West Springfield and Southampton

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Every town has one — the captious critic who angrily insists that local government is being run by a band of incompetents. Most often the gadfly is ignored and the public shows scant desire to march on town hall and throw the scoundrels out. The wheels of government grind on as they always have.

In West Springfield, the usual scenario is upside-down. A lonely dissident has emerged to make the case that the town is a shining example of good government, perhaps one of the best-managed, most forward-looking, well-respected towns in Massachusetts. Yet his efforts have been met, so far, with a collective yawn in and around town hall. And all the while, a drive to restructure local government from top to bottom moves forward with the apparent approval of a majority of residents.

The dissenter in question is F. Bernard (better known as “Bernie”) Lally, a retired schoolteacher who holds the honorary title of “town historian.” Mr. Lally admits to being puzzled from the start about why some would push to revolutionize the town government. But after voters decided two Springs ago, by a nearly 3 to 1 margin, to set up a Charter Commission to reexamine the way business is done at town hall, Mr. Lally decided to get involved. He was elected to the nine-person commission and has since sat through about 45 meetings, becoming ever more certain that the group was on the wrong track, even as his fellow commissioners were won over by arguments for change. This summer Mr. Lally was on the short end of an 8-1 vote in which the commission decided to recommend that the traditional town government structure be scrapped in favor of a mayor-council form.

The arguments outlined in the commission’s preliminary report are easily grasped and, from a certain point of view, common-sensical. The town has a population of more than 26,000, and there is a good deal of commercial development. The proposed new structure for local government reflects a desire for a professional, streamlined, and centralized administration. “There is currently no single focal point within the existing executive branch of our town that can be identified as the ‘head’ of town government,” according to the commission’s report. A “lack of accountability” worried the majority of commission members. Electing a mayor would allow voters to know who was in charge.

So what was preventing Mr. Lally from joining the movement for a more efficient and “responsive” government? What kind of contrarian would wish to stand alone to insist that the town’s leadership has been exemplary — that West Springfield, in fact, did not need a “head of town government”? On a morning in early September, I drove west to meet Mr. Lally and find out.

est Springfield is at the intersection of the Massachusetts Turnpike and Interstate 91, making it one of the busiest hubs of commercial and tourist traffic in New England. Its eastern border is the Connecticut River; Agawam is to the south and Holyoke to the north. Bernie Lally lives on Amostown Road, toward the west side of town, which has the feel of a place that used to be rural, but hasn’t been for quite a while.

Mr. Lally lives in a restored 1826 farm house. A towering apple tree in his backyard was loaded with fruit when I visited. He would have to rely on his grown sons to pick the apples this year, he told me in his driveway, since he was recovering from back surgery and was under doctor’s orders to avoid strenuous activity.

He was dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt. He has snowy white hair combed over in a boyish style, and a white beard, and wears rimless glasses. As we took a seat in his dining room, he told of growing up not far down the road from here, never suspecting that one day he might own the old farmhouse on the corner. He taught science for 32 years in the Chicopee school system and was able to retire last year at the age of 62.

Mr. Lally described a few recent battles in town that involved development decisions. His participation in local controversies has been as an elected member of West Springfield’s town meeting, a representative body of 259 members. One thing that worries him about the proposed changes in the town’s charter is that the town meeting would be replaced by a nine-member town council.

One can see by driving around West Springfield that the town has not been reflexively opposed to development. According to Mr. Lally there are more than 20 hotels in town and more than 80 restaurants. Yet not every proposal meets with town meeting approval. Last fall, for example, the town rejected a plan by the Pyramid shopping mall company to expand the already huge Holyoke Mall at Ingleside, which would have put a large parking garage in West Springfield.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m so fervent about keeping town meeting,” Mr. Lally said. The zoning change for the Holyoke mall failed for lack of a two-thirds majority, he recalled. Mr. Lally sees great value in the two-thirds rule: “It gives the minority a serious say in what happens in their town.” The advantage of the present government, with a three-person Board of Selectmen, and budget and zoning authority residing with the town meeting, is that “it keeps the power out of the hands of the few.”

Such are the arguments one might expect from a town historian, if one assumes the historian would favor long-established traditions. But Mr. Lally, in a two-hour conversation, showed little nostalgia and betrayed no belief that old ways are inherently superior. “I’m not a conservative thinker in any way,” he said, “but I do have that science thing in me where I say ‘show me the evidence.'”

The problem he sees, after a year’s worth of Charter Commission meetings, is that nobody has laid out in detail the specific failures of recent and current town officials. Meanwhile, Mr. Lally has been assembling fact sheets and memos that compare West Springfield to nearby towns (always to West Springfield’s advantage). He will tell you about the money West Springfield has saved by taking care of infrastructure needs before problems have occurred. He will note that the roads are well-paved and that 90 percent of the town is connected to the town water supply and to the town sewer system. He praises the police and fire departments. He contends the town’s bond rating is the best in Western Massachusetts. And there has been no serious charge of municipal hijinks in 40 years, he said. “There’s just no corruption, never has been.”

