SHIRLEY — Laying off a firefighter, scratching the DPW director’s position or holding off on hiring a new police chief could be viewed as draconian measures. Or as creative cost containment in tight times.
But when such decisions are made behind the scenes, the question becomes whether the decision-making process violated the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law.
Town administrator Kyle Keady said that was never the intent.
Selectmen authorized Keady to meet with the Finance Committee chairman, with interim School Superintendent Malcolm “Mac” Reid representing the School Committee, and with selectmen individually, to discuss lists of cuts that the boards and each selectman had come up with, plugging individual proposals into a generic template.
Each hit list was then dissected in practical terms.
As a hypothetical example, if the town accountant’s position was eyed for elimination, Keady set the proposal in an all-things-considered frame, not making a case for or against it, he said. It’s essential to understand how the job lost would affects other functions, he said, and to map out how state mandates would be met and tasks reassigned if that position were cut.
Once disparate lists totaling 200 items had been integrated into a single list of seven items, Keady made calls to implement the cuts, with a green light from each selectman.
With a deficit this year of more than $300,00 due to late state aid reductions, and a $1.8 million shortfall looming for fiscal year 2010, expenses had to be downsized. Positions on the block for next year were tied to this year’s cost-savings plan.
Thus the decision to move police Chief Paul Thibodeau’s planned retirement back to its original date in April (after he had agreed to stay until July 1.)
When fire Chief Dennis Levesque was asked to trim $10,000 this year, he laid off a firefighter. His department’s bare-bones budget offered few if any other options. Besides, the position had been eliminated as a line item for FY2010, Keady said.
The “strong chief” statute gives Levesque the authority to make that decision, Keady said. “He has the right to hire and fire.”
DPW Director Joe Lynch, informed that his job had been axed in next year’s budget, chose to take administrative leave now via a provision in his contract, Keady said.
To sum up the damages to date: The Fire Department is now down to two full-time firefighters, with the chief as a third. The DPW operates with a two-man crew and one foreman. And when the police chief retires next month, an acting chief will be appointed, presumably from the ranks, and will wear two hats — as acting chief and as an officer on duty during the day shift.
The above arrangements are workable, undoubtedly, but they also change the way the town does business. And the public was left out of the loop until the deals were done.
Keady conceded that is a departure from past practice.
Previously, the administrator prepared a budget covering departments the selectmen are responsible for, he said. But this year’s cycle took a different track. The aim was to bring a recommendation to town meeting that the boards could agree on in advance.
Keady said still more cuts are in the pipeline.
Trash pickup, with its $300,00 annual price tag, is an obvious target.
The Board of Health has suggested pay-per-bag, but they must first determine whether that plan could bring in enough revenue to cover the contract, Keady said, adding that a phase-in period may be necessary if the town were to implement such a program.
Leaving residents to deal with trash disposal on their own isn’t a viable option, Keady said. “The town has a responsibility.”
Although the selectmen will discuss the big picture, it’s not likely they’ll pinpoint job cuts in public, Keady said. Department heads would be notified first.
Was it legal?
It is still not clear whether this decision-making process complies with the Open Meeting Law.
Assistant District Attorney Bob Bender could not answer that question in a “what if” scenario.
“What you’re describing sounds like polling,” he said, which is improper. But absent a complaint about a specific incident, he couldn’t say whether it would be a violation of the OML or not.
But it might be.
Although not a vote, the OML would consider the situation as described to be “deliberation,” he said, with a quorum of a group taking action on an issue, even if done separately.
“If this is a particular case, the DA won’t answer” generically, Bender said. “We’d look at the facts.” And if a complaint or inquiry is filed, the DA’s office would respond.
“It’s a worthy question to see if the law was complied with,” Bender said.
According to Shirley Oracle editor Kate Walsh, a complaint alleging an Open Meeting Law violation will be filed.