Watertown’s Town Manager would no longer be required to live in town if voters approve the recommended change approved by the Charter Review Committee. The group, which is reviewing the document which defines how the Town’s government works, also approved recommended new requirements for the Town Manager related to communicating with the public.
At the June 1 meeting, the Charter Review Committee tackled a number of sections of the Town Charter related to the Executive branch. In Watertown, the executive is the Town Manager. Discussion some other items impacting the Town Manager were not completed and will be discussed at future meetings.
The changes to the Charter recommended by the Charter Review Committee will be reviewed by the Town Council and put on the ballot in November to be approved by Town voters.
The current Charter requires the Town Manager to live in Watertown. Charter review consultant Michael Ward, of UMass Boston’s Collins Center, said that this requirement was more common 25-30 years ago, but most communities no longer have a residence requirement. He said having one may cut down on the number of people interested in taking the position in the future.
“I have heard several people express interest, in event the Watertown position becomes available, except I know they have kids in the school system in nearby communities and are not going to uproot to take a position in a new town,” Ward said.
Councilor Angeline Kounelis said she worries about someone being able to perform the duties of Town Manager, which can at times be a 24/7 job, if they live a long distance away. She suggested using the model of public safety departments which allow employees to live outside of town but must be, for example, within 10, 15 or 20 miles.
The proposal passed 13-1, with Kounelis opposing it.
Town Manager Communication
The Charter Review Committee debated what should be included in the requirements for how the Town Manager communicates with the public. Communication and transparency have been some of the biggest overarching concerns discussed by the Charter Review Committee since they started meeting in late 2020.
The language proposed by the Collins Center included requirements for the Town Manager’s communication duties to be: “Be responsible for Town government communications, in coordination with the council president, including, but not limited to, developing a comprehensive communication strategy, coordinating the announcements and messages from department heads, communicating regularly, via all available media avenues, with residents, and soliciting recommendations for greater communication from residents.”
Some members of the Charter Review Committee said that they did not agree with the language that the Town Manager coordinate solely with the Council President. They preferred having the Manager consult with the entire Council. For some, even coordinating with the Council did not sit well with them.
The Charter Review Committee voted 9-5 to approve changing the language of the proposal to have the Manager to “work in coordination with the Town Council” instead of just the President. Councilor Anthony Donato, Gannon, Kounelis, Ciro and Sideris voted “no.” The overall proposal (with the language change) passed unanimously.
During the discussion on communication, resident member Anne Fitzpatrick said she has found some areas of the Town website are not updated in a timely manner, and in some cases are years out of date. She suggested wording be added to the Charter that requires that the website be the website be kept up to date.
Bill Oates, a resident member of the Charter Review Committee, said that keeping the website up to date should be a basic and should not be part of the Charter. He added that while he believes the website being out of date is an important issue, he sees it as a sign of other issues that could be dealt with outside the Charter.
“Thinking that we have to solve that particular issue by changing that language in the Charter is just beyond me,” Oates said. “It only shows that we have lots of dysfunction, and I think we have to hope that things get better as we go through this process.”
An item that passed unanimously spelled out how the Town Manager and Town Council work together, specifically with items approved by the Council. The section reads:
“The Town Manager shall be responsible for implementation of policies established by the Town Council, as reflected in the Town Council’s votes and resolutions and in ordinances, appropriation orders, and loan authorizations.”
Wait ‘Til Next Time
A couple items in the Executive section of the Town Charter were not completed at last week’s meeting.
One covers the job evaluation for the Town Manager. One of the Town Council’s roles is to hire the Town Manager. The Council’s evaluation of the Town Manager is part of the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches, and an opportunity for the Council to hold the Town Manager accountable.
Ward proposed a simple item to be in the Charter because he said the description of the evaluation should be spelled out in an ordinance instead of the Charter. His proposal read, “The town council shall conduct an annual review of the town manager’s job performance in a manner provided by ordinance.”
Town Councilor Tony Palomba proposed more detailed language that included metrics about how well the Manager met the annual goals presented in his or her annual presentation at the beginning of the year, whether he or she has completed the annual evaluations of the assistant town managers and department heads, the degree to which the manager has communicated and engaged with residents, and the degree to which the person instituted the Council’s orders, ordinances and resolutions.
A number of the Charter Review Committee members said they like the language, but thought it fit better as an ordinance. Some noted that if it was in an ordinance the evaluation requirements could be updated before the next Charter Review.
Fitzpatrick said she would like to see something requiring some sort of public involvement in the Manager’s evaluation.
“The Town Council review of the Town Manager needs to create a space where the public gets the chance to say something,” she said.
Since new language for the Manager evaluation section had been brought up, Sideris asked Ward to draft some language that included the ideas brought up during the meeting so it could be discussed at the next meeting.
Another item that will be discussed next time would create a Residents’ Advisory Committee to assist the Town Manager with the recruitment, evaluation and selection of candidates for multiple-member boards and committees. The Town Manager nominates residents to serve on the non-elected Town boards and committees (including the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Board of Health and many more). The Council has the final say on the nominees, by voting either to approve or reject by the candidates.
Under the proposal from the Collins Center, the Residents’ Advisory Committee would also work with the Town Manager to establish policies and practices “to actively encourage a diverse pool of applicants for multiple-member bodies.” The Charter Review Committee did not have any discussion about this item.
Ward noted that the Council would still have the power to confer or reject a candidate nominated by the Manager for a town board or committee.
The Charter Review Committee’s Preamble subcommittee plans to present proposed language for the section at the beginning of the Carter at the next meeting, said Palomba, who chairs the subcommittee. The next Charter Review Committee meeting will be held on Tuesday, June 15 at 6 p.m.
Dropping the residency requirement is a positive thing. It’s a vestige of an earlier era. If we have learned nothing during the pandemic, one thing is the ease of being fully engaged without having to be in the room…or the town!
This town should NEVER, EVER allow a town manager to acquire such power and reach as Mike Driscoll has in his pocket. We have 5 schools in town, are replacing 2 simultaneously with a 3rd in the docket because of the long time resistance of the town manager to engage in capital projects that are both positive and necessary. Driscoll has no vision, never has, outside of his goal to balance the budget yearly (makes his life easier), often at the expense of the greater good for the community. I hope the town council incorporates language that realistically limits the political and executive powers of the town manager.
The Town Manager has led with fiscal responsibility that allowed the building of these schools without a debt exclusion. He has fully funded the town’s pension liability, which is almost unheard of in Massachusetts communities. He isn’t perfect, but his efforts have absolutely served the people of the community well! NONE of this would have happened without the change to a strong city manager form of government 40 years ago. NONE!