Sunday, June 10, 2012

Reason to Care About Select Board Election

The article below entitled Reason to Care About Select Board Election written by Alex Grant appeared in a recent edition of the Longmeadow News and is reprinted here with permisssion of the author and thanks to the Longmeadow News.  

Mr. Grant's article provides some additional commentary about Tuesday's annual town election and Mark Barowsky's support for a change in Longmeadow's form of government.

The May 15, 2012 special election to fill Christine Swanson's vacated seat on the Select Board gave voters not just a choice, but a strange paradox.  Mark Barowsky and Richard Foster, both vying to complete the one year remaining on Swanson's seat, will also be on the ballot, along with incumbent Paul Santaniello, at the June 12, 2012 regular election for two three year seats on the Select Board.  Both Foster and Barowsky said before the special election that they preferred the one year seat and would encourage voters to pick the loser of the special election for the three year seat.

Got that?  The candidate who, having been rejected by the voters for a one year trial run, would be placed on the Select Board for a three year term, essentially by default.  Of course, when there are three candidates for three seats, somebody is going to be elected by default.  But it is a little strange that the preferred candidate would serve less time than the losing candidate.  It is stranger still that the winning candidate would prefer that outcome.

As it turned out, Barowsky carried a healthy majority of the three percent of the electorate who turned out to vote.  Barowsky had pledged to support Foster in the regular election if he won round one.  Assuming Barowsky sticks to his pledge, it will be up to the voters to decide whether to heed his desire to elect his opponent.

Which brings us to the second paradox.  If Barowsky and Santaniello win the most votes on June 12, thus giving Barowsky two seats, one of which he must vacate, then there will need to be another special election.  The result could be three elections to decide how to fill three seats when there were just three candidates running.  Children playing musical chairs usually have no problems when the number of kids and the number of chairs match.  Not so this year in Longmeadow town politics.

It is unfortunate that virtually all of the attention in this year's Select Board race is devoted to the procedural mechanics of holding a town election.  Barowsky, if his pre-election LCTV interview with Arlene Miller is any guide, could prove to be more than a status quo candidate.  Most candidates running for Select Board and School Committee keep it real general when stating their cases.  They will tout their experience, tell you how much they love working collaboratively, and how nothing gives them greater pleasure than listening thoughtfully while other people speak.  They will assure the voters that they want to look at the budget holistically, set priorities, and then, well, take it from there.

Of course, when big issues force their way onto the agenda, like the new high school, it is hard to avoid taking a stand.  Putting controversies like that aside, however, we have in recent years mostly seen status quo candidates and status quo policies from the Select Board.  Perhaps that is a sign that Longmeadow is doing pretty well, and that shaking things up is neither necessary nor wise.

Barowsky has advanced some significant ideas that would change Longmeadow.  One is his support for a mayoral form of government.  That would alter our quaint, Puritan-era form of direct democracy.  Presently, power in Longmeadow town government is diffused to a great, great extent.  Voters at Town Meeting are nominally the legislative (law-making) body under our charter with the greatest power, but practically speaking, they approve the budget and spending put forward by the Town Manager, Select Board, and the School Committee.  The Select Board, elected officials with the greatest mandate from the people, are nominally the executive body of the town, i.e., performing a managerial role.  But that managerial role is largely performed on a day-to-day basis by a professional Town Manager.  On the other hand, the Town Manager is weakened by the fact that she has no electoral mandate, and the fact that her job depends on the support of the Select Board.

A mayor would reign supreme, assuming day-to-day administration of town government, armed with an electoral mandate, and not dependent on the Select Board for his or her job.  The Select Board would essentially become a city council like we see in larger cities in western Massachusetts that makes laws, raises taxes, and passes budgets.  A mayor with majority support from the Select Board could re-make the status quo every few years.  And Town Meeting would be a dead letter.

Barowsky has obviously thought about this issue, and perhaps he has support for it from other elected town officials who back his candidacy.  If he is ready to push for a mayoral form of government, then we should be ready for one of the most significant debates in our town's history.  If he uses his position on the Select Board to place this item on the agenda, his term could be consequential indeed.

by Alex Grant

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