Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Citizens Participation in the Decision Making Process

(This column, the fourth in a series written by Town Government Study Committee member Bruce Langlan, is designed to provide information about the charters to Bridgewater residents who will vote April 24 as to the form of government they prefer. This column will address various aspects of the charters each week. Residents are encouraged to submit questions and comments by e-mailing the Town Government Study Committee at: TownGovernmentStudy@bridgewaterma.org. Questions and comments will be answered directly or in a subsequent column. A program by the same name will also air on BTV.)

Both Charters devote an entire article as to how citizens can propose initiatives, petitions, and referendums to the Board of Selectman (Charter 2) or Town Council (Charter 1). Under Charter 2 (Town Meeting/Board of Selectmen/Town Manager), the existing Massachusetts General Laws still govern citizens’ rights to petition Town Meeting and to place articles on the Town Warrant. In fact, both Charters give Bridgewater residents a stronger voice in their government than they currently have today.

Under both Charters an initiative petition with 50 signatures is filed with the Town Clerk, along with an affidavit signed by 10 citizens who attest that they will be the petitioners’ committee. Upon legal review and acceptance, the petitioners’ committee must obtain signatures of 10 percent of the total number of voters of the most recent Town election. Once certified, the initiative would be placed on a ballot for a vote. For a vote to be successful at least 20 percent of the *voters must vote. Procedures are also in the Charters to allow citizens to overturn initiatives/referendums and seek making them null and void.

Both Charters also allow individual partitions to be filed directly with the Board of Selectman/Town Council, who may, at their discretion, take such action with regard to such petitions, as they deem necessary and appropriate.

Group petitions may also be filed with the Board of Selectman/Town Council. A public hearing is required and a vote must be taken on the merits of every petition signed by at least one hundred voters.

In addition both Charters guarantee citizens the right to address every Board of Selectman/Town Council Meeting.

Under both Charters the citizens retain the right to vote by ballot on all override questions and voting for school committee members, even if there were to be a split in the Regional School District K through 8. Under both Charters, matters of a significant nature to the residents can always be put to the ballot.

The Charters strengthen conflict of interest policy and require campaign-financing disclosure at the local level. In an effort to reduce conflict of interest situations employees of the town and the Regional School District are prohibited form holding elected office in the town.

The Charters also require a citizen’s panel to review the Charter every six years and recommend changes deemed necessary. The residents of Bridgewater must approve charter changes at the ballot. The Massachusetts Legislature would only be involved in the process if the town were to propose a major legislative or executive change to the Charter’s.

Both Charters eliminate the election of individuals to paid positions within the town (with the exception of the Town Clerk) and call for the appointment of qualified individuals to these positions. Job descriptions, advertising, and posting of vacancies are required as well as interviewing, reference and background checks. The Town Manager will select those individuals most qualified for the position and have his/her selection ratified by the Board of Selectman/Town Council.

Unpaid positions to boards and commissions will be filled by appointing qualified applicants. The Charters require that the Town Manager develop job descriptions and criteria for these positions. The Charters also require a Citizens' Advisory Panel be utilized to help recruit and screen individuals. The Town Manager will interview and select appointees, and the Board of Selectman/Town Council will ratify those choices.

The Charters actually strengthen the citizens’ voice and allows for greater participation for those citizens who want to be engaged in the governance of the town. If a citizen has a particular skill set but doesn’t want to conduct a town wide election campaign, that individual can simply fill out an application for a particular board, go through an interview process with the advisory panel and town manager.

The aim of the Charters is to strengthen all aspects of government, give the citizens a greater role in charting the future course of Bridgewater and providing a structure of accountability, professional management and transparency.

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