Friday, November 30, 2012

Time to Zero Out TM Quorums

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Friday, November 30, 2012.

By Bill Gouveia

About 150 Mansfield citizens took time out of their busy schedules recently to attend a duly-called and posted Town Meeting. Those good folks were there to attend to the business of the town and make many decisions affecting the community as a whole.

But they were turned away and respectfully told to go home. They were not allowed to cast their votes or conduct town affairs. The meeting was postponed until April because Mansfield’s Town Meeting requires a quorum of 200 to conduct business. In essence, the 150 voters who showed they cared were neutralized by the thousands who were otherwise occupied.

That is – in a word – dumb.

Mansfield has over 13,000 registered voters. They are represented in part by a five-member board of selectmen and a five-member school committee. That means three members of either board can carry a vote. Those committees make major decisions which have tremendous impact on the citizens and taxpayers of that fine community.

They can apparently be trusted to do so, but 150 citizens are not considered sufficient to give final consent and endorsement of those choices. It is okay if you have 200 people making these decisions, but not 150. That is somehow not considered a representative group. This is a clear case of favoring quantity over quality.

The idea of having a quorum is to prevent a small number of citizens with possible selfish interests from showing up and dominating the Town Meeting. After all, 200 citizens represent a mere 1-1/2 percent of the total number of voters in town. You have to draw the line somewhere, right?

Wrong. You can take the step many other communities have successfully made and eliminate the quorum entirely. A zero quorum guarantees town business never goes undone and is conducted in an open and straightforward manner. It also means rewarding the participation of those who show up, and recognizing the silliness of creating an arbitrary standard that has proven to be nothing more than a political weapon.

The quorum is presented as a way to guarantee the integrity of Town Meeting, but in fact often does just the opposite. When a meeting runs late or is particularly boring (this happens quite often) many people go home. Those who stand to lose when a vote is taken often ask for a quorum count as a way to delay their defeat and give themselves time to rally more supporters – while appearing to be defending the concept of democracy.

In Norton, a zero quorum has been in effect for more than two decades. The overall impact has been to generally raise the average attendance at the meetings. Sure, there have been a few where participation has been under 100 hearty souls. There have also been meetings where 1500-2000 have turned out. But people know when and where the town’s business will be decided, and the idea of winning by staying away is not an option.

In fact, the fear of a handful of voters showing up and leading the town towards disaster has been a great motivating factor for Norton citizens. People tend to show up just so that can’t happen. Some believe fear and distrust is not the best way to inspire attendance, but the numbers and human nature say otherwise.

Many claim a quorum of at least 200 is needed to prevent special interest groups from “stacking” any particular Town Meeting with their supporters. Excuse me, but isn’t that really what Town Meeting is all about? Isn’t the whole idea to get more people to vote the way you want than the other side does? It’s only “stacking the meeting” if you lose. If you win, it’s a great exercise in democracy.

If you have controversial and “sexy” issues at your Town Meeting, people will turn out. If you merely have the important but mundane business of the town to conduct, you will attract fewer. That’s life and politics – which is exactly what you find at Town Meeting.

Here’s hoping Mansfield and other communities ditch the antiquated quorum requirement for this uniquely New England Town Meeting form of government. If you are going to have a system dependent upon citizen participation, you should accept that participation as it comes.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and the Norton Town Moderator. He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Sad Demise of Devil Dogs

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Monday, November 19, 2012.

By Bill Gouveia

            When I first heard that Hostess was going out of business, I was not bothered at all. 

Sure, I have eaten a few Hostess chocolate cupcakes in my day.  And yes, those little powdered donuts are nearly impossible to stop devouring once you start.  But I have never been a fan of Twinkies, the Hostess delicacy that has become the very symbol of nutritionally disastrous yet tasty fare.  The passing of this snack food giant initially seemed to have virtually no effect on my gluttonous lifestyle.

