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South Hadley Town Meeting approves streamlined operations

They questioned and debated the value of creating a “strong” town administrator’s post and whether some elected officials should become appointed instead.

In the end, they agreed with the Select Board’s request to streamline town operations by giving a future town administrator more responsibilities and authority and changing the elected offices of town clerk-treasurer and town collector into appointed ones. Both measures will be submitted to the state Legislature for approval. The issue of changing elected offices into appointed ones will also be on the townwide annual ballot in the spring.

The meeting, held in Town Hall auditorium, got under way shortly after 7 p.m. with 67 voters registered. It adjourned nearly two hours later.

The Financial Policy Advisory Team, which held months of meetings on the proposed changes, endorsed the effort, saying it would make town government more efficient. The changes were proposed by the state Department of Revenue last year, after an audit of town operations 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 become more efficient.

Following Monday’s meeting, FinPAT chairwoman Priscilla Mandrachia said she was “gratified” by the Town Meeting vote and appreciative of the diversity of opinions voters shared.

“We appreciate everyone who speaks at Town Meeting,” she said.

Select Board Chairman John Hine, who also serves on the FinPAT, said the vote will “move the town forward.”

“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” he said, referring to the effort to convince annual election voters to change the offices held by Town Clerk/Treasurer Carlene C. Hamlin and Town Collector Deborah Baldini into appointed posts.

Because South Hadley does not have its own charter, it appealed to the state Legislature in 1990 to combine the clerk’s and treasurer’s duties. It will take state Legislature action to “uncouple” the office, Mandrachia told Town Meeting voters.

South Hadley has had two charter commissions in the past 20 years aimed at improving local government operations. Most of those recommendations failed at the ballot box.

This time, town officials who backed the changes did not ask for a charter commission to be empaneled, saying the proposed government changes do not fundamentally change how South Hadley is governed.

Mandrachia said Town Meeting voters have “unique powers that will remain completely untouched” by the changes.

Town Moderator Edward W. Ryan Jr., who is also town counsel, told voters that giving a new administrator greater responsibilities “won’t preempt” the powers of Select Board members.

The FinPAT recommended 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; and act as the town’s chief financial officer.

All actions taken by the town administrator would be subject to review by the Select Board.

The advisory panel also recommends creating the post of assistant town administrator, but that issue did not come before voters Monday.

South Hadley is without a town administrator. Paul Beecher abruptly resigned from the position 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.

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

Richard Constant of Precinct D urged his colleagues to approve the changes, noting that previous town administrators relied on “the goodwill” of elected officials to keep operations running smoothly — and that sometimes that goodwill was lacking. Government functions have grown more complicated and require qualified candidates, he said.

“This is a very decentralized and disorganized structure that we have,” he said of town government.

Etta Walsh can be reached at ewalsh.gazette@gmail.com.

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