Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Volunteers Still Making Local Government Work

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on June 25, 2013

By Bill Gouveia

            Someone I know and respect recently made a really good suggestion.  They said I might want to consider penning (or keyboarding in this case) a column focusing on the positive subject of volunteerism in local government.  And I realized it was a great idea.

            Now at first blush, you might think volunteer service in local government is down.  After all, you see notices looking for candidates to fill vacant positions on local committees all the time.  As a Town Moderator responsible for appointing a local finance committee, I can tell you potential members are not submitting their names in record numbers.  But that is only part of the story.

            It takes a lot more to run a small town today than it did in the 1970’s.   We have more committees than just three or four decades ago. There are many more laws, the regulations are tremendously more complex and plentiful, and with the media today even the most obscure committees often have their meetings broadcast or recorded.  With an ordinary vote on a suddenly controversial issue, you can wind up on local cable or the front page of your local newspaper.

            Back then, most board of selectmen consisted of three members.  Today, they have five.  We still have finance committees, conservation committees, planning boards, zoning boards, school committees and councils on aging.  They are made up of anywhere from three to 15 members each.

            In addition there are assessors, water and sewer commissioners, boards of health, cable committees, cemetery commissions, capital improvement committees, commissions on disabilities, cultural councils, industrial development commissions, open space committees, recreation committees, local housing partnerships, historical commissions, search committees, and a slew of others designed to serve our communities.

            It all adds up to literally hundreds of slots that must be filled by (mostly) unpaid volunteers who donate varying amounts of their valuable time in the name of public service.  While some are highly visible and provide the possibility of gaining personal political advantage, most are just a lot of work for which folks receive little credit or recognition other than knowing they have done something good for the town they call home.

            And yet, the committees are for the most part full.  They do their jobs, and if they do them well they are often hardly noticed.  Make a mistake, forget to post a meeting, fill out a form incorrectly – then you wind up the topic of some know-it-all column from your local political columnist.  Most of these are far from glamorous positions.

            Yet year after year, people step up and fill them.  Some do it for the long term, others when they can find the time.  Some serve on multiple boards, some change positions every now and then, and others have held the same posts for several decades. 

            You probably don’t know some of the people who serve on important committees in your town, especially if they have done their jobs well.  But you have no doubt benefited from their hard work and sacrifice. 

            If your budget has been reviewed by your finance committee and perhaps a few of your tax dollars saved, you have benefited.  If you have a child in school, you can thank your school committee members.  If you have enjoyed the beauty of local ponds, you should express appreciation to your conservation commission members. 

            Not everything that goes on in small town government is political in nature.  While the more mundane and yet important things are indeed reported by local media, they are overshadowed by the more controversial topics.  And honestly, the people who make these things happen usually prefer it that way.

            While most local towns have problems attracting citizens to participate at Town Meeting, they are much more successful in obtaining volunteers to serve on boards and committees and make life in their communities better for everyone.  Perhaps that is because the focus of service is much narrower, and citizens feel they actually make a difference.

            Whatever the reason, we should all be thankful for the many volunteer public officials and committee members serving our area.  No matter what form of government we have, without good people volunteering to serve it – it cannot succeed.  Our governments are only as good as our people.

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

Town Meeting Just Doesn't Mean Discussion Anymore

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on June 20, 2013
By Bill Gouveia

            Former Sun Chronicle Editor Ned Bristol this week wrote an excellent column on the recent Wrentham Town Meeting where voters turned out in force to reject a rezoning article that would have permitted a large commercial development.  He noted how voters “packed” the meeting to get what they wanted.

            As a local Town Moderator, I have always disliked the term “packing the meeting”.  It means one side of a particular issue got more people to come to a meeting and vote the way they wanted than did their opponents.

            Isn’t that really the whole point of Town Meeting, and in fact the democratic process?  It’s usually only called “packing” by those on the unsuccessful end of the outcome.  If you are on the prevailing side, it is referred to as “an exercise in complete and total democracy”.  It’s all a matter of perspective.