Then I got a text message from my daughter-in-law.  She wrote to express her sympathy that one of my favorite guilty pleasures – Devil Dogs – would be disappearing from store shelves.  I chuckled at her obvious error, and wrote back that my Devil Dogs were safe.  They are made by Drake Cakes and not Hostess, I explained.  I had nothing to fear.

Then she texted back that Drakes was owned by Hostess.  A chill ran up and down my spine as her words crossed the screen of my mobile device.  Surely she was mistaken.  I began to text back to tell her she was wrong.

Then there was a beep, and my eyes went to the Wikipedia link she had texted me explaining the relationship between Hostess and Drakes.  I was stunned.  Yet there it was, undeniable and yet still unthinkable.  And the horrible reality of the situation began to descend upon me like a gloomy storm cloud.

I am now facing the possibility of a future without Devil Dogs.

You may scoff at my plight, and consider it trivial.  But Devil Dogs and I have been best of friends for some five decades now.  The elongated chocolate cake halves and creamy filling have been an integral part of my life.  It is like losing an old friend – even though that friend may not have had the best of influences on you.

When I trudged off to first grade at the LG Nourse School in Norton back in the early 60’s, there was a Devil Dog in my lunchbox making the trek with me.  It was a reassuring familiarity, packed away by my Mom with love to try and make sure I felt safe and secure in my new surroundings.  I ate my sandwich, drank my milk, and then savored my Devil Dog.  It gave me the strength and confidence to work my way through those grueling alphabet drills and kept me running and playing at recess. 

Devil Dogs were often my reward for achieving something or simply getting through the day.  They have been my emotional crutch, one of my sources of support and comfort.  While they may well be largely responsible for my rotund shape and general nutritional failure, they deserved a better fate.  It should not have ended for them like this.

Ring Dings are not my concern.  Yodels are something that should stay in the Swiss Alps.  Funny Bones you can laugh about if you choose.  But Devil Dogs are a genuine piece of Americana.  They are up there with apple pie and ice cream in the Pantheon of snack foods and desserts.  While there have been many imitators who have aspired to copy and capture the flavor and character of Devil Dogs, none have succeeded. 

I remain hopeful Devil Dogs will continue somehow.  Perhaps the brand and the super-secret recipe will be sold to some brilliant and enterprising businessperson.  If Hostess and Drakes had just concentrated on this one special product, they would no doubt still be in business today.  Devil Dogs practically sell themselves.

In the short-term I will be okay, thanks again to my daughter-in-law.  Knowing my plight, she went out and secured a stash of this valuable commodity to tide me over through the initial crisis.  While she does not approve of me gorging, she does understand.

I have not been so depressed and worried since Coke did that stupid “New Coke” thing a few decades ago.  Public outcry saved that iconic product.  Perhaps it can happen again. 

If the government can save GM, it should be able to save Devil Dogs.  Wait until my congressman gets this letter.  But my grandchildren should not have to grow up in a world without Devil Dogs.

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

Friday, November 16, 2012

North Attleboro Needs Centralized Authority

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

User fees – particularly in school systems – are never a popular thing. That is especially true with those who have to pay them.

This past year North Attleboro joined the growing ranks of area towns charging students and parents fees for things like athletics, extracurricular activities, parking and other privileges that were formerly fully funded by the community. School officials instituted the fees in the face of growing expenses and slowing revenues, spurred on by efforts to keep the Allen Avenue School open. According to estimates, some 1700 parents forked over the extra charges.

Last month North’s RTM transferred $1.2 million into the town’s saving account, known as the stabilization fund. They did so to try and set aside funds for the uncertain financial future ahead. Any monies in the stabilization account are usually used to eventually offset drops in revenue, large increases in operating expenses, or to fund large capital purchases or expenditures.

But apparently not everyone was impressed by the town’s efforts to plan for the future. Selectman John Rhyno said he was “besieged by phone calls” from parents angry they had paid money when the town apparently had funds to spare. He said the money should be given back to the people who paid it as a matter of trust, explaining “there are a lot of frustrated people out there”.

