A state Department of Revenue report that found Pembroke is being hindered by an outmoded form of government has rekindled debate over how the town should best manage itself.
In a financial management review performed for the town, the agency’s Division of Local Services said Pembroke would function better by centralizing more authority in its town administrator.
“We found that Pembroke’s decentralized form of government is not conducive to an efficient and effective modern day operation,” the division said, recommending that the administrator’s position “be strengthened to include managing all non-school departments.”
The division cited the results of a 2012 planning session indicating “community members were concerned about the current form of government, which was seen as a barrier to change. A shared opinion continues to exist among officials that Pembroke has outgrown the current organizational model, which is better suited for smaller communities.”
Since Pembroke adopted its current town administrator position in 1998, there have been periodic calls in town to strengthen it or replace it with a town manager, who typically wields more power. But efforts to accomplish that have failed, most recently in 2010 when Town Meeting indefinitely postponed a proposal to switch to a town manager.
With the release of the recent report, however, there is renewed talk among officials about revisiting the issue.
The discussion comes as the Board of Selectmen is forming a town government study committee that will look at all the recommendations of the state report, which also include that the town adopt a charter.
Bill Boulter, chairman of the selectmen, said he opposed the 2010 proposal, but now favors moving to a strengthened administrator or manager.
“It just makes sense where he is the town administrator that he has some authority to make more decisions than what he is doing,” Boulter said.
The report said the town has adopted some changes to become more efficient in the last two decades, including creating a public works department, expanding its Board of Selectmen to five members, making the collector and treasurer an appointed position, and hiring the administrator.
But it said authority continues to be relatively dispersed, citing the number of elected boards and officials that do not have to report to the administrator or selectmen. In such a set-up, “there is limited coordination and accountability.”
“The lack of central administrative oversight was highlighted in 2008 with the discovery of thefts by a board of health secretary between 2000 and 2007. Based on available records, it is estimated that she misappropriated over $47,400,” the report said.
Even without a change in town bylaws, Boulter said, Town Administrator Edwin Thorne has gradually assumed new duties, including overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Board of Health office. But he said those responsibilities have not been formalized in the town bylaws.
Boulter said he favors putting a proposal before the annual Town Meeting in April to give the administrator more authority, including adding the responsibilities he has assumed informally. He said the town could then consider further bolstering the position or replacing it with a town manager as it develops a charter.
Thorne, who has been Pembroke’s only town administrator, agrees that a change is needed.
“Anybody that would look at an organization of a couple of hundred employees and a $55 million budget would think that someone has to be in charge on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Thorne said the town’s swift growth has accentuated the need for more centralized authority. Between 1990 and 2010, Pembroke’s population rose by nearly 23 percent, from 14,544 to 17,837, according to census figures.
As an illustration of the downside of a decentralized government, Thorne said it can be challenging for residents who visit Town Hall to find someone with the authority to address their problem.
“You would want one-stop shopping, and having the buck stop with someone,” he said.
Selectman Daniel Trabucco, who will chair the new government study committee, said he favors strengthening the administrator position or replacing it with a town manager, but is keeping an open mind.
“The town has grown to such an extent that we need someone with professional experience on a day-to-day basis to direct all the different departments. Right now, we have a town administrator who does a very good job of approximating that and even beyond . . . but his power is limited,” he said.
Trabucco said he wants to see any changes to the administrative position made as part of the creation of a town charter, a process he said his committee will spearhead. Given the time that effort will take, he said he does not foresee a proposal being ready for Town Meeting this spring.
Elizabeth Bates, a veteran member of the Board of Assessors and of the Historical Commission, vocally opposed the 2010 proposal. But she said her objection was not with the idea of creating a town manager position but with how it was proposed.
“In order to upgrade the position to create a strong town administrator or town manager, the town needs to adopt a charter,” she said.
Bates favors the town moving ahead now to develop that charter, but said the effort needs to be carried out by a charter commission, not the government study committee.
Selectman Lew Stone, who served on a prior study committee that offered the 2010 proposal, said he continues to see the need for a strengthened administrator or manager.
“I just think things have changed especially over a 13-, 14-year period,” he said. “The town has gotten bigger, budgets have gotten bigger, and we really have to have someone there with authority over things.”John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.