Friday, May 21, 1999
Cohen sees room for improvement in town government
Former town administrator Paul Cohen appeared in Union Hall on May 13 at the request of Carlisle Communications, Inc., the parent organization of the Mosquito, to address the annual meeting and share his insight into the challenges that small towns face. The group of over 30 heard some interesting suggestions for the management of town affairs as well as very positive feedback about the role of the paper.
Four years ago, Cohen left Carlisle to serve as town administrator in Dover and then one year ago became deputy town administrator in Natick. Cohen's talk centered on the central focus of town goals, stating that a "paramount concern" for a board of selectmen should be to adopt goals for the next twelve months and to review frequently how those goals can be achieved. While Cohen spoke in general terms saying that it was a "fundamental flaw" when small towns fail to formalize goals, selectman John Ballantine happened to sit in the line of fire and was forced to admit that the Carlisle board had failed to do so this year. Cohen was not surprised and said it had not been done while he was administrator, either.
Cohen suggested that the most appropriate time for discussing annual town goals is right after the new board of selectmen is in place and before summer begins. He suggested that such discussions provide an opportunity to gather board chairs to discuss community-wide objectives and to improve communication. The agreed-upon goals tie into the budget, according to Cohen, and attaining them is "rewarding to the community."
Cohen suggested a one-day retreat for the board of selectmen and a facilitator
Those goals, though, may have to change with the times. Cohen suggested that Proposition 2-1/2 should not be viewed as an obstacle. Requests for funding for schools, land, water, etc., should be viewed in the context of town goals and "failure is okay." Cohen claimed that a vote against a funding proposal should not be considered a rejection of government but rather "an opportunity [that voters agreed] to pass by." However, Cohen believes that communities are more likely to pass a request if it is seen as part of a comprehensive plan which has garnered broad support.
Communication is also key and Cohen suggested a one-day retreat for the board of selectmen and a facilitator which would allow full discussions outside of their usual element. To enhance communication with townspeople, Cohen suggested use of the town Web page for information such as meeting times, dog-licensing procedures, conservation land information, school cancellations, lunch menus, etc. He said that the Natick selectmen's office also publishes a quarterly newsletter and makes voice mail and e-mail available for residents' input.
Cohen acknowledged that the town had grown and accomplished a good deal since his departure and he had some interesting insights into areas where additional personnel could be beneficial. He suggested that a town engineer who could oversee highway projects, conservation issues and planning board questions would be worthy of consideration and that such a person could be shared with another town. The town should not rely on other personnel for such expertise because they are not appropriately trained, he said. Furthermore, such costs can generally be charged out and covered by specific projects.
Cohen pointed out that in Dover, a combined town/school business manager acted as a de facto finance director. Not only was it a means to make the position affordable, but it enhanced trust between departments and put all of the information forwarded to the finance committee on a level playing field. Cohen emphasized the importance of having a finance director who can work on debt cycles, bonding costs and forecasting. The role of the finance committee, he said, is to review that information and oversee the budget on a "macro level but not a micro level. It should be an advisory board to Town Meeting and reflective of Town Meeting."
When asked about Carlisle 2000's recommendation to centralize government, Cohen responded that no one wants change but voters are more open if there is a compelling reason, a demonstrated problem and the solution is in line with town goals. As an interesting aside, Cohen noted that the most innovative changes occur, out of necessity, during times of fiscal crises
Having just recovered from the third night of Town Meeting, the audience responded positively when Cohen recommended a Saturday meeting date. With enthusiasm, he described the Town Meeting in his hometown of Harvard which began at 9 a.m., broke at noon for a lunch cooked by the scouts, reconvened at 1:30 p.m. and finished at 3:30 p.m. He noted that at Saturday meetings the elderly are better represented and babysitting is available. Asked about the ability to attend to extensive business in one day, audience member Seba Gaines shared her personal experience, "In 17 years, it had never gone beyond one day. It was a community day. Everyone looked forward to it."
Looking at the bigger picture, Cohen suggested better communication with state officials, noting that most representatives pay regular visits to their communities and residents should take advantage of that opportunity. He said it was disconcerting to know that the state budget had passed one of the legislative bodies and no announcement had appeared in any of the media. Townspeople should stay involved and follow issues on the state level, such as the Home Rule petition, Ed Reform, the Open Space Bill and affordable housing because they will impact local affairs, he recommended.
A newspaper enthusiast, Cohen reads seven local papers, in addition to the Mosquito and the Globe and was effusive in his praise for this paper. Describing the paper as a "tremendous resource," he said it provides the "most comprehensive coverage of local issues" and the "depth and detail of meetings is not equalled anywhere else."
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito