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NORTH YARMOUTH — With a revised Town Charter likely to go to a vote in June, residents weighed in March 27 with comments and concerns about the proposed document.
Among key recommendations of the Charter Commission, which has been reviewing the charter since last August, are replacing the administrative assistant with a town manager, and moving Town Meeting from June to April.
The revisions are meant “to try to operate the town more efficiently and effectively, and to anticipate some of the needs that we’re going to have in the future,” commission Chairwoman Audrey Lones said. She noted that the town’s population had doubled since the current charter was adopted in 1982.
The commission meets again April 10 to consider the feedback it received and to start to finalize the document, Lones said on Monday. The panel will also determine whether its original schedule needs to be adjusted.
On that timeline, the commission must bring the final proposed document to the Board of Selectmen no later than May 7 so that it can be included on the June 11 election warrant.
The proposed town manager would have complete responsibility for town employees, but still report to the Board of Selectmen. The administrative assistant now lacks authority to hire, fire and supervise employees; that power rests with the board.
“We looked at this from a structural … point of view; we weren’t looking at people,” Lones said.
Steve Palmer, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, pointed out that the administrative assistant, Marnie Diffin, supervises staff, and that the board is responsible for her evaluation. He said the true distinction between a manager and administrative assistant is unclear to him.
“We currently have an administrative assistant that does an awful lot in this town, under the direction of … the Board of Selectmen,” Palmer said.
The draft revised charter states that the manager “may serve, with the permission of the Board of Selectmen, as the head of one or more departments, offices, or agencies, or may appoint one person as the head of two or more of them.”
The document can be viewed at northyarmouth.org, picked up at the town office or mailed to a home by calling that office (829-3705)
If approved, the revised charter will take effect July 1. The Board of Selectmen would appoint an interim town manager until a permanent one is hired.
Resident Mark Smith suggested the town should hire a manager at around the salary at which Diffin started. He said many people are out of work, and the town should not have trouble finding someone.
Lones said there is no reason that Diffin could not serve as an interim manager, or as manager, if the Board of Selectmen chooses to hire her.
Diffin on Monday declined to discuss the proposed change.
“Until such time as the board has an opinion or motion on the proposed charter, as administrative assistant I have no opinion or statement to make,” she said. “As an employee whose position of employment is being proposed to be eliminated, I am in a conflict-of-interest position.”
The proposal to change the Town Meeting date is due in part to concerns that the June gathering is not well attended unless major issues are on the warrant. Lones has acknowledged that moving the date will also accelerate the budget process.
Right now, ordinance changes can only be approved at Town Meeting, but another proposed charter revision would allow the Board of Selectmen to make corrections in cases of typographical errors and inaccuracies.
Smith, who expressed support for the town having a council, argued that Town Meeting is becoming an obsolete way of doing town business, although he favored the move to April.
“You’ve got nothing but a special-interest group going in there and passing all the regulations that they want,” he said.
John Cornish, a member of the Budget Committee, said “moving the budget earlier gives you a less credible budget.” He also arguing in support of North Yarmouth being able to consolidate services with neighboring towns.
“Don’t build a bureaucracy (in which) people don’t want to consolidate fire, rescue, public works,” Cornish said.
Pam Ames of Gray Road opposed moving Town Meeting to April. “I just don’t feel that enough is known at that point,” she said, pointing out that it is not so much the date of the meeting that determines attendance, but the topics.
Selectman Mark Girard said the recommendations do not position North Yarmouth to enjoy more effective governance in the future. He noted that Town Meeting does not facilitate discussion, and that relying on decisions made by between fewer than 100 people – out of a voting populace of about 2,500 – is not in the town’s best interest.
“It is a stretch to hold up that process as an example of democracy in action,” he said. “That’s probably why substantive changes to the charter cannot be done at
a Town Meeting; they have to be done by a popular vote.”
The Charter Commission also calls for reducing the size of the Budget Committee from nine to seven members, and for reducing the length of terms on the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals from five years to three.
Another proposal is to streamline the number of town committees, to require that they receive clear missions from the Board of Selectmen, and that they must report annually to the board.
Lones acknowledged that if the revised charter is approved, “it won’t be an easy transition. There will be bumps in the road.”