Standing up and beginning to pace, like a lawyer making his summation, Mr. Lally said, “My entire argument is going to be positive. My challenge to the people is going to be, if you can’t find a complaint, it must be working right.”

Mr. Lally plans to start organizing small meetings of like-minded citizens this fall, spreading the good news about town government. The debate will play out this winter, leading to a town vote on the proposed new charter in April 2000. It’s not hard to imagine that there will be town critics who take Mr. Lally up on his challenge to specify what’s wrong with West Springfield. It’s no secret that the town’s business leaders are unhappy with the relatively high tax rates. In 1995 the residential property tax was $14.84 per $1,000 of value and the commercial rate was $24.43. This year the residential rate is up to $17.64 and the commercial rate is up to $31.78. And Democrats in town note that the original petition drive to create a Charter Commission was led by the Republican Town Committee. Perhaps, they whisper, Republicans are unhappy with the current balance of power, which leans toward Democrats.

All of which is more evidence of the topsy-turvy state of things in West Springfield politics: While some conservative leaders in town are pushing for change, it will be up to a self-described progressive schoolteacher to rally the traditionalists. It’s an assignment that Mr. Lally insisted he does not relish. “I hate this. I hate this — this political stuff. I’m not enjoying this,” he said as we spoke in his dining room.

But on that point, he wasn’t wholly convincing.


The right to ‘blindside’

By Dave Denison
Fall 1999

SOUTHAMPTON — It’s not often a town moderator makes newspaper headlines. The job description practically requires a moderator to be invisible in town politics — or if not invisible, at least reliably impartial in presiding over the town meeting.

But this summer Town Moderator Gary R. Swanson made the news. Mr. Swanson caused a stir when he issued a new rule regulating the distribution of printed information to town meeting voters. The rule was immediately denounced by an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, which led to coverage in the Northampton Daily Hampshire Gazette, along with a stern editorial. The newspaper said the “edict” by Mr. Swanson amounted to censorship — “a practice one might expect in China, not in Southampton.”

What Mr. Swanson wanted to do was to prohibit unauthorized leaflets from being handed out within 150 feet of the building where the town meeting was being held — a rule inspired by state election law, which similarly restricts electioneering near a polling place. Naturally, a hotly contested local issue set the controversy in motion: Just before a June town meeting a former Selectman had distributed an argument against a proposed land deal. The material may have played a role in voters’ rejection of the proposal. Mr. Swanson believed town officials had been “blindsided” by the distributed material.

By the time I reached Mr. Swanson on the phone in late August he had rescinded the policy. “There’s been a lot of notoriety about that over the last couple of weeks,” he acknowledged. When Southampton’s town counsel agreed with the ACLU that the policy was unconstitutional, he relented. “I wasn’t aware that I was infringing on anyone’s rights,” he said. “But I was enlightened.” What became clear soon enough was that Mr. Swanson wasn’t taking the setback too hard. “‘Bout the time the ACLU letter came across my fax machine, I figured I’d made the Big Time!” he said, letting out a belly laugh. He then agreed to show me around town the following week and tell me more about Southampton. “Small-town politics can be fascinating,” he said.

r. Swanson, a self-employed engineer, was at work in his home office when I arrived. He lives in a log-cabin-style house on East Road, about a mile from the town hall. Southampton is less than 15 miles west of Springfield and shares a border with Holyoke, yet it has the feel of a farm town. There has been little development. Though it is almost as large geographically as neighboring Northampton, Southampton has only a fraction as many people: about 5,000 by current estimates.

Dressed in khaki shorts, a white polo-style shirt and top-siders with no socks, Mr. Swanson had the air of someone who is happy not to report to a central office. He grew up on a dairy farm in Agawam, and moved here 31 years ago. The first thing Mr. Swanson explained about Southampton is that it hasn’t put much money into infrastructure, and that has kept development to a minimum. “There isn’t a foot of sanitary sewer in Southampton,” he said. It’s all septic? I asked. “One hundred percent point zero-zero,” he responded.

On an afternoon driving tour, it became apparent that Mr. Swanson knows most of what there is to know about his town. He pointed out the bar where scenes were shot for the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and later a stately house where part of the recent Hollywood offering In Dreams was filmed. He pointed out a field where about 300,000 tires are buried — a farmer got clearance to use old tires for erosion control and then, realizing he could make 50 cents a tire, went large-scale into the tire disposal business. In another part of town he identified the field where Ted Kennedy’s plane went down in 1964, resulting in the Senator’s serious back injury.

