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Westwood to vote on revised town charter

Residents to vote after three years

Town Meeting codified it. The state Legislature approved it. Governor Deval Patrick signed it. Now it’s up to Westwood residents to vote on a new town charter, the last step in an arduous three-year process to revamp the 40-plus-year-old governing document that officials say hasn’t kept up with the times.

Along with a contested election for the Planning Board, the ballot question, which would approve or reject 31 major and minor changes to the 1970 charter, will be put before voters in next Tuesday’s election.

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“We are almost there,’’ said Peter Cahill, an attorney and town resident who served as chairman of the Government and Charter Task Force.

When the current charter was introduced, the Beatles had just released their final album, “Let It Be,’’ the Vietnam War was raging, and Westwood was a rural burg where town business was often handled informally. By contrast, officials today are tied to stringent state and federal mandates made more challenging by precarious budgets in a roller-coaster economy.

In this milieu, task force members worked to modernize the charter guidelines after holding 30 public meetings and a range of discussions with town committees.

“I’m very happy that the process was thorough and open,’’ Cahill said. “That was deliberate.’’

Other communities are updating their charters, as well. Norton voters decide this week whether to impose changes ranging from having an appointed town clerk and water/sewer commission to increasing town manager oversight and establishing a five-member Board of Selectmen. Norwell is undergoing a similar process, as is Holbrook.

Bridgewater and Randolph revamped their town charters over the past several years in order to move to a town council form of government.

In Dedham, the changes that voters will address include the addition of a regular fall Town Meeting that can be used to handle any overflow from the spring Town Meeting, or issues that crop up during the year, officials said.

Selectmen could cancel the planned fall meeting by mid-September if no more than 10 articles had been received for consideration, according to the guidelines.

The charter also creates a Municipal Finance Department and formally recognizes and defines the role of Municipal Finance Director Pam Dukeman, as well as Town Administrator Michael Jaillet, who has filled the role of town administrator even though the charter still calls it “executive secretary.’’

Westwood’s proposed new charter also would establish a novel pre-petition process that would streamline the way residents can bring ideas for Town Meeting warrant articles to the Finance Commission - to be renamed the Finance and Warrant Commission. (In some communities, that oversight panel is known as the Advisory Committee.)

Sometimes, an article written by a resident might be more effective, or comply better with the law, if it could be tweaked after a discussion with the commission. But under state law, once an article is submitted to the commission, its wording can’t be changed until it is amended on Town Meeting Floor, Cahill said.

“This way, you can bounce an idea off the commission and get feedback before filing something,’’ he said.

Westwood’s commission members have a good relationship with residents and would probably do that anyway, he and others said.

But, Cahill said, “We wanted that in writing to be sure in going forward that someone has the right to be heard.’’

The new charter would also establish voting rights for associate members of boards and committees to ease the permitting process for applicants. If regular members who have heard an application over time end up losing their elected seats, for example, a permit application has to begin anew under the current process. But if the new charter passes, associate members who had been present for all hearings could vote and keep an application moving forward.

Suggestions that were raised over the charter review process that didn’t make it into the new document included moving elections to Saturdays, increasing the number of selectmen to five from three, and even a question switching open Town Meeting to a representative one.

But the decision, in the Town Meeting question in particular, was to leave things alone, said task force vice chairwoman Karen Manor Metzold.

“People value that,’’ she said. “Voice is important.’’

The charter is also building in an automatic review every five years to be sure it still reflects the town’s personality and values, she said. “It is important for voters to come out and consider it,’’ she said. “We have given it a lot of thought, and the key is transparency.’’

Jaillet said he was glad in particular for his official title change, as well as more definition of the complex job he handles.

“Before, it wasn’t much more than deliver the budget and make sure the clerks do their work,’’ he said.

The fact, though, that most of the town’s rules, regulations, and processes won’t change makes one thing pretty clear, Jaillet said: “At every turn, this task force came to the conclusion that for very legitimate reasons, what we have here in town works.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.
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