He also tied the recent talk of a Proposition 2-1/2 override to the fees, stating “that money is going to have to be paid back before that override is going to go anywhere”. He then added that “maybe if you did that, there’d be some trust”.

If Selectman Rhyno and his fellow board members are really concerned about “trust”, they should start by establishing a little more with their elected school committee. They voted to send a letter to school officials asking them if they were going to consider the issue. Considering the deadline for placing an article on the warrant for the January 7 town meeting is November 26 – and the school committee has no scheduled meeting before then – this is a move lacking in substance but overflowing with politics.

For the umpteenth time, the lack of centralized professional authority in North Attleboro is on full display. In most towns the town manager is in effect the budget officer. In North, the weak position of town administrator does not have that authority. That leads to a disjointed process and political grandstanding such as this.

Eliminating the fees going forward is one thing. Taking nearly a half-million dollars and going through the expense of refunding it is yet another. While the selectmen’s desire to return money to struggling taxpayers is laudable, their logic is faulty. Town Administrator Mark Fisher told the board it would take approximately 840 hours to refund the fees, and that it may leave the town short of funds in the future.

More than that, it simply is not their decision. What Selectman Rhyno hopefully told those who “besieged” him with phone calls is to call their school committee members. The fees were part of the budget package voted on at town meeting. It was a policy decision by the school committee. The selectmen do realize they are not responsible for that policy, which is why they are asking for consideration from school officials.

Talk of refunding the fees helping to make a case for a possible override is just silly. If your financial position requires considering an override, why would you start returning funds? Refunding the fees means eventually those funds would be made up via the property tax. You have to wonder if selectmen will be “besieged” by calls from people without kids in school wondering why they have to make up that difference.

Rhyno’s fellow members seemed lukewarm about the proposed refund, backing the request to send the letter but clearly concerned about the politics involved. They agreed the final decision rests with the school department, and Selectman Mark Williamson went so far as to state he did not “want this to be a political hot potato between us and the school committee.”

Let’s hope it is not too late for that. Town policy is not something you change at the last moment after receiving phone calls.

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Selectman's Facebook Posts Not a Problem

This column originally appeared int he Sun Chronicle on November 13, 2012.

By Bill Gouveia

Last week in Mansfield, Selectman Olivier Kozlowski came under fire from the school committee and others for comments made on his Facebook page.  The discussion that ensued was an interesting commentary on the use of social media in local government, as well as a textbook example of how to solidify political advantage.

Kozlowski was on the defensive for posts he made regarding the budget sub-committee of which he is a member.  That committee was created to facilitate discussion and hopefully improve communication between the “town side” and “school side” with regard to funding and the splitting of revenues.  This is in the wake of a huge budget disagreement last year, which was settled at the last minute and presented to Town Meeting with little to no public scrutiny.

School committee members were upset not so much at the content of Kozlowski’s comments as they were their context.  The selectman apparently referred to things allegedly told him by other committee members, and openly questioned and discussed what direction should be taken in budget strategy.

School officials said Kozlowski’s Facebook comments were a major problem to their negotiating process with school unions.  They were concerned his continued posting on such matters would inhibit open and honest discussion on the budget, and result in a return to the animosity and budgetary protectionism of the past. 

This is a two-sided coin.  There is no doubt bargaining strategy within a negotiating team should be kept private at least until the negotiations are complete.  That is not “hiding” anything from the public, but merely doing your job properly and professionally.  After all, Bill Belichick doesn’t send his game plan to the other team prior to each Sunday’s contest. 

At the same time, the budget subcommittee is not a negotiating team.  It is a public body formed for the purpose of providing give-and-take on the budget.  You would hope it was also formed with an eye towards changing the way things are done and the philosophy that has dominated negotiations and contributed to budget shortfalls.  Perhaps it might even be a way to gain public input towards shaping the town’s economic plan.