            But Ned nailed the main point, which is that Town Meeting really doesn’t run local government like it did a century or two ago.  Nor is it any longer a place where the community gathers to discuss the important issues of the day.  Today – for the most part – Town Meeting is where people go to vote and go home. 

            Of course, none of this applies to the few faithful and dedicated Town Meeting regulars in small towns across New England who consistently attend, listen, and vote in the best interests of their community.  Sadly, they have become the overwhelming minority in the modern political town meeting process.

            In the Sun Chronicle area, voters seem content to leave most of the decisions required to run local government to their elected and appointed officials.  They still want the final say on some of the bigger matters (or at least the illusion of having the final say), but generally don’t want to be bothered with the details. 

            That’s why public hearings on local budgets are usually attended by only a handful of people.  It’s why Planning Board hearings usually draw only those directly affected in the immediate neighborhood.  And it’s why most Town Meetings can’t attract more than two or three percent of their town’s registered voters unless there is a major controversy.  Wrentham had 500 voters at the first session of its annual meeting where the zoning article appeared - and only 43 the next.

            One of the most common and popular motions at today’s modern Town Meetings is to “move the question”, thus ending debate.  While it is sometimes necessary, more often than not the maker just wants to do what nearly everyone else in the room wants to do – cut to the chase.  Vote and leave.  Or as Ned so eloquently put it, “…vote, go home, pay the baby-sitter and get a few hours sleep before work the next day.”

Town Meeting today is too often the last safe haven for special interests.  The school department needs more money and can’t convince the town manager or the finance committee to support it?  Call the parents and turn them out for Town Meeting.  After all, you don’t need to make a compelling case if you have the votes.  The fire or police departments need a budget boost or a new piece of equipment?  Call out all the employees and their families to make it happen.

            And you know what?  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  It’s the way the system is designed to work, and they are only playing the game within rules they have been given.

            It is the system that needs changing, not the people.  We have to stop pretending the Town Meeting style of government is still a good fit for communities like Seekonk, Foxboro, Mansfield, Norton, Rehoboth, and Wrentham.

            Town Meeting’s biggest problem is not that it is antiquated, inefficient, obsolete or easily manipulated by those with something to gain.  Rather, Town Meeting’s biggest problem is that it is no longer relevant.  It is also no longer a place where true discussion and deliberation happens very often.

            Ned wrote he would have rather seen two high school English classes debate the Wrentham zoning issue because the discussion would have been less political and maybe something new would have been heard.  I totally agree with him. 

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

Foxboro Officials Struggle With Open Meeting Law

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on June 17, 2013


By Bill Gouveia

            The question has to be asked:  Just what is it about the states Open Meeting Law (OML) town officials in Foxboro and their attorneys apparently find so confusing?

            Serving on a municipal elected or appointed board is a difficult and often thankless job.  You immediately come under many state rules and regulations, most notably the OML which governs how, when and if boards and committees can go into executive session and meet away from the watchful eyes of the public.

            Many communities and their officials run afoul of this important statute, usually unintentionally.  The state requires every official receive a copy of the law when they assume office, but it can be complex and difficult to follow in some circumstances.  Honest mistakes are very common.

            But since the penalties for violating it are almost laughably light and meaningless, sometimes board and committee members dont worry too much about the consequences.  Often the convenience or political advantage they gain by violating or bending the law is worth the slap on the wrist they are likely to receive.

            A few years ago the Foxboro School Committee was found to have committed a violation of the OML when it improperly negotiated a deal in closed session with then-superintendent Christopher Martes concerning his retirement.  They then proceeded to delay the release of the executive session minutes for many months, perhaps afraid of the political backlash it would cause. 

