A move to town council is proposed

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / July 14, 2011

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A proposal to create a town council form of government in Tewksbury has begun to stir debate as it heads toward a possible vote this fall.

The proposal, which would mean scrapping the current Board of Selectmen and Town Meeting, was developed by a committee created by selectmen two years ago to study possible revisions to Tewksbury’s existing governmental charter.

Selectman Scott Wilson, who chairs the Special Act Charter Committee, said the eight-member panel will not take a formal vote on the charter recommendation until later this month. But he said the intent of the committee is to seek a Town Meeting vote on the plan this fall, if possible at a currently scheduled Special Town Meeting on Oct. 3.

“We are going to recommend it and see what they want to do,’’ he said of the voters.

Town Meeting will be asked to authorize the town to seek special legislation effecting the charter change. If the article passes, lawmakers will still need to approve the special act, which would be contingent on passage of a ballot referendum at the town election next April. The change, which the committee plans to outline to selectmen on Aug. 9, would be the most significant to Tewksbury’s governmental format since the town adopted its existing charter in 1986, which established the position of town manager.

The proposed town council would consist of seven at-large members. The five-member Board of Selectmen and the open Town Meeting would both be dissolved.

Wilson said his committee concluded that Tewksbury’s existing open Town Meeting “has become a special-interest type of meeting where whoever gets the most people into the room gets their way.

“If there is a situation involving condo associations, all the condo people come out. . . . If it’s a situation involving kids in the community, all the parents come out. What you have is a government that makes decisions based on the vocal minorities that come out to the meetings.’’

He said a town council format would eliminate that problem, allowing for decisions to be made based on “what is in the best interest of the whole community.’’

Because it could meet regularly through the year, the town council could also bring greater efficiency to the government, Wilson said, noting that matters requiring Town Meeting action now often have to wait months for resolution.

Wilson said his committee rejected another option - adopting a representative Town Meeting.

“It didn’t seem like it streamlined anything or made communities run more efficiently,’’ he said. “We got the sense it created different sets of problems,’’ including meetings that extend over numerous nights.

Liz Carey, a member of the committee and a retired longtime Tewksbury town clerk, said Town Meeting is no longer an effective institution for the town.

“Over the years, I’ve noticed that the Town Meeting has evolved into fewer people attending, and we have fewer warrant articles. In the ’60s and ’70s, we would have over 100 articles. Now it’s down to 37 or 38.’’

But Selectman David H. Gay said he is against moving to a town council government.

“I don’t think the open Town Meeting is archaic to the point that it needs to be abolished,’’ he said.

Gay said the town does need to find ways to increase attendance at Town Meeting, “but I don’t think the process itself is broken or needs to be eliminated,’’ he said, saying that is the view of many others in town. “I think the Special Act Charter Committee is misreading the pulse of residents of the town.’’

Selectman Douglas W. Sears said he cannot take a position on the plan because the committee has yet to present it to the selectmen. But he said he has concerns, including the potential administrative cost he said the town could incur by moving to a seven-member council.

“Might this not become more government, which requires more money and more resources to do the same thing?’’ he said.

But Wilson maintained that the only added cost resulting from the change would come from having to pay annual stipends to seven councilors instead of five selectmen. And he said those would be more than matched by savings in other areas, including eliminating Town Meeting printing costs.

Wilson dismissed what he said is another concern being raised in town, that the dissolution of Town Meeting would mean an erosion of democracy.

“Most of us appreciate a lot of things about Town Meeting,’’ he said of the committee. “But when you have a community of 30,000 people and less than 100 people are coming in and making decisions for the town, that really isn’t people using their voice. Under the council, people would still have a voice, it would just be a different voice.’’

With the shift to a council, Tewksbury would meet the state’s definition of a city - a community of at least 12,000 residents with a city form of government. Tewksbury’s population in the 2010 Census was 28,981.

A city government generally means one with a single chief executive and a representative legislative body that can call its own meetings and set its own agenda, according to Marilyn Contreas, senior program and policy analyst for the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

But Wilson said the committee’s intent is that even under a city form of government, “we would continue to call ourselves a town.’’