After more than an hour’s debate Tuesday night, the Town Council decided who will appoint the four at-large members of the committee that will recommend how to spend the funds from the Community Preservation Act (CPA) after coming to a compromise, of sorts.
The Community Preservation Committee (CPC) was created when Watertown voters approved the CPA in November 2017, and will send recommended projects to be funded by the CPA money to the Town Council for final approval. Five members of the CPC are required to be on the committee by the state statute, but communities can add other members. Watertown decided to have four at-large members, but the Rules and Ordinances subcommittee could not agree on how the four would be appointed.
The group that put the CPA on the ballot, Invest in Watertown, pushed for the four seats to be appointed by the Town Council. This would be a departure from other appointed boards and committees which have members nominated by the Town Manager and approved by the Town Council.
The CPA passed with more than 60 percent of the vote, and backers of the initiative said that how the pot of money (which comes from a property tax surcharge) will be spent will be decided with more public input than decisions on the rest of the Town budget. The money can be spent in three areas: affordable housing, open space/recreation and historic preservation.
Deborah Peterson, a member of Invest in Watertown, said she believes the popularity of the CPA was because people felt like the public has more of a say on how the money will be spent. She said she believes the Town Council is best group to choose the CPA members.
“The decisions are made outside the normal ways of decision making, which was appealing,” Peterson said. “We feel it is the Town Councilors who are in touch with the public.”
Others opposed creating a different way of appointing a committee for the new committee. John Airasian, who was part of the group that created the Town Charter in the early 1980s, said such a move would be against how the charter was structured.
“It would have the legislative branch (the Town Council) usurping the powers of the executive branch (the Town Manager),” Airasian said. “This is a political power grab. No one should get special treatment by the government.”
Resident Michelle Cokonougher said believes the Town Charter has language that allows the appointment method to change if done by ordinance.
Councilor Ken Woodland disagreed, and said the way he reads the charter there is only way boards can be appointed. Councilor Aaron Dushku said the Charter gives the option of changing the appointment by ordinance, and does not detail what situation in which that can happen.
The section for appointing members of boards the Watertown Home Rule Charter reads:
“The town manager shall appoint the following town officers, subject to the approval of the town council; … : a town attorney, a licensing board, a board of assessors, a board of appeals, a planning board, a housing authority, a conservation commission, a board of health, and an election commission and other committees that may from time to time be authorized by the town council by ordinance.
With respect to the offices and multiple-member bodies identified in subsections 9-6(a)(iii) and 9-6(a)(iv), the town council may, by ordinance, set the term of office, and determine the size of any such multiple-member board; …” (see the Town Charter by clicking here, the appointment of boards and committees is in Section 9-6).
Councilor Lisa Feltner said that she has heard from people that they do not like the lack of transparency in the current appointment process. The Town Manager interviews candidates and the only the final nominee’s name is made public. She added that the draft of Watertown’s proposal was sent to the a statewide CPA group.
“They said it was one of the best they had seen and it was put forward as a model for Boston, which is bogged down by politics,” Feltner said. “The people behind the measure are lobbying to be on the committee. That’s not happening in Watertown.”
Because the Town Council must do almost all of its business in a public session, Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said he is concerned that people would be afraid to come forward because their qualities and shortfalls would be discussed in a publics setting.
The five members requires by the state statute – Planning Board, Conservation Commission, Housing Authority Board and the Historical Commission and the Park Commission. These members are appointed by the board which they represent. Town Manager Michael Driscoll said that while he appoints members of those boards, he is not selecting the person who will serve on the Community Preservation Committee. He does appoint one member of the CPC. Because Watertown does not have a Parks Commission, that member is appointed by the Town Manager.
Councilor Susan Falkoff said she really struggled to decide how to vote.
“This is an extremely difficult decision. Whatever choice I make will offend people I care about deeply,” Falkoff said.
She added that she did not agree with some of the statements and references from both sides. People talked about a slippery slope and this would hurt Watertown’s form of government, but Falkoff said she does not believe that will happen. Also, others said that they worry about the Town Manager’s appointments, but she said she has been impressed with the quality of the appointments made by the current manager, Michael Driscoll, adding, “I know that he has appointed some people he doesn’t like.”
Dushku noted that Driscoll will not always be Town Manager.
She also said she was uneasy about having the Council make appointments because she did not know the details of how they would be chosen.
After a long debate over whether the Town Council should appoint the four members of the Community Preservation Committee, Town Council President Mark Sideris said the Council seemed split, and he wanted to see more consensus.
“(A 5-4 vote) is not the way to send a message to the community about this new committee,” Sideris said.
He suggested sending the question back to the Rules and Ordinances Committee to debate it further.
Councilor Angeline Kounelis suggested postponing the vote because the meeting had already stretched about three hours.
Piccirilli said sending it back to the subcommittee with no vote would not give the subcommittee any direction, leaving it essentially in the same place. He noted that during the subcommittee hearings Somerville was brought up as a model CPA community, and their at-large members are appointed by a group of people chosen by the mayor to send nominees back to the mayor. He asked if that option should be discussed by the subcommittee.
Feltner said that Watertown does not have a mayor, and the Town Manager is not accountable to voters, like a mayor. She said the closest thing to a mayor in Watertown is the Town Council President.
Councilor Michale Dattoli asked if there could be a compromise, and split up how the four at-large members are appointed. In an effort to break the deadlock, Councilor Tony Palomba proposed splitting it up with three members appointed by the Town Council and one by the Town Manager.
“There will be three different bodies making appointments,” Palomba said. “And the Rules and Ordinances Committee will be charged with coming up with a mechanism for how to choose those appointees.”
The motion passed 6-3, with Falkoff, Palomba, Feltner, Piccirilli, Dattoli and Dushku voting “yes,” and Kounelis, Woodland and Sideris voting “no.”