Primary

Alex Grant: When to Defer (or Not)

Select Board member Mark Gold’s recent letter about the selection of a snow plow offers a glimpse into how local government works and illustrates a constant tension that exists between a governing board and a town manager.

This sort of episode was repeated countless times during my three years on the Select Board and was a regular cause of our four hour-plus meetings. In the end, the Select Board saved the town $50,000 on the snow plow, but at the cost of some rancor between Select Board members and the town manager.

Mr. Gold describes a proposal by the town manager to purchase a snow plow for $225,000. The vehicle apparently was much larger, more powerful, and far more expensive than any truck the town had ever bought. The proposal had not been vetted by the Capital Planning Committee, which ordinarily scrubs capital requests like these and provides recommendations to the Select Board. The Board deadlocked on a 2-2 tie vote, and the town manager pushed for reconsideration, sounding the alarm of getting the plow approved in time for the 2018-19 winter (but not this winter).

The Board then approved the $225,000 plow on a 3-1 vote, with Richard Foster switching his vote.

Moments like these came often during my service on the Select Board. The town manager essentially would say, “trust me.” The proposal might seem rushed, ordinary procedures might not have been followed, some due diligence might not have been done, and some obvious questions could not be answered. But it was expedient to move the proposal along, swallow your misgivings, maybe even suspend disbelief a bit, and vote yes. Another item checked off.

Not only was it expedient to go along with the town manager, it promised more harmony on the Board and with the town manager to defer to his judgment. He bristled at being second-guessed, and some members of the original Charter Commission even suggested that Board members were violating the town charter by not deferring to the town manager. This criticism arose when I wrote in this space about how the Select Board had decided, as opposed to the town manager alone, on how to spend $155,000 from a Green Communities grant.

In that case, the Board approved the town manager’s suggestion on the grant by a vote of 3-2 (I was against). Even though the Board went along with the town manager, there were howls of protest that the Select Board was meddling by being involved at all. The decision on the Green Communities grant turned out to be an unfortunate waste of money. By putting the money toward a streetlights project that had many obvious contingencies, we were unable to spend the money, which cost us the chance to use the money immediately on more energy-efficient projects and which shut us out of applying for the grant in at least one subsequent year. Deferring to the town manager, in that instance, was costly.
As for the $225,000 snow plow, deferring to the town manager could have cost the town $50,000. The day after the 3-1 vote, Richard Foster delved into the details of this snow plow request.

It would have been preferable for the Board to have had this information before the vote, not after. In any event, he learned that the larger, more expensive snow plow was not consistent with the DPW’s own fleet study, and an “appropriately-sized” (in Mr. Gold’s words) snow plow could be had for $175,000, which is what Gold thought it should have cost in the first place. In a special meeting later that week, the $175,000 plow was approved by the Select Board. Foster’s diligence is precisely the involvement in operational details that the Select Board is supposed to avoid, but it led to the right decision.

Decisions like these were difficult for me when I was on the Select Board. First, I understood my limitations on subjects like snow plows and the details of construction projects; those are not my fields of expertise. That made me want to defer to those with experience. And as I said, there was pressure from certain members of the community to defer to the town manager. It just looks a lot smoother when the Select Board is going along with everything presented to it.

On the other hand, as this snow plow episode and the Green Communities grant show, there was real money involved in most of these decisions.

I also felt a tangible sense of duty that came with having been elected to the position. People were depending on me to pay attention and to exercise good judgment. Even if lacked the expertise or information to formulate some alternative course of action, I felt that I could not approve something if important questions could not be answered or if the proposal just did not make sense. I do not spend my own money under those circumstances, so how could I spend other people’s money in a haphazard way?

I am sure all members of the Select Board have dealt with the tension between trying to be a harmonious team player and also being a responsible steward of the public’s money. The public, for its part, wants to see everyone getting along, but it also wants to see our town officials being careful with its money. Sometimes these objectives conflict, and each Board member has to decide what is more important.

Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com. This is an opinion piece, and the views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Longmeadow News or its staff. Opposing viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged. Email pressreleases@thelongmeadownews.com for more information.