            When the state Attorney Generals office got around to ruling on their violation, they were judged to be in the wrong.  Their punishment for the blatant acts was to have to sit through a training session run by the head of an organization to which they belong and hear themselves overly praised by the paid head of that group.  It was a sham session and a sham punishment.

            Now fast forward to the past few weeks when Foxboros selectmen had trouble following the law.  The board members went into a hastily scheduled executive session to discuss whether or not to renew the contract of Town Manager Kevin Paicos.  While in the closed meeting, they voted not to renew the contract and in effect sever ties with the controversial leader within the next year.

            That is clearly a violation of the OML, which they admitted this past week when they went through the motions of taking the vote again - this time out in the open.  The fact they conducted the first vote with their attorney present only adds to the confusion and the mystery as to why things were done this way.

            The law does enable selectmen to meet in secret to conduct negations with personnel, which was in effect what they were doing.  But they and their lawyer should know the vote had to be in open session.  That action, and the last-minute changing of the agenda item, cast the entire board into an unnecessarily bad light.

            Why has this been such a problem in Foxboro?  Most other communities seem to be able to manage to deal with their top employees without violating the law intended to allow the taxpayers and citizens as much access and information as possible.  Why is it two different Foxboro boards, both represented by counsel, have such a hard time?

            To be totally fair, the violation by selectmen is not in the same class as the school committee action.  That was clearly intentional and frankly inexcusable.  This one is more puzzling, and just adds to the strange and twisting legacy of Kevin Paicos and his time in Foxboro.

            Most Foxboro residents probably dont care much if the actual vote to part ways with the town manager was done in public or not, as long as it was announced.  It wasnt like this went on for months without being revealed, as happened on the school side.  But it continues to provide new fodder for conspiracy theorists.

            Perhaps all Foxboro town officials (and some of the lawyers who represent them) should take a regular refresher course on the OML.  And maybe the focus of it should be that despite the weak penalties for violations, it is important and truly does matter.

            Of course, this could be all Bob Krafts fault.  That excuse has worked before.


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

Friday, June 14, 2013

Happy Father's Day to my Two Sons

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on June 14, 2013


By Bill Gouveia


This Father’s Day weekend, dads everywhere are preparing for the many honors and lavish praise that willbe heaped upon them by their grateful and appreciative families.


Well, a few are.  Most are just hoping to be able to relax and get a little attention this Sunday.  Dads are generally not known for having overly high expectations.


My Father’s Day will be spent visiting my youngest son and his family in Baltimore – and being treated to the Red Sox-Orioles game at Camden Yards.  I’ll see my other son and his family when I get home on Monday.  I’m looking forward to it all.


My father is gone now, as well as my stepdad.  Naturally, that changes the way I celebrate this particular holiday.  But what has given me a new and deeper appreciation of Father’s Day is the fact my sons are now dads themselves - and spectacular ones at that.


As a grandparent, you have the luxury of being able to appreciate the easy and fun part of parenting.  There is nothing like enjoying your children’s children, especially when they are as wonderful as mine.  You remain a father to your own kids, but in a different role.  You get to watch them parent, with your own experience (including mistakes) allowing you to observe and analyze a bit.


Though I confess to not being overly objective, I am extremely proud of my two boys.  My oldest has a five year-old son (did I mention his name is William?) and is expecting a new baby in just a few weeks.  My younger son has a 14 month-old daughter who melts her Grandpa’s heart every time she smiles.


They are wonderful kids, due in no small part to their two terrific moms.  But these children really lucked out in the dad department.  They have intelligent, caring fathers who are strong enough to support their children in every way – including knowing when to be firm and when to relax the rules.


It’s sometimes hard watching your children beparents.  You see them punishing your grandchild, or perhaps just being a little strict with them in ways you might not be, and you have to stop yourself from commenting.  Or maybe you think they are being too lenient, and you catch yourself about to give unsolicited advice.  