School committee members claimed Kozlowski’s remarks were causing “serious damage” to their negotiations.  Frankly, there is little to nothing in the way of hard facts to prove that opinion is accurate.  While school officials may well believe any public discussion of how they can and should proceed with regard to regulating salaries and benefits for employees is improper, they may also be exaggerating that impact while seeking to protect their education budget.

When the budget fiasco hit Mansfield last year, the real losers were not either the board of selectmen or the school committee.  Those who lost the most were the citizens who wanted good advance information upon which to make solid financial decisions at Town Meeting.  They were forced to basically rubber-stamp something that was a done deal before they even voted.  They were irrelevant in terms of having an actual say.

That is much more of a threat to Mansfield than any alleged undermining of negotiations.  That is an undermining of the entire democratic process.  It happens all the time, and not just in Mansfield.

A cursory review of Kozlowski’s posts do not seem to reveal any secrets or comments that would cause “severe damage” to any negotiations.  Could they anger some of the union leadership and members?  Sure.  Could that then wind up in some type of increased adversarial confrontation at some point in the negotiating process?  Quite possibly.

But it is just as possible the school committee is upset because the remarks somewhat negate the inherent political advantage almost all school committees have.  They come with something of a built-in constituency with regard to parents.  They have a tough and important job, and they work hard to provide the best educational system they can.  Anything that makes that more difficult is no doubt upsetting.

Asking town officials not to personally post anything that can possibly upset negotiations is a wide-ranging request.  Virtually anything can be claimed to affect negotiations.  And frankly, sometimes the whole point is to try and influence negotiations.  It’s called “leadership”.

Selectmen are not students, and the school committee really shouldn’t treat them as such.

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

Friday, November 9, 2012

Foxboro Selectmen Now Totally Transparent

by Bill Gouveia

 When the Kraft Organization, owners of Gillette Stadium and Patriot Place, announced they were pulling out of "negotiations" with the Town of Foxboro, it seemed like a negative for all parties.  But this may be a good thing, especially for the town.

            You see, the term "negotiations" has not fit this situation for some time now.  The truth is Foxboro stopped "negotiating" with the Kraft Group when selectmen decided to not even allow the presentation of a casino proposal.  That was not negotiating - that was dictating.  Since that time, Foxboro officials have adopted that as their official policy.

            Maybe it's because it worked with the casino.  It helped get one selectman booted out, one elected, one reelected, and brought forth a tremendous election turnout.  The selectmen who prevented discussion were certainly riding high afterwards.  Perhaps some of them decided this "get tough with Kraft" policy was the politically wise way to handle all dealings with the town’s single largest taxpayer.

            So since that time they have been tough.  They stalled talks with the Kraft Group over future development at Patriot Place for well over a year.  They formed at least two different negotiating teams, and then disbanded them.  They insisted on negotiating with Kraft officials in public, and then canceled several meetings with little notice.  Some publicly stated they will not make any agreements with Kraft until they get what they think they are owed from the last negotiations.  Unfortunately, their argument they are owed anything is based on what their former attorney called “a social contract”.

            They failed to adopt a plan put forth by their own attorney placing their professional administrator Kevin Paicos in charge of negotiating a deal which they and/or Town Meeting would have ultimately approved or rejected.  They claim to do this in the interest of "transparency" for their citizens.

            Recently the Kraft Group became tired of the political posturing.  They decided "negotiating" in this manner was a waste of everyone’s time and effort.  So they pulled out, saying for now they will restrict the future development of their property to what they can do without "help" from the selectmen or other officials.

            This might cost the Kraft organization a chance at more liquor licenses.  It might prevent them from expanding their retail space along Route 1.  It may well restrict their ability to create additional profits from their business interests there.

