SHIRLEY -- A Special Town Meeting will be held Sept. 12 for a single question: Should the town adopt a recall bylaw that would create a mechanism to remove elected officials from the offices they hold?
The lone warrant article was the result of a citizens' petition signed by almost 300 registered voters and is the culmination of months of contention.
In particular, said Board of Selectmen Chairman Robert Prescott, there was resentment of some fiscal restructuring that had to be done to correct abuses in the system and balance the town's budget.
That resentment eventually focused on Town Administrator Patrice Garvin, he said, who, with the support of selectmen, spearheaded the cost-savings effort.
"The town's operating budget was in structural deficit," Prescott said. "There wasn't enough money to cover services. So what the town has been doing in the past has been using one time money such as free cash or MCI money, getting money from different directions ... which it really shouldn't have been doing because you can't depend on that. And we've been doing exactly that for a couple decades. The problem was growing bigger every day.
"As a result, selectmen began looking at all kinds of ways to save money," Prescott added. "We took a multi-pronged approach. We made zoning changes to increase commercial growth in town, we got involved with some solar arrays with National Grid, we started looking at the structure of our government including the public safety sector, a place where cuts had been made in the past.
Prescott said selectmen decided to take a different tack, holding the line on public safety spending while looking at other parts of government for cuts -- places like Town Hall.
"Historically, Town Hall has never been cut back so we offered up some reductions in hours but Town Meeting didn't like those and changed them back," Prescott said. "Instead, residents voted to take $700,000 out of the stabilization fund (to cover the increased costs). That was fine. They have the right to do that."
But the consequences of that decision, explained Prescott, are that the $700,000 now becomes a permanent increase in spending and along with approximately $500,000 in fixed costs such as insurance, utilities and health care, would mean a huge annual deficit that would need to be made up.
"That's a million dollar deficit we're facing," said Prescott. "Selectmen have tried to be proactive instead of reactive but these numbers are unsustainable. Now, because of what town meeting did, there's going to have to be an override."
The only question, Prescott said, is whether the override will be for one year or four or five years. The answer will effect the status of town employees who are already upset from previous attempts to make reductions at Town Hall. Some took out their frustrations at Town Meeting when they voted to "zero out" a pay increase for town administrator Patrice Galvin, he said.
"They gave everybody in the room a 2 percent COLA increase but not the town administrator," said Prescott. "She has a contract with us so we went back to Town Meeting a month later and brought it up again but residents still said no. So what the selectmen did next was to hold an open meeting where we gave the town administrator that 2 percent raise, which came to a total of $1,800. That move upset the very people that were at that Town Meeting.
"But the point is," Prescott added, "that the contract between the town and the town administrator is actually between the selectmen and town administrator. I signed that contract. My name is on that contract. That's what people fail to understand. If we didn't sign it, we could have been in default (and exposed to legal action). Selectmen decided unanimously to take that action. As a result, some people started a recall petition because they were not happy with what we did.
"The town has also been without a real town administrator for some time before Patrice came in," said Prescott. "I am satisfied with her performance. She did an incredible amount of work including reducing the number of recipients who were receiving health care that shouldn't have for a savings of $200,000. With all the things she has done, she had kept this town afloat. She also hired a new police chief who's been doing a good job. So there have been a lot of things happening in town. It's not been all bad news here. It's just that people don't like the changes. These have been services that have directly benefited the taxpayers. That said, we still have this deficit looming over us."
Petitioner James Thibault noted many other communities in Massachusetts already have recall laws on the books. Thibault has urged fellow residents to support the provision which, once approved by town meeting, must be affirmed by the state's legislature.
"The reasoning for this petition is simple," Thibault said. "Just as voters are able to elect their town governmental leaders, they should be able to have a procedure to remove officials who are not satisfying the responsibilities and duties of their office as in the best interest of the voters and town meeting."
Conditions cited for recall vary from town to town. In Ayer, for instance, no conditions are listed beyond the expected requirement that petitioners be registered voters of the town.
In Groton, a recall provision is spelled out in the town's charter, which requires that the recall petition "contain the grounds for recall" but does not spell out what those grounds might be.
In Townsend, conditions are exact, including "lack of fitness, corruption, neglect of duties and misfeasance."
Brian McNiss, of the Secretary of State's election office, confirmed that not only is there no recall law at the state level, but the legislature provides no guidance for the formulation of same on the local level.
"I support a recall bylaw but not this one," said Prescott. "It's bad for Shirley for several reasons. The bar is set too low on it and it restricts people from participating in town government for two years. I'd rather see a committee formed so that everybody has their say. All our bylaws are vetted by committee and public hearings before any changes to them are offered but this one hasn't."
Prescott added that a means of changing local government already exists.
"There's an election every year in this town with at least one selectmen's seat open each time," said Prescott. If the recent past was any indication, there seemed little interest in changing things by way of the ballot box.
Prescott noted, "Last time, there were 14 seats open but only one was contested."