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South Hadley meeting eyes government overhaul

SOUTH HADLEY — Voters Monday will decide if they want to change town government, a move that Select Board members think will make municipal operations more efficient.

It’s been tried twice before in recent memory and been rejected by voters both times.

The proposals will be decided at a special Town Meeting that gets under way at 7 p.m. in Town Hall auditorium at 116 Main St.

Adopting the changes would create a town government where quicker decisions can be made, responsibilities of elected and appointed officials are more clearly defined, and long-range financial planning is finally possible, Select Board members have said.

The two-article warrant asks voters to authorize the Select Board to petition the state Legislature to change the duties of the town manager and convert the elected positions of town clerk/treasurer and town collector into appointed positions. South Hadley must get state approval to change its government, since the town does not have its own charter.

The governmental changes are based on recommendations in a 2011 state Department of Revenue study of South Hadley’s governance, requested by the Select Board. The DOR study said town government needs greater focus, a strong town administrator with more say over staffing and financial decisions, and appointed, rather than elected, financial officers in order to streamline town government.

Strengthening the town administrator’s post might solve some of the town’s recent problems in attracting, and keeping, qualified candidates for that post, board members have said.

South Hadley has had some difficulty retaining town administrators in the last few years. Former administrator Paul Beecher resigned abruptly in January, after board members declined to renew his three-year contract, which still had a year to go.

Beecher was hired in 2010, following a two-year run of interim and acting town administrators filling the post. Michael A. Szlosek resigned in 2008 after only three months on the job.

Jennifer Wolowicz, the town’s personnel and procurement officer, is acting town administrator.

Currently, the town’s elected financial posts are held by Town Clerk/Treasurer Carlene C. Hamlin and Town Collector Deborah Baldini.

Town Accountant William Sutton is appointed by the Select Board.

The Financial Policy Advisory Team, composed of members of the Select Board, School Committee and Appropriations Committee, recommends the changes in government be adopted. The team issued a report recommending that the next town administrator be empowered to:

• Appoint the police chief, superintendent of public works and town accountant;

• Appoint, and remove, department heads;

• Conduct collective bargaining sessions;

• Be responsible for procuring goods and services, including bidding and awarding of contracts, except for School Department purchasing or contracts.

• Act as the town’s chief financial officer.

The advisory panel also recommends creating the post of assistant town administrator, and separating the duties of clerk and treasurer, which South Hadley had combined in 1990. The panel supports converting those two posts into appointed ones, along with the now-separated position of town clerk.

The group recommends that Hamlin and Baldini remain in their present positions until the end of their elected terms in 2015. Hamlin should also be given the option of keeping either, or both, positions, the report states.

In issuing its report, the advisory team noted that South Hadley has had two charter commissions in the past 20 years, with the aim of improving local government operations, and that most of those recommendations failed at the ballot box.

The town does not need to adopt a charter to implement any changes approved by Town Meeting voters because those changes do not fundamentally change the way South Hadley operates, the panel said.

Even though Town Meeting and state legislative approval is technically all that is required to make changes, the advisory group recommends that the issue of changing elected positions into appointed ones be left to voters at the annual spring town-wide election.

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