            But it will undoubtedly cost the Town of Foxboro the additional tax revenue they would have received with any expansion.  It also eliminates the opportunity for the town to try and get back the $7.5 million the Kraft Group pledged for the building of a sewer plant last time, which Town Meeting turned down when they decided not to build it.  That is a huge potential loss for Foxboro's property taxpayers as well as their current and future sewer ratepayers.  The money has gone away, but the pressing need remains.

            Selectmen and Town Administrator expressed surprise over the Kraft Group decision to no longer participate in the painstakingly difficult process.  Paicos said the board had been ready to once again reconstitute a bargaining committee.  He also reiterated the selectmen were right to insist the alleged and dubious terms of the first agreement be honored before any new one is created.

            So now there are no “negotiations”.  There are no talks.  There are no expansion plans, at least none being discussed publicly.  There is no $7.5 million for sewer construction, nor the current possibility of obtaining it.  There is no public/private collaboration on creating a brighter future for a wonderful community.

            There is just the selectmen and their toughness.  They really showed that Kraft Group who’s boss, right?

            Yep, that’s total transparency.  The citizens of Foxboro can clearly see that absolutely nothing is happening.  Their elected leaders have created a situation where they isolated themselves from their largest property taxpayer.  It will now fall to Foxboro’s residential taxpayers to shoulder the burden of unavoidable future costs.  And the philanthropic Kraft Organization might be a little less so inclined in the future.

            Clearly, this was a good thing.  The selectmen have gotten their wish and created total “transparency”. 

Now everyone in town can hopefully see right through them. 

            Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at #billinsidelook.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hometown Parade With Grandson is the Best

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Monday, November 5, 2012.


By Bill Gouveia
If you ever find yourself getting a bit jaded or wondering what life is supposed to be all about, take your grandson to a parade in your hometown. It works wonders in adjusting your attitude.

Recently my wife and I got to take my 4-year-old grandson (did I mention his name is William?) to the Halloween parade in Norton. I am generally not a big parade person, but when you have grandchildren you do these things. So just before noon that Sunday I was in the parking lot of the Chartley Post Office on Route 123 with a very excited child.

Young Will was in full costume, dressed as Wolverine. For those not familiar with Wolverine, this is a character with large yellow muscles, a black and yellow mask, and long claws. My grandson was quick to explain to me that Wolverine is “a good guy”. I was relieved to find out I was not consorting with criminals.

We were a bit early, and I wondered how we were going to keep Will occupied. That turned out to be no problem. Parked next to us was Captain America and The Incredible Hulk, both close to his age. They quickly became friends, running around saving the world and each other as only kids can.

We also met their very nice parents and grandmother. After talking to them a bit, we discovered the mom had gone to Norton High with our youngest son Nate. Then just to drive the “it’s a small world” theme home even further, we found out the grandmother’s brother had gone to Norton High with my younger brother. It was a strange kind of Norton High reunion.

The parade started, and Wolverine and his buddies raced to the sidewalk to see what was coming. They were excited when the police officers and firefighters came by with sirens blaring (though Wolverine was seen covering his ears - even superheroes have their vulnerabilities). They were even more excited when candy began being tossed out of the vehicles, and they began filling their bags and containers.

They enjoyed the bagpipes, and loved the floats full of kids waving and tossing them more treats. I had forgotten just how amazed little kids can be by the simplest things, and it brought me back to a simpler time and place.

For Grandpa, it was a lot of fun. I teased old friend and Town Crier Butch Rich as he led the procession yelling “The parade is coming” – like we were going to miss it somehow. I knew so many of the local police officers and firefighters, as well the local businesspeople sponsoring the floats.

Then came the Board of Selectmen, who I had written about in a satirical manner recently. I’m not sure, but I think they noticed. While tossing candy gently to children along the route, they saw me and began firing candy firmly AT me. It was all in good-natured fun, and I laughed along with them.

