SHIRLEY – In a formal request presented to the selectmen Monday night, the Finance Committee asked to place an article on the November annual town meeting warrant that seeks to amend a town bylaw, specifically, a section that spells out its duties and responsibilities.
The request comes after former committee chairman John O’Keefe was denied another term on the Finance Committee he’d served on for 10 years. Apparently, he was set to re-up when his term expired this summer, but the town moderator, who appoints the board’s seven members, told O’Keefe she would not reappoint him, citing actions that in her view violated the bylaw and his volunteer job description.
An outspoken critic of the Ayer Shirley Regional School District’s push earlier this year for a major makeover of its high school athletic fields and facilities, O’Keefe had made his case against the fields plan – hammered out over two years and at considerable district expense – at several public meetings and in a letter to Shirley citizens that he circulated around town and sent to local newspapers.
Backed by the full committee, which had voted unanimously to recommend against the project as presented, O’Keefe’s point was the plan as presented was overly ambitious, too costly, and proponents did not provide the FinCom with enough data for a full financial analysis.
Besides, there was an alternative plan that O’Keefe and other FinCom members believed might serve just as well for considerably less cost. Devised independently by School Committee member Jim Quinty, one of three Shirley representatives on the six-member board, the idea died on the vine after the full board rejected it, despite substantial support for it in the community.
The field project stalled, however, after a debt exclusion override failed to pass in Shirley.
The School Committee had tied implementation of the fields project to passage of debt exclusion overrides in both member towns. The ballot question passed in Ayer, but Shirley voters rejected it.
As for the proposed bylaw change the Finance Committee wants town meeting voters to consider, it calls for changes “pursuant to Mass General Laws,” according to language submitted to the selectmen for the requested warrant article.
In a proposed change to a specific bylaw section, new language states that the Finance Committee “shall consider any or all municipal questions for the purpose of making reports or recommendations to the town.” Presumably, that would include the still-pending high school fields project.
A first draft of the proposed bylaw change will be presented for public input at three public meetings, scheduled for September 28, October 5 and October 19, respectively, with a final draft presented at the third and last meeting, October 19.
Both O’Keefe and Finance Committee Chairman Mike Swanton spoke up for the proposed article.
O’Keefe said the committee had conducted itself appropriately when it sought to dissect the fields project and recommended against it as presented.
Swanton agreed. “We have always done it this way,” he said, citing his 20 years on the board. Issues the committee discusses and makes recommendations on have not as a rule been limited to those that had already been taken up at town meeting, he said.
“The current moderator has narrowly interpreted the bylaw” to that effect, he said. But if town meeting agrees to the proposed bylaw change, it would “clarify” the message and meaning of the bylaw so it aligns more closely with state law. It would than state, in part, that the Finance Committee “shall consider any and all questions” related to spending, Swanton said.
Former selectman Enrico Cappucci, who also served as town moderator for a time, said he’d been lucky to have Finance Committees he worked well with during his tenure, but in his view, the moderator’s role in terms of the FinCom shouldn’t go beyond appointing its members. Deciding “when it’s time for a member to go” isn’t the moderator’s call, he said.
Selectman Debra Flagg agreed: “To me, it’s hard not to reappoint someone who’s volunteering,” she said. She made a motion to contact town counsel for a legal opinion on the matter. The motion passed by a unanimous vote.
Flagg also expressed concern that when issues like this come up, there might be public outcry but participation comes up short. Despite “a lot of good intentions,” calls for change fall flat at town meeting, she said.
“Few people watch us,” Flagg said. For example, people are worried about the Triple E virus, spread by infected mosquitoes. Yet, when signing up for the Central Mass mosquito control project came to a town meeting vote, it failed, even though her impression was that most people in town supported it.
Town Administrator Mike McGovern said the board had been doing things right by following protocol. “Basically, all we can do” is get the information out. Post and publicize hearings, meetings, etc. call for input. The rest is up to the public, he said, which gets a say by showing up.
In other business, McGovern noted that there’s an opening for a Shirley resident on the Devens Enterprise Commission and that interested parties should submit resumes for consideration.
The DEC is a multi-member, one-stop permitting board that serves the Devens community and the three stakeholder towns: Ayer, Harvard and Shirley.