, the odds of landing a good new member may still have been slim.  But by not even advertising, they become non-existent. 

            When questioned as to whether or not their action flew in the face of the recent Town Meeting decision, Selectman McLintock responded by declaring “Town Meeting on this particular item has no bearing until the attorney general rules.”  This disturbing statement clearly shows McLintock and some of his colleagues just don’t get the real issue here.

            Whether the law passed by Town Meeting is legal or not really isn’t relevant here.  By approving it, Seekonk citizens clearly spoke - with the voice provided them by their town charter - and said they did not want their selectmen double-dipping in regard to political office.  If their elected leaders ignore that unambiguous statement based upon some legal technicality, they clearly do not understand their role in the relationship.

            The excuse that the Housing Authority is actually a state board is a frivolous argument.  The elected position in question can only be filled by a Seekonk registered voter.  That makes it a town position in virtually every sense of the word.

            Local leaders should be all about extending opportunities to serve, not denying them.  You cannot conduct a search for qualified candidates with your eyes firmly shut.  Seekonk voters deserve more respect from their selectmen.  It is well past time that town’s government stopped being a private club and returned to being a public collaboration.

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

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