CANDIDATE QUESTION TIME: STUART SCHULMAN RESPONDS TO QUESTIONS FROM HERALD EDITORIAL BOARD
Questions for Candidates for Selectmen
Q. For many years the Board of Selectmen was composed of 3 members. As the workload began to increase, the board was increased to five members. With the Charter and hiring of a Town Manager the workload of the board has significantly reduced. Do you think we should go back to being a 3-person board? If so why or why not.
I do not. Workload was only one of many factors in expanding the Board. Additional factors were more diverse representation, the ability to move forward when one member is unavailable, and other issues of that sort.
Q. What was your greatest accomplishment during your last term as Selectman
There are no individual accomplishments on the Board of Selectmen. It's a group effort. Some accomplishments of note:
The acceptance of the new Fire Station project,
The redevelopment of 134 Main Street,
Taxation for two of the past three years below the levy limit,
the upgrading of our Bond Rating twice in the past three years by S&P. This attests to our Town's financial stability and good financial management, and significantly lowers the cost of such projects as the new Fire Station.
Q. Participation at town meeting is declining and participation at town elections and the numbers of volunteers seems to be declining. Is this trend linked to the Charter form of government? Is so what should be done? If not, if such a trend continues, what does this mean for the town? Can Selectmen do anything about it?
We have appointed a Town Meeting study commission to study this issue and make recommendations to us. The Special Town Meeting in January was attended by 400 people. Attendance varies based on the pull of the issues to be discussed. Having a budget that is professionally prepared, approved by all relevant town bodies, and doesn't require an override may be "boring", but I'll take it over the alternative.
Q. Given the minimal use of the Lost Lake substation for fire fighting, do you think that, in hindsight, its construction was a mistake? Why? Why not?
I don't think hindsight of that sort is useful. I will strive to make the best use of the building from this point forward.
Q. What elements, if any, of the Charter form of government need revision?
Hopefully, not any. We have a bylaw review committee that continues to study our bylaws and what, if any revisions need to be made. So far, all conflicts between the bylaws and the Charter have been resolved by changing the bylaws. The process of changing the charter is designed, by the Commonwealth, to be a very cumbersome procedure that a town should not enter into lightly.
Q. Taxes in Groton are among the highest in the state for towns of our size. What, if anything, should be done? Where could you see some savings, if savings are desired?
According to http://www.bizjournals.com/ Groton stands about 90th in residential tax rates in the state in 2012, below Harvard, Townsend, Ashby, and Littleton to name a few neighboring towns. The levy limit has been below 2.5% for the last two years. Expenditures on items like Fitch's Bridge, the Fire Station, School technology upgrades, and the like are up to the voters at Town Meeting. If these projects are approved, they will have to be paid for. If not, the money can be "saved". If you look at the line item budgets of the past few years, you will see that significant operational savings have occurred in many areas, due in large part to the management skills of our Town Manager; this despite record levels of inflation in fuel and health care costs.
Q. Do you think a bylaw limiting the number of consecutive terms that a Selectmen could serve has any merit? Why? Why not?
I wouldn't oppose it, but, speaking from a personal standpoint, I was willing to stand down from the Board after two terms, but nobody stepped up to replace me. Based on the comment above that volunteers for town boards are declining, imposing term limits hardly seems practical at this point.
Q. What three issues affecting Groton's long-term future need your attention?
First and foremost is continued financial stability. We're in fine shape today, but that can always change. We try to plan forward five years but, as everyone knows, surprises can happen and we must remain vigilant.
I have always been greatly interested in Groton's old buildings. The decline of these buildings does not reflect well on the town. We have been able to creatively address 134 Main Street, Tarbell, the Grange, and others. There are many others remaining, including Squannacook Hall, Prescott School, the "soon to be old" fire station, and the Catholic Church. It is a continuing interest of mine to see what can be done to constructively reuse these buildings. It is hard to generalize a method of addressing this issue, save to point out that simple renovation is generally not economically feasible. We have to think "outside the box" for each property.
On a less formal note, I have a "stretch" goal that we can make Groton the restaurant capital of North Central Massachusetts!
Q. Do you have any comment on how Selectmen handled the recent non-appointment of the Personnel Committee?
My apologies for the lengthy response
82 of our Town's employees (72%) are under union contracts, negotiated by the town with union leaders, and ratified by the union members. None of the five contracts makes mention of a Personnel Board in their grievance procedures. There are 15 bylaw employees that would make potential use of a Personnel Board. In the absence of such a Board, we have agreement with the bylaw employees that the grievance procedures all the unions have agreed to apply to them. They seem to have no problem with this approach.
In the 18 months since the 2011 Fall Town Meeting (where an article on the Warrant to dissolve the Personnel bylaw failed) no bylaw employee has raised this issue. The first citizen to raise the issue was Mr. Petropoulos, a few weeks ago.
There has been one grievance in the past five years, and it was resolved and eventually withdrawn at a level below that of the Personnel Board. There are no unresolved grievances, nor have there been any in my six years on the Board of Selectmen.
Since the issue has recently come up, we will in fact be appointing members to the Personnel Board. Historically, the Board originally had 7 members, then it was shrunk to 5, then 3, each time because not enough citizens could be found who were willing to serve on it.
A substantial majority of towns in Massachusetts that have the Town Manager form of government do not have a Personnel Board. In many of the towns that do have a Personnel Board, the Board serves solely in an advisory capacity.
I am in favor of abolishing the Personnel Board. Reasons: Having different HR policies and procedures for union and non-union personnel adds needless complication and confusion, and could, as often happens, lead to discord.
I understand that the issue has been thought to be a "Separation of Powers" issue by some. I see the point, but I simply don't believe this issue rises to that level of significance.
Setting of wage and salary guidelines for the bylaw employees by a Personnel Board could cause havoc with the union employees. If the bylaw employees received a different Cost of Living adjustment than the Union employees, there would be real potential for chaos. Union contracts are negotiated by Selectmen and Town Manager, with no input from a Personnel Board. Bylaw employees have suggested that they might form a union themselves, primarily to avoid the authority of the Personnel Board. If this were to happen, it would make the Personnel Board responsible for a even smaller fraction of the town's employees.
The value of the Personnel Board has been mitigated by the presence of our HR director. The HR Director, like the Town Accountant, serves multiple masters. While she reports to the Town Manager, she also has legal obligations to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the United States. She must make sure that Groton is observing all state and federal labor laws and practices.
It has been stated that there are legal exposures in not having a Personnel Board. However, the Personnel Bylaw clearly states that, in the absence of a sitting board, the Board of Selectmen fulfill the Personnel Board's role in a grievance situation. If the Personnel bylaw is abolished, we will be in the same position as a majority of towns in Massachusetts that have the Town Manager form of government. And our grievance procedures for union and nonunion employees will be identical.
The appointing and hiring process is clearly defined in the Charter, and the Personnel Board has only an optional, advisory role. In fact, the town has utilized many different search committees in different situations. For example, the search committee for hiring a new Senior Center director consisted almost entirely of members of the Council on Aging. Other search committees have been appointed by the BoS after interest forms were submitted by the public. There has always been an attempt to match expertise on the Search Committee with the job to be filled.