Monday, March 7, 2011

Who put the Longmeadow SBC in Charge?

Not to be impolite, but who put the Longmeadow School Building Committee (SBC) in charge?

It was not the voters of Longmeadow, either at the polls or at Town Meeting.  Was it the Select Board, or was it the School Committee, or was it the Town Manager?  The answer to this question is surprisingly opaque.

What is not opaque is the amount of power wielded by the SBC.  The SBC is running an $80 million project, and it is making hugely consequential decisions not just about the expenditure of taxpayer money, but also about the design and function of the new high school, a structure we should expect to last several decades.  For example, it has been deliberating on whether to include an artificial turf field as part of the project, a subject that had been before the elected School Committee and the residents of the town some three years ago.  Now, with heightened safety concerns over turf fields, the unelected SBC may make this controversial decision itself.

Over a year ago, I criticized the appropriateness of the SBC deciding on the design of the new high school while leaving the citizens with no voice in the design (or renovation) decision, except whether to kill the project entirely.  Left unaddressed was how the SBC had gained its position of preeminence in the first place.  After all, it seemed strange that a democratic form of government had produced an unelected entity with the authority to spend more money than the town entire annual budget.  The publicly available documents suggested that the SBC had suddenly materialized, vested with significant powers, much like Athena springing fully clothed from Zeus's head.  There had to be more.

And so I submitted FOIA requests to the town relating to the creation of the SBC and the selection of its members.  The documents provided by the town show that there was no action taken by the Select Board to create the SBC; rather, it proceeded directly in June 2008 to the selection of its members, as if the SBC's existence was a foregone conclusion. 

The town posted a notice soliciting applications from town residents to fill a few of the positions.  In the end, three town residents were selected by the Select Board and School Committee.  The Select Board decided to name two of its members, Paul Santaniello and Robert Barkett to the SBC.  The School Committee named Christine Swanson.

On July 21, 2008, the Town Manager sent a letter to the state identifying the members of Longmeadow's SBC, which also included six town employees, some of whom are not Longmeadow residents.  The letter said that the "Committee was formed in accordance with the provisions of all applicable statutes, local charters, by-laws and agreements of the Town of Longmeadow."

But was it so formed?  The Town Charter makes no reference to a School Building Committee.  In fact, the Charter says that the legislative (law-making) powers are vested in the town's voters at Town Meeting.  The Select Board is vested with executive powers, i.e., not to make laws but to see that the laws are carried out.  The Charter delineates the powers and limitation of other committees.  Section 4-4 does provide for the formation of other committees by by-law or vote at the Town Meeting.  Or, committees may be otherwise established by the Select Board or School Committee.  In which case, the committees shall be monitored by their appointing authorities.

No by-law or vote at Town Meeting created the SBC.  If the Select Board established the SBC, there is no record of it having done so, aside from selecting some of the members, which presupposes that the SBC already existed.  The most definitive action in creating the SBC was the Town Manager's July 21, 2008 letter.  From the existing documents, it appears that the Town Manager selected all of the town employee members, including herself. 
So, who or what is the "appointing authority" that is supposed to monitor the SBC?  The reality is that nobody exercises oversight over the SBC.  The SBC is not answerable to the voters.  It does not submit its decisions for approval to an elected board that is answerable to the voters.  The SBC is a self-perpetuating entity, deciding itself who will fill any vacancies.  For example, the SBC recently decided that Robert Barkett would remain on the SBC after his term on the Select Board ends.

This is not to say that the members of the SBC have not done good work.  They have devoted many hours of unpaid service to the town, no doubt with the best interests of the town in mind.  But that is not the point.  What exactly distinguishes the SBC from some other group of well-meaning people purporting to speak for the town?  And that is exactly what the SBC has done and continues to do.  It speaks for the town.

The SBC is a power unto itself, with no one ever having prescribed any limitations on its authority.  Its creation, whether a product of the Select Board, School Committee, or the Town Manager, was outside the form of government prescribed by the Town Charter.  There is no reason that an SBC cannot function as an entity answerable to the voters.  If our town officials are willing to endorse this undemocratic entity because the current arrangement seems to be working, then shame on them.  If the voters are willing to tolerate town officials who endorse the existence of a powerful, unelected board, then shame on us.

Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow.  His email address is

Reprinted with permission of the author.

1 comment:

G. A. Nolet said...

What a great and well written article. Should it not deserve a response??