"Not eating chard. That's what all those weirdos eat at their stupid picnics on the Hungry Ghost lawn." -Nina

September 29, 2007

Northampton Plays Host To Lt. Gov. Tim Murray's Listening Tour

As announced here on Friday, Lt. Governor Tim Murray came to town with the Municipal Affairs Coordinating Cabinet and Director of Municipal Affairs Robert G. Nunes. The Cabinet, established with an executive order by Gov. Patrick, seeks to facilitate a better working relationship between state gov't and municipalities, and looks for ways to strengthen and enhance the services that the state provides to each. This is the kind of outreach that cities and towns themselves should provide to neighborhoods in their own area, and I need to remember to advocate for that here in Northampton. I want an Office of Neighborhood Involvement like they have in Portland Oregon. A branch of Northampton City Gov't that will work in a formal capacity with the varied neighborhood associations and community groups that exist here in town, providing guidance and assistance to everyone involved, helping differing and varied peoples to better create the community they want to live in.

Deval Patrick can see the value in that. Elected officials from across the region came to this event to discuss issues of concern to them. Mayors, Town Administrators, and Representatives from Greenfield, Deerfield, Ashfield, Chicopee, Easthampton, Conway, and elsewhere, came to build bridges. Every city and town gov't should follow this lead, and create an office in City Hall doing the same for their constituents. The Office of Neighborhood Involvement. Doesn't that just make you smile?

According to the press release, the Municipal Affairs Cabinet consists of six members, from the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, including State Purchasing Agent from Operation Services Ellen Bickelman; Commissioner of the Division of Capital Asset Management & Maintenance David Perini; Chief Human Resources Officer Paul Dietl; Chief Information Officer Anne Margoulis; Executive Director of the Group Insurance Commission Dolores Mitchell; and Chairman of the Civil Service Commission Christopher Bowman. That's not who was attendance though, according to the name cards on the desks. I noted the following individuals, Peter Norstrand, Deputy Commissioner, Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintainance; Ellen Bickelman; Robert Johnson, Deputy Director of the Group Insurance Commision; Lt. Gov. Tim Murray; Robert Nunes, Deputy Commissioner & Director of Municipal Affairs, Division of Local Services; Paul Dietl; Christopher Bowman; And Bethany Pepoli, Deputy Chief Information Officer of the Information Technology Division.

Town Administrator after Town Administrator rose to speak about the gap that exists in state gov't between perception and reality with regard to municipalities in Western MA. It was an informative and illuminating meeting, and officials discussed a myriad of unique and targeted concerns. Many expressed being exasperated with having to meet requirements for state and federal emergency management.

A selectman from Conway asked the Lt. Gov., incredulously, "How would you like if you could not communicate with the Governor by email or phone? Because I'm not allowed to communicate with the other member of the select board that way. I can't use the phone or email!" He explained that in Conway, the select board is made up of only three members, and if two of them are conversing by email or phone, it could constitute a violation of the Open Meeting Laws.

The town administrator of Deerfield told the panel that 75% of cities and town in Massachusetts have populations of under 10,000 residents. He implored the panel to keep that in mind when sending out packages requiring compliance for state reg's. He asked that they remember that towns like his have all volunteer boards, and minimal paid staff. He doesn't have 3000 needles to hand out to complete emergency management initiatives. In regards to purchasing goods from the state, he said, "Having to complete nine days of training so that a staff member can become a certified purchasing agent should suggest to you that maybe your regulations could use a little trimming."

Gloria Fisher, the town coordinator in Heath, spoke of the issues they face too, with volunteer staff in town hall. "I don't have a paid planner on staff. The fire department is all volunteer....all of our guys have day jobs. Compensation for training to complete requirements is paid at 15 dollars an hour. The head of our Fire Department has his own construction business, and earns well more than that. He can not afford to take three days off of work for training."

Andrea Llamas, town administrator of Ashfield rose to speak of the issues her town faces with a lack of broadband access. An issue that Gov. Patrick has recently tackled with a new initiative, and you can listen to a podcast from his cabinet that discusses this here. "Our broadband access stops dead half way down Main St," Andrea said. "We can't encourage or even retain new growth because people can't even work out of their home! When a staff member has to download something from the state, forget about it, it takes all night! People sit in their cars in the library parking, those lucky enough to have laptops with wireless capabilities, hoping to catch the signal from the library. We're all using dial-up." (Speaking of which, why aren't Broadband providers required to wire every community as part of their right to operate in the state?) Commenting about Commonwealth Capital, the newly formed program that provide grants as an incentive for smart growth, Andrea said, "I don't have the time or expertise to fill out those grants. I'm working as much as I can already. And I don't have 2 or 3,000 dollars in a fund to pay someone to do that. I have to go to town meeting for that. And I can't tell them I need 3,000 dollars to fill out a grant that might, maybe, get us some money. We just can't do that."

The commentary was engaging, concise and informative, and it was illuminating to hear of these issues. Running small town gov't in the 21st century, without technical expertise or economic assistance from the state, will put you at a distinct disadvantage. Advocating for your fair share without any cooperation between communities will prove to be devastating. Deval Patrick, via the formation of this committee, seems willing to correct some of these inequities. And the committee itself seemed to have a sincere desire to create a better solution, and appeared ready and willing to offer the guidance, expertise, and money, that the state can to help alleviate the problems. As always though, talk is cheap. Time to put the tire to the road, as they say.

Many at the meeting spoke with displeasure about "the crusade to eliminate County Gov't" during the 90's, and it was generally agreed that this kind of regional cooperation is a model to be looked at when looking for solutions the problems expressed. Specifically, the current model of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. Sometime before all the issues noted above were aired, Linda Dunlavy of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, spoke at length about the ways in which they work with their member communities to help with accounting, purchasing, services, administrative duties, and the like. She rattled of numerous services they provide, and recounted a number of successful programs. From their 'What We Do' page,

The Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) operates twelve programs with more than 40 staff. We work with state and federal agencies and legislators to ensure that policies, programs, and funding benefit our rural area. We are actively involved in regional economic development and environmental protection efforts; statewide policy development; and provide direct services to member towns.
Regional. Council. Our. We. Don't you love those words? Clearly, their is power in numbers. No wonder there was a "crusade" to do away with County Government. Speaking of all this cooperation between members, municipalities have all manner of programs available to aggregate their economic clout, purchasing energy in bulk, for instance. When are our elected officials going to assist the citizenry of their communities in using the same tools for themselves? Shouldn't our elected officials be working with us to create buying group for electricity that consists of residents? A group of residents who purchase their internet services in bulk at a group discount? A heating oil cooperative that uses aggregated purchasing for discounts? Just asking.

LABELS: massachusetts, city government, public policy,