Seeking to restructure its government as other communities south of Boston have done in recent years, Holbrook is contemplating a town charter that would strengthen the powers of its top employee and make some of its elective positions appointive.
The proposed charter, Holbrook’s first, would turn the town administrator into a town manager who would oversee daily operations and supervise employees who previously reported to selectmen.
Kevin Costa, chairman of the Town Government Study Committee, which worked on a draft of the charter, said a town manager could hold employees accountable. Asking a volunteer board, such as the selectmen, to supervise employees is unrealistic, said Costa, who also chairs the Finance Committee. The idea behind the charter, he said, is to “allow the town government to be the most efficient that the town can afford.”
In addition, the town clerk and treasurer/collector would be appointed rather than elected, as they are now. Who exactly would do the appointing — the Board of Selectmen or the town manager, with selectmen given a veto — is still under discussion, he said, but the latest draft, dated Aug. 9, gives that authority to the selectmen.
The proposed change does not reflect dissatisfaction with the people who hold those jobs presently, said Alexander Mann, another member of the committee, but rather a desire to ensure that Holbrook has a modern, professional government.
“It’s not a witch hunt,” he said.
Costa said duties of the clerk and treasurer are heavily mandated by the state, and towns can get into trouble if a clerk or treasurer fails to do what the state requires.
Other communities have altered their charters with an eye toward streamlining or improving operations. A charter committee has been meeting in Dedham, and Westwood updated its charter in the spring.
Earlier, Bridgewater sent its Town Meeting and Board of Selectmen into the history books, opting for a town manager and town council whose members took office in January 2011. Randolph welcomed a town council form of government in 2010.
Two other communities, Braintree and Weymouth, dropped Town Meeting in favor of a mayor and town council, Braintree in 2008, Weymouth in 2000.
Change hasn’t always meant smooth sailing; in Bridgewater, it did nothing to quiet the contentious political atmosphere, and a citizens’ group successfully petitioned for a recall election for two town councilors, Michael Demos and Peter Riordan. The vote is set for Nov. 6.
In Holbrook, the study committee plans to hold an informational meeting Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. at Holbrook Junior-Senior High School. The meeting will be open to the public but designed as a caucus for members of Holbrook’s representative Town Meeting.
Town Meeting could be asked to vote on a charter this fall, if the Board of Selectmen places it on the warrant.
The Aug. 9 draft of the charter adds the position of human resource director, who would negotiate contracts with employees, unions, and insurance companies. The document also indicates that the town manager would appoint certain employees, including administrative workers, code enforcement officers, the health agent, senior center staff, and the emergency management director.
According to Costa, the committee voted after the draft was written to allow the town manager to appoint other employees, but the issue remains in flux. The selectmen might like more appointing authority than such an arrangement would afford, he said.
Town Administrator William Phelan said the selectmen have expressed concerns to the committee about the draft, and it will probably be revised.
Having a charter is a good idea, he said, because many communities without a charter follow a “mishmash” of local and state laws without a real blueprint for operations.
He said he likes the idea of an appointed treasurer and clerk, but he’s not so sure about a stronger town manager.
Phelan, a former Quincy mayor, said he once thought Holbrook needed a manager, but now he sees drawbacks.
The smaller a town is, the less it can afford to attract the best candidate, and the town has to make sure that if it invests authority in a manager, it has a person who can handle the job, he said.
“There’s also something in between,” he said.
“You can have a town manager that hires everybody but department heads, for example.”
In Norton, a vote to make the town clerk and water/sewer commissioners appointed positions failed earlier this year.
Voters did, however, decide to allow the town manager to appoint the water and sewer superintendent.
Town Manager Michael Yunits said voters also removed selectmen from participating in union negotiations, though they may still observe.
Yunits, who was the Holbrook town administrator before leaving to work in Norton last year, said he thinks selectmen should set policy, not be supervisors to whom employees can turn when they don’t want to follow the town administrator’s instructions.