Town Meeting again to consider appointments
Most communities south of Boston have at least considered converting some of their longtime elective positions - particularly those of money handlers like town treasurers and tax collectors - to appointed ones, as the management of municipalities becomes more complex.
Dedham, Easton, Freetown, Hanover, and Norton have all made the switch, and they say it’s been for the better. Kingston is next on the list, set to consider a change to appointment for treasurer and collector, as well as a merger of the two positions into a single treasurer-collector, at its Special Town Meeting Tuesday.
It won’t be Kingston’s first time. Voters rejected similar proposals in 2008 and again just last month.
But Kingston Selectman Mark Beaton, who penned the petition article defeated in June, argues it is the right time for the switch.
“Towns our size and demographics need to make these jobs appointed,’’ he said. “This town has a $33 million budget, and you need professional people to handle the money. With an appointment, there will be a search committee, job description, goals, and objectives, and if you don’t perform, you’re replaced.’’
Beaton added that electing key financial leaders turns the selection process into a popularity contest. And elected officials, unlike appointed ones, are answerable only to voters. Even if they are incompetent, he said, “we’re stuck with them for three years.’’
Beaton contends voters last month were considering the people currently in the treasurer and collector positions, both competent and professional, rather than the jobs alone.
Since that Town Meeting when the petition article was rejected, longtime Tax Collector Priscilla Palombo, who opposed the change, has retired. Current Town Treasurer John LaBrache enthusiastically supports combining the positions and converting them to appointments.
Those backing this change in government have the Massachusetts Department of Revenue firmly on their side. The state agency called the reasons compelling in a recent letter to Kingston, pointing out that the switch to appointments results in candidates with “the strongest credentials and most extensive professional experience.’’
Theresa DeSilva, secretary of the Massachusetts Treasurers and Collectors Association and Easton’s appointed treasurer-collector, said her organization doesn’t keep statistics on elected and appointed positions.
But based on her own observation, she said larger communities tend to make their financial team members appointed, while smaller communities are more likely to keep them elected.
DeSilva sees the benefit of appointments. “Our field is very detailed and specialized, and there is a large learning curve going from private to public,’’ she said. “When a position is elected, that learning curve can be much greater.’’
In Dedham, the treasurer and collector positions became appointments about nine years ago. “I think there was some resistance, but once it was done, there was virtually no controversy over it,’’ Town Administrator William Keegan said.
The two positions were consolidated in a single position in 2009, when the longtime treasurer retired. The changes, said Keegan, netted improvements.
“It’s a consolidation of services under one roof and reporting to one person,’’ he said. In Dedham, the treasurer-collector reports to the finance director.
Not all towns are convinced of the benefits of appointing their treasurers and collectors. Such is the case in Halifax, Rockland, Westwood, and Whitman, where changes were considered and rejected.
Rockland voters weighed in on a proposal by the town’s Charter Committee during last May’s annual Town Meeting. “It was like two people voted in favor of it, and they were both on the Charter Committee,’’ said Town Clerk Mary Pat Kaszanek, a staunch opponent.
“Once it’s appointed, the person in the position comes under the appointing authority, and I think that’s dangerous,’’ Kaszanek said. “In Rockland, you would be answerable to the selectmen. They change every year and have no idea what you do.’’
Westwood Town Administrator Michael Jaillet said his town just completed a two-year review of its charter, and the issue of how to fill the treasurer’s and collector’s positions did come up.
“In the end, because we tend to get knowledgeable people who bring in some different points of view for collecting and running the treasurer’s office, we decided to stay with elected,’’ he said.
Halifax voters rejected a conversion of the treasurer-collector’s position to appointed, via the ballot a few years ago. “My feeling, given the debate that occurred, was that people wanted the ability to elect the person or throw them out and not leave it up to the selectmen,’’ Town Administrator Charlie Seelig said.
Whitman Town Clerk Pamela Martin said voters in her town “overwhelmingly’’ defeated a bid to switch top financial officials to appointments several years ago, and it hasn’t come up again.
In Kingston, Beaton’s proposed change will probably once again meet some resistance on Tuesday, said Kingston Selectman Joseph Casna.
“I’m not in favor of it at all,’’ he said. “I don’t think that I and my four associates can do as good a job at selecting a treasurer and collector as the voters have done.’’
Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.