Tuesday night, after a long and contentious debate, a majority of the Town Council voted to approve a compromise that would give the Town Manager power to appoint member of the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) with those selected needing to be confirmed by the Council. The decision went away from the subcommittee recommendation to have members appointed by the Council.
The approved ordinance, which was brought forward by Town Council President Mark Sideris, also provides specific direction to the Town Manager for what qualities to look for in the appointees.
Since the Community Preservation Act (CPA) passed in 2016, the focus has been on how to appoint the four at-large members of the Committee, which is charged to come up with ideas and recommendations for how to use funds from the tax surcharge. The money can be spent on affordable housing, open space and recreation, and historic preservation.
Many of the group which proposed the CPA, and the supporters of the act, pushed for a way to have the CPC members appointed by the Town Council, because it is accountable to the voters. Others in town said that the CPC should be like the other 18 appointed boards and committees. Under the Town Charter the members of those boards are appointed by the Town Manager and confirmed by the Town Council.
The recommendation from the Rules & Ordinances Committee called for three at-large members to be appointed by the Council and one by the Town Manager, a compromise made by the Council in September 2017. They would be interviewed at a public Town Council meeting and each Councilor would rank the candidates.
Town Councilor Lisa Feltner, said that supporters voted for the CPA because it created a source of money that is outside the Town’s operating budget, so it will not be controlled and allocated by the Town Manager and Town Council. They also wanted more transparent and accountable process, she said.
“Who knows how to represent what residents want better than the Town Council,” Feltner said.
She added that the subcommittee was given the charge to come up with a process for appointing the CPC members appointed by the Council after coming up with compromise of three appointed buy the Council and one by the Town Manager. She thought they process of appointing members should be discussed at the same time as who appoints the members.
Town Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli said he supported that plan last year, but said it depended on how the members would be appointed by the Council.
“At the time I said I would not support a process where candidates are interviewed at a public meeting and I would not support a popularity contest,” Piccirilli said. “Unfortunately the process (recommended by the subcommittee) includes an interview at a public Town Council meeting and a popularity ranking to rank the candidates.”
Councilor Ken Woodland, who voted against the proposal at the subcommittee level, said that he thought that all should be appointed by the Town Manager, as called for in the Town Charter unless there was a compelling argument to do otherwise. He said he had not heard one that changed his mind.
After hearing from residents and closing the public hearing, Sideris and Councilors introduced his alternative.
“What we do here tonight, not everyone is going to leave the room happy,” Sideris said. “Anyone who thinks they will leave 100 percent happy is in the wrong place.”
He called his proposal a compromise, with all four appointed members selected by the Town Manager, but none could be a Town Employee or an elected official. If anyone on the CPC accepts a job in the Town of Watertown or is elected to a town office, he or she must vacate the seat on the committee.
He also included a list of qualities that the members should have, along with being an advocate for open space and land for recreational use, historic resources and community housing.
Candidates for being a member of the CPC should be residents who:
1) Have deep connections to different constituencies within Watertown to make the Town more responsive to the needs of its residents;
2) Can bring specific skills to the execution of tasks required by the Committee;
3) Can bring specific outlooks that may not normally be heard through the Town’s routine procedures; and
4) Value new approaches and ideas to identifying projects outside the Town’s routine budget priority process.
Councilor Tony Palomba proposed an amendment to Sideris’ proposal that would have had the Town Manager make the appointments, but the list of candidates would be developed by the Town Council.
“It would be a sharing of power,” Palomba said.
The amendment was voted down 3-6, with Palomba, Feltner and Caroline Bays voting in favor.
Feltner proposed and amendment to have the Council play a role in identifying candidates and coming up with a list for the Town Manager to consider. That amendment was also voted down.
Sideris said the way members are appointed to the CPC could be adjusted, along with the other committees and boards in town, during a Review of the Town Charter.
Councilor Susan Falkoff said she felt uncomfortable about voting on the proposal Tuesday night.
“The public has not seen it, we had not seen it, and we have not had a chance to hear from the public on this,” Falkoff said.
Piccirilli noted that the CPC had been discussed several times, and the process has been hashed and rehashed.
“It has been 19 months since Watertown voted to approve the CPA, seven months since we started collecting (the surcharge) and we have had five Rules and Ordinance meetings,” Piccirilli said. “I think this strikes the right balance, and I agree with others that we need to get moving on this.”
Woodland added that he believes the public has commented on every issue in the proposal during the previous Town Council and subcommittee meetings on the CPC.
Feltner said she did not think there was a big rush, because the money is still coming in and other towns have taken even longer to decide how to form their committees.
The Council voted 6-3 to support Sideris’ proposal, with Bays, Feltner and Palomba voting against it.