Afterwards, as I dried out and prepared for a day of football, I reflected on the big event. I realized my grandson had sat on the side of the same streets where I perched as a kid, watching a local parade go by. I thought about how not every family gets to share these important moments, with our society being so much more mobile and wide-spread these days.

My mind flashed back to a Christmas party held at my house back in mid-90’s when I was a selectman. I remember standing in the kitchen with my son Aaron (Will’s dad) and Fire Chief George Burgess and Police Chief Ben Keene. We were swapping stories, and then Chief Burgess stopped and talked directly to my young son.

“Someday you’re going to be standing around, telling stories about listening to the old fire chief and old police chief in Norton,” he boomed in that unique and full voice. And he was right – but don’t ever tell him I said that. He'd enjoy it way too much.

There really is nothing like a hometown parade to make your weekend – especially when you still live in that hometown. And grandchildren make it all even better.

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

Friday, November 2, 2012

Rep's Remark an Insult to Veterans

By Bill Gouveia

The race for state representative in Attleboro has been a hard-fought and bare-knuckled battle between challenger Paul Heroux and incumbent George Ross.  The two candidates give Attleboro voters a clear choice, as there are wide differences between them.   They have different visions for the city and the state.

Ross is an experienced local politician, and Heroux a relative political novice.  The challenger has been quick to call attention to the incumbent’s voting record, and Ross has responded by highlighting Heroux’s voting record – not as a public official, but as a private citizen.  That has created an interesting discussion of just what voting is, and what should be expected of voters everywhere.

Ross has publicized how many times Heroux has voted since turning 18.  Heroux became of legal voting age in 1995, but records show he did not vote in an election until 2004.  Heroux says he was not motivated to vote until that time in his life, and says he has changed from being apathetic on the matter to now getting involved in running for public office.

Ross has charged the fact his opponent chose not to vote in many elections is an insult to military veterans who risked their lives to protect that freedom.  When Heroux responded by claiming he knows veterans who do not always vote, Ross replied that if you are a veteran and do not vote, “there is something wrong with you.”

It seems pretty clear everyone in this country should vote if at all possible.  It is one of the great rights and privileges we are given in America.  It is difficult to make a difference and a better life for yourself, your family, and your friends and neighbors if you don’t take the time to make your voice heard at the ballot box.

But George Ross is incredibly wrong and entirely off-base when he takes the issue of voting and tries to tie it to our brave men and women serving in the armed forces.  If he wants to take issue with Heroux’s choice not to vote for quite a period of time – that is fair game.  But casting it as disrespect to our veterans and servicemen and servicewomen is petty, political, and a cheap shot of the highest order.

There are many reasons why so many men and women have served our country with such great distinction throughout history.  Protecting the right to vote is no doubt one of them.  But overwhelmingly, the veterans I know have said defending their country and guaranteeing freedom were the biggest reasons they put their lives on the line for the rest of us here at home.  And part of that freedom – like it or not – is the right to decide whether or not to vote in elections.

Ross has a perfect right to hold fast to his own belief, but no right to claim it is the standard by which all shall be judged.  He should know and understand that some veterans come home inspired, and some come home disillusioned.  Some vote in every election after serving, and some vote in none.  But the fact some choose not to vote does not mean there is “something wrong” with them.

I don’t really know either of the candidates in this race personally.  I do not live in their district.  I can’t vote for either one of them, and I don’t know which one would better serve the good citizens of Attleboro.

But I do know exploiting the service of veterans for political purposes is disturbing.  Candidates should concentrate on veteran issues today, as well as things like the state budget, local aid for education, and other areas where as state representatives they can have a direct and meaningful impact.

Raising the issue of your opponent’s voting record is fine.  But using our veterans and the good men and women currently serving in the military as a way of gaining political advantage in a local race is simply inexcusable.  That is far more an insult to them than any lack of voting could ever be.

Here’s hoping that in this final week before Election Day, the candidates can concentrate on the real issues.  Better yet – let’s hope the voters do it for them.

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