In today’s world of car seats until they are 21, non-competitive sports leagues, and day-care entrance exams, parents have new and different methods and duties.  Mysons have handled their end of this seamlessly.  They are totally involved in all aspects of their children’s lives, embodying the spirit and very definition of co-parenting.  


And oh, do they love their kids.  There is little in this world that makes me feel better than seeing the pride and love in the eyes of my children when they talk about their own kids.  It shows in everything they do and say, and is reflected in how much my grandkids obviously adore their dads.


They are so much better at this parenting thing than I ever was, no doubt influenced by the example of their mother.  They understand the need to balance career and home, and they never miss the opportunity to enjoy quality family time.  


And yet they are dads in a lot of the “traditional” ways (I know I’m not supposed to use that term anymore).  On Opening Day this season, my oldest took his son to Fenway Park.  My granddaughter was the only child in daycare in Baltimore to wear a Patriots shirt the Friday before the AFC Championship game.  And while their kids are not brought up to “hate”, each will go through life with a strong dislike of New York teams.


As much as I’d like to take some credit for the kind of fathers my boys are, I can’t.  They have earned it all themselves.  They still have a long way to go and a lot to learnand will discover it gets tougher as you and your kids get older.  But they have already shown they are more than equal to the task.  That makes this dad very happy.


Happy Father’s Day to all you dads out there – especially the ones who have helped raise other great fathers.

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

Monday, June 10, 2013

Plainville Selectman Sticks Up For Her Town

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on June 10, 2013

By Bill Gouveia

            Having been involved in area politics and government for the last 40 years, I have had the opportunity to meet many elected and appointed municipal officials.  Some have been a disappointment, most have been dedicated citizens, and all have been interesting.

            But today I have a new favorite - Andrea Soucy, a veteran member of the Plainville Board of Selectmen and a lady with a reputation for straight talk and constituent service.  Recently she rose to the occasion by sticking up for her small community as some of her neighbors seek to take advantage of Plainville’s possible good fortune.

            As most people are well aware, Plainville is one of several possible locations for the one gambling slot parlor to be licensed in Massachusetts.  It is proposed for the Plainridge Harness Track located at the junction of Route 1 and Interstate 495, and as expected has generated a fair amount of controversy and conversation. 

            Unlike their counterparts in nearby Foxboro, Plainville officials opted to listen to those seeking the gambling facility and gather information both pro and con as to what the impact on the community would be first.  They have not yet made up their minds as to whether or not to support it officially, and are involved in the state-dictated process to consider the application.

            Preliminary reports predict the casino will eventually provide about $8.6 million to Plainville over a five-year period, and at the same time cost about $5.6 million in additional expenses.  The casino law also allows for “mitigation payments” to neighboring towns if they can prove they are negatively impacted by the casino’s operation.

            This has rightfully come to the attention of several of those communities as they consider the impact on their residents.  Traffic, economic impact, social issues and other concerns are all fair game as towns begin the jockeying to cash in on the gambling bandwagon without having to actually locate anything within their borders.

            At a recent state Gaming Commission forum on the Plainridge proposal, officials from North Attleboro, Wrentham, Foxboro and other towns gathered with Plainville officials to listen and express their concerns.  And apparently, that all got to be a bit much for some of the Plainville folks.

            When an official from Foxboro said there was not enough time for the hiring of their own expert to assess the impact there, Plainville Selectmen Soucy had heard enough.  “You can hire the same expert who said Patriot Place would have no impact on us”, she retorted.  She went on to add that few if any of the surrounding towns consulted with Plainville when they were approving their own major developments.

            “That is really bothering me.  It seems so hypocritical”, she stated after the forum.  It sure does, Selectman Soucy – you are absolutely right.

            Plainville Town Administrator Joseph Fernandes noted the casino is expected to generate about 4900 vehicle trips per day, and that a nearby Lowe’s store currently generates about 7,800 vehicle trips per day.  He asked that traffic concerns be considered in a reasonable light, asking, "Does traffic on 95 back up because Lowe's puts 2-by-4s on sale?"