What Mr. Swanson knows most about is the way the water systems work in the area. He showed me the Hampton Pond region, where a few years ago traces of trichloroethylene (TCE) began appearing in people’s well water, requiring installation of new water mains that draw from a reservoir across town. He also pointed out the parcels of land that were involved in the town meeting controversy this summer.

Eventually I got around to asking about the free speech issues that were raised by his no-leafleting rule. “That flap is done and over with,” he said. “I explained to the general public that I have seen the light.” He went on to explain that he had understood free speech as a matter of verbal rights, and that the rights of a free press were unquestioned. But he hadn’t thought about the constitutional rights involved in the distribution of leaflets and such. He believes the material handed out before June’s meeting scuttled the proposed land swap, which was intended to add a key parcel to school land. But, he said, “I suppose a person has the right to blindside an opponent.”

He reflected that the one thing he doesn’t like about being moderator is that sometimes he has to refrain from taking a stand on issues about which he has strong opinions. “Sometimes I think they made me town moderator just to shut me up,” he said. Nevertheless, he said he plans to run for re-election. He seems to like the job; lately he created a Moderator’s Web Page that allows for electronic filing of warrant articles and which collects sundry information about the town government. He said he wasn’t worried about opposition next spring. “There aren’t a lot of people who are interested in this job,” he said. “It doesn’t pay a lot.” The annual stipend, he noted, is $75.


When towns become cities

By Dave Denison
Fall 1999

When Weymouth decided last fall to change its form of government, it became the 10th town to end its town meeting tradition since the 1966 Home Rule Amendment to the state constitution gave towns the right to revise their charters.

Agawam became the first town to adopt a home-rule charter, moving in 1971 to a town council form of government. In the last three years, Easthampton, Amesbury, and Weymouth have voted to elect a mayor and a town council. This spring, Agawam’s neighbor to the north, West Springfield, as well as nearby South Hadley, will vote on whether to change over to city-style government.

But 10 conversions over 30 years is hardly a stampede. There are still 302 out of 351 municipalities in the commonwealth governed by a board of selectmen and a town meeting. And such is the sentimental preference for town government that most of the new “cities” insist on calling themselves towns, becoming in official parlance “the city known as the Town of…” Of the 10, only Easthampton has decided to call itself a city.

Local-government-watchers note that most towns that have had recent changes, as well as those where changes are afoot, are towns with representative town meeting (in which members are elected by precinct). These are usually larger, more urban, municipalities such as Weymouth and West Springfield. (Under state law, towns with fewer than 6,000 residents are required to have an open town meeting form, in which any registered voter may attend and vote.)

“It’s representative town meeting that’s taken a pounding,” says Marilyn Contreas, an expert on local government who works for the state department of housing and community development. Ms. Contreas notes that there are five towns that have eliminated representative town meeting in recent years.

In addition to the three that have elected mayors and councils, there are two, Seekonk and Webster, that decided to go back to open town meeting. The Western Massachusetts town of Lee also took up such a question this fall, and Athol is considering the change back, as well.

Lee has been one of the smallest towns to hold representative town meeting — population there has dipped below 6,000. Town Moderator Christopher Hodgkins (who is also the state representative for the area) says in the days of open town meeting in Lee “they literally had to blow the fire whistle to get [enough people for] a quorum.” But recently, he recounts, some large capital spending decisions caused townspeople to feel they did not have a voice in the town meeting. The town’s six precincts each elected nine representatives, for a town meeting of 54 people (not much larger than the town council in Greenfield, which has 27 members). In a non-binding referendum last spring, Lee’s voters favored moving back to the open town meeting. On Sept. 23, the town meeting reps approved the change, voting themselves out of office.

In other towns, however, the representative town meeting is going strong. Framingham (population 64,536) and Brookline (population 54,137) are city-size towns with representative government. And in Plymouth (48,329), voters approved a new charter in May that makes significant changes designed to strengthen the town meeting. According to new rules that took effect this summer, town meeting representatives will be required to abstain from voting on financial issues that directly affect them. The rule was put in place to answer critics who say too many town employees vote on their own salaries.

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“The conflict of interest rules are pretty innovative,” says Bill Abbott, a lawyer who was chairman of the town’s charter commission. Mr. Abbott estimates there have been about two dozen town employees among Plymouth’s 104 elected members (the total will go up to 117 under the new charter). The rules require town meeting members to declare possible conflicts of interest to the town clerk before the meeting. They also prohibit anyone from holding more than one elected office at a time, meaning that school committee members, for example, cannot be town meeting members.

The Plymouth charter commission looked at other towns that had moved to a mayor-council form, but concluded that town meetings are “less prone to political shenanigans,” says Mr. Abbott. “We didn’t want to do away with town meeting,” he says. The point was “to make it the best town meeting possible.”