HANSON — With only one member of the Board of Selectmen having held office for more than two years — and two members elected this May — the board convened in a special meeting Tuesday, July 17 for workshop with Town Counsel Katherine M. Feodoroff.
A member of the firm Mead, Talerman & Costa LLC, Feodoroff presented a PowerPoint outline of the board’s roles and responsibilities, unique roles of the board and town administrator and how they intersect, how to act effectively as selectmen, the role of the chairman and the current regulations under the Open Meeting Law. She then fielded selectmen’s questions for nearly half an hour during the meeting.
“I’ve been on the board for three and a half years,” Selectmen Chairman Kenny Mitchell said. “When I first got on the board, other than the three months of meetings that I had attended, I didn’t know all the responsibilities or roles of a selectman so for the first three months I felt a little bit lost.”
After Mitchell discussed it with Feodoroff, she suggested, with the election of two new selectmen, that she conduct a workshop.
“I thought that was a cool idea,” he said.
“I love it, and I also think those of us who have been doing it for a while could use refreshers,” said Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett. “I don’t think it would be a bad thing for us to do this annually.”
Feodoroff outlined how selectmen is the policy-maker for the town and also serves in a “quasi-judicial capacity” and appointing authority and how it is intended to act as a body.
“Essentially, the roles and responsibilities for boards of selectmen and town administrators are defined by charter, by by-laws, by special acts — Hanson has a particular act for the town administrator to create that role — and it differs for every town,” Feodoroff said. “You have to look at your own by-laws to figure out where these roles are defined.”
Selectmen and the town administrator make up the town’s executive branch with Town Meeting working in the legislative role. The board creates policy, which is implemented by the town administrator.
“You steer the ship, you create the warrants,” she said unless a warrant article is sought by resident petition.
The board oversees litigation involving the town, approve litigation settlements with the town administrator’s assistance, approve collective bargaining agreements, negotiate employment contracts and expend gifts and grants received by the town. Selectmen also approve the budget, licensure — now including marijuana establishments — and governs business practices of the town, hear grievances not resolved with the town administrator and has appointment authority for department heads.
“This is probably the biggest area where boards and staff collide,” Feodoroff said. “Although you have appointment power, you have decided that [Town Administrator Michael McCue] manages operations, so you’re not supervising these folks, you’re not directing these folks, your simply appointing them for their obligations and then assuming they’re doing a good job based on [McCue’s] reports.”
Selectman Jim Hickey later asked what selectmen are allowed to do when they see a town employee not doing their job properly.
“I’m also a citizen and I pay their salaries,” he said. “Where do I go from there?”
Feodoroff said selectmen should go through the town administrator if they feel it is serious enough to require town action.
“If it’s something like, ‘Hey, buddy, you’ve been in your car for 45 minutes and I know your break is only half an hour. Quit it,’” she said. “I’m not saying that you’re foreclosed from being responsive. … Any time you see a town employee that did something great, always say, ‘Great job.’”
The town administrator deals with public complaints, employee evaluations and grievances as well as serving as the chief procurement officer for the town.
“Your authority is limited to the board’s actions,” Feodoroff said. “You can’t unilaterally make any decisions, make any directions without board approval.”
Public complaints should be directed to the town administrator.
“It’s difficult when someone approaches you with a problem not to say, ‘I’m taking care of this today and I’m going to speak to so-and-so directly and ensure it’s done,’” she said. “If it’s something of sufficient severity that requires an action by selectmen, it needs to be done in an agenda for the board to act collectively.”
“Under the Open Meeting Law, the chair doesn’t need to allow public participation,” Feodoroff said. “They are required to be able to to sit here and listen and to hear what’s motivating you on any decision you are making.”
Selectman Matt Dyer had also brought to the board’s attention at a recent meeting that comments posted by selectmen on social media forums can constitute a violation of the Open Meeting Law.
“This is such a huge gray area and there’s no really great answer,” Feodoroff said. “But there is a risk when you are on social media … that that could be seen as serial deliberation, especially in closed forums. … This is sort of uncharted territory.”
General statements on political issues could be permitted, such as “I love the schools” or “I’m against marijuana,” but selectmen should be wary of indicating how they might vote on specific matter or in responding to other comments online.
“It would have to relate to town business, though, right?” Mitchell said. “So If Laura posts something that says, ‘I’m having a bake sale on Saturday,’ and Wes hops on and says, ‘Oh yeah, her brownies are great,’ and Jim says, ‘Grab some chocolate cake while you’re there,’ that’s OK.”
Feodoroff agreed that was permitted.
Hickey quipped that mentioning baked goods right after marijuana was a bit funny.
Board members must also avoid to hitting the “Reply All” tab on emails from other board members as that could also qualify as deliberation, Feodoroff cautioned.
Hickey asked if, to prepare for a meeting he calls Mitchell who had already spoken to FitzGerald-Kemmett, is it a violation “if Kenny tells me what Laura said to him?”
“You can’t do that, because … the Open Meeting Law contemplates that the folks at home, or sitting in this room, understand how you got from the point of ‘I don’t know how I’m voting on this’ to, ‘I’m voting yes’ or ‘I’m voting no,’” Feodoroff said. “They want to understand what led you to that position. So, if Laura’s discussion with Kenny had an influence on you, it’s their right to know that that exchange occurred.”
“I think that’s a real pitfall for the unwary right there,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
If Mitchell simply mentioned a source of information FitzGerald-Kemmett had told him about and Hickey looked it up independently to help form his decision, it would not be a violation so long as he didn’t discuss his potential vote with other members of the board.
“Don’t we want Laura to present that in an open meeting where we all hear it?” asked Selectman Wes Blauss.
“Why am I the root of all evil in this discussion?” FitzGerald-Kemmett asked.
Feodoroff said Blauss’ point would be the best avenue because, while a board member can distribute information, they have to be careful not to include any opinion in that information.
Selectmen also, in preparing for evaluating the town administrator, may talk with department heads or employees to obtain feedback, but should be wary of someone else’s accounts in the event an employee may be upset concerning an evaluation from the town administrator for reasons a selectmen may not know about. Selectmen also have to be wary against discussing town business if a quorum of members — at least three of five — are present at social occasions.