            This is not to say there are no possible problems which could require financial mitigation to nearby towns.  And it is hard to blame local officials for investigating any chance at increasing their revenues and lessening the burden on their property taxpayers. 

            But the fact it is legal to do this under the highly political terms of the gambling law does not make it right.  Why should Foxboro be allowed to license the building of Patriot Place, which affects Plainville far more than the slot parlor would affect Foxboro, and yet that requires no “mitigation”?  The Wrentham Outlets generate huge traffic jams and strain other resources, but I don’t remember any financial aid to the neighbors to lessen that impact.

            It is all part of the “gambling phobia” that has enveloped the area since the Great Foxboro Casino debate (or lack of same).  That is strange for an area that has hosted a harness track for most of the last sixty years.

            So congratulations to Selectman Soucy for putting into words what many folks in Plainville must be thinking.  Whether the slots come or not – she’s got a good point.

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

Friday, June 7, 2013

Town Meeting Reminds Me of "Weekend at Bernie's"

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on June 7, 2013.
By Bill Gouveia

            While flipping through a myriad of cable television channels late the other night, I came across a bad movie from 1989 that I remembered as amusing.  It was called “Weekend at Bernie’s”, and as I watched it again I realized it reminded me of something familiar, but couldn’t place just what it was.

            Then it hit me.  It was institution of Town Meeting, used by many communities here in New England.  Not all Town Meetings mind you, but quite a few.  Confused?  Please allow me to explain.

            In “Weekend at Bernie’s” the owner of a multi-million dollar corporation (Bernie) dies.  Two of his employees are dismayed by this because they fear they may be blamed and because it changes their lives.  But they soon discover people keep assuming Bernie is alive, and they can maintain the image Bernie is operating even though he is not.

            They dress him up, prop him up, and make it appear he is still performing many of the functions folks are used to seeing.  The business keeps moving, the money keeps flowing, and as far as most people know – Bernie is still behind it all.

            So what does this have to do with Town Meeting in some communities?  Well, I see many similarities between some legislative town meeting governments and the ill-fated Bernie.  They still produce funding, they still make business happen, but in actuality they are pretty much dead – even if they and the good people participating in it haven’t realized it yet.

            In small towns of just a few thousand residents, Town Meeting remains a vital, effective and efficient legislative body.  Citizens gather to discuss and vote on the important issues of the day, set the town budget, and represent a true cross-section of the community.  The institution remains true to its roots and heritage.

            But in larger towns of around 20,000 or more, Town Meeting is often more like the aforementioned Bernie.  It is visible and functioning, but more of a rubber stamp than an actual authority.  It still attracts some people, still produces votes and grants authority – but it is a shell of its former self.

            In many communities, Town Meeting attendance is shrinking.  People can’t or won’t take the time to attend.  When they do, they want to vote and leave.  In some towns there have been proposals to allow voting from home, letting people skip the pesky “discussion” phase..  There are lots of rules limiting said discussion, including time restraints for speakers.  As a result, town budgets totaling $50 million or more are often approved with little or no debate buy folks just seeing it for the first time.

            In many places the focus is on preserving Town Meeting.  It is hailed as the last true form of democracy, despite the inescapable fact most people don’t want to participate in it.  We try and protect what Town Meeting used to be, even though it’s not capable of doing the same things anymore.  Just like Bernie.

            The people who run local governments – selectmen and other town officials – are usually among the biggest defenders of Town Meeting.  Like the people who propped up Bernie, they put Town Meeting through its paces.  They create and perpetuate the illusion that this ancient and honorable legislative form of government can still be representative in the same way for modern large towns.

            It is sort of like a cowboy taking his horse and adding four wheels, a roof, and air conditioning – then claiming he doesn’t need to change to a car.  It is more about wistfully cherishing a memory than acknowledging the reality.

            As a current Town Moderator and a veteran of some 40 years of Open Town Meeting government, I love and respect the institution.  I grew up with it.  My town grew up with it.  It’s hard to think about letting go – until you realize most folks already have.

            When the people around Bernie finally realized he was gone, they did what people ultimately do – move on and adapt.  They continued accomplishing the same work, but in a different way.  And while some of them mourned Bernie’s passing, the rest made sure what he started continued on.

            Who said comedies can’t have a real message?

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

Monday, June 3, 2013

Foxboro and Paicos Part - It Was Time

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, June 3, 2013
By Bill Gouveia


            Foxboro and its often controversial town manager Kevin Paicos are officially parting ways.  This comes as no great surprise to anyone, including Paicos and the Board of Selectmen.  Simply put – it was time.


            But over the last several years Paicos has guided Foxboro through a turbulent and important portion of its long and proud history.  His contributions to the community should not be completely overshadowed by the times he became the issue, as opposed to just working on them.


            Town Manager hirings often reflect the prevailing political mood of the town and the selectmen at the time.  Their selection is also seriously affected by the performance and personality of their immediate predecessor.  When making a change, selectmen tend to compare the potential new appointees to who they are replacing.  They look to expand on the traits they like and reverse the ones they don’t.


            Paicos was hired to replace Andrew Gala, a reserved and unpretentious leader who was at the helm for some thirty years.  At the time of Paicos’s appointment, it was generally assumed selectmen were looking for a more aggressive manager, someone with experience at helping towns grow.


            They certainly got that in Paicos, who was town administrator in Easton for 15 years before leaving after some particularly nasty political battles with selectmen and town activists.  He was about as far removed in style from Gala as you could get, while his management technique was much more “hands on” than the former chief executive.  It was believed by many at the time – your truly included – this was an excellent choice and would help give Foxboro’s town government more and better structure.


            And in many ways, it was and it did.  Paicos helped make some necessary changes in Foxboro.  He created some badly needed professional positions and brought some highly skilled (and highly paid by local standards) personnel to fill them.  He modernized many of the procedures in town hall.  He better centralized purchasing and made it more efficient.  He reorganized some of the duties and responsibilities of existing personnel.  He helped lower health insurance costs and pushed an unpopular meals tax the town needed to implement. 


            You can’t do all that without ruffling a few feathers, but Paicos seemed more intent on plucking the whole bird.  He often projected the attitude he was always right, and others needed to be helped to understand that inescapable fact.  Some of the very same attributes that make him a strong executive manager also make him difficult to deal with on a political basis.  And in local government, politics is no small thing.


Paicos tended to talk down occasionally to his selectmen.  He was known to do things he knew they did not favor, and deal with the consequences afterwards.  He was sometimes short with citizens who disagreed with him.  He injected his own personal opinions into situations where they were neither relevant nor necessary, such as the debate over the casino issue.  He used the media as a tool to achieve his personal and professional objectives.


He also seemed to enjoy antagonizing the town’s largest source of taxpayer revenue, as evidenced by his needless battles with the Kraft Group.  His comments to the Boston Globe saying “I’m standing up for a town called Foxboro, not Kraftsville” were unprofessional and designed to protect his job, not the community he was serving.  You won’t see any sign of it publicly, but you can bet there will be smiles around Gillette Stadium when Paicos vacates his office.


 Still, Paicos will be leaving a town in better shape than we he got there.  Some of the things he made happen in Foxboro were unpopular but necessary.  Whoever becomes the next town manager will have the benefit of a solid internal organization and a sound financial situation.


It really didn’t have to end this way, at least not this soon.  But Paicos demonstrated a lack of patience in Foxboro, and seemed to be simply tiring of the politics of his chosen profession.  Make no mistake about it – this was a decision manipulated by Paicos.  In the end, he got what he really wanted.


Now Foxboro must move forward.  The Paicos era is coming to an end.  It was time.


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