PEPPERELL -- Charged to begin exploring the advantages and disadvantages of changing the form of town government, the Charter Commission met Wednesday night with various department heads seeking input on the issue.
"We don't want people to feel anxious," said commissioner and Board of Selectmen member Joseph Sergi.
Sergi was seconded in his remarks by Board of Health member Philip Durno, who said Pepperell residents were noted for their resistance to change.
"Too much change is hard to swallow," said Durno.
The commission was formed a few months ago and charged with reviewing current operations of town government and to either recommend the status quo or the creation of a new charter, or "constitution" as Sergi referred to it.
Under the control of a Board of Selectmen, day-to-day operation of the town has in the past been under the control of an executive secretary and now, a town administrator.
Should a charter be adopted, a change in local government could include a town manager who would assume greater powers than an administrator but would likely still need to defer to a Board of Selectmen.
Also under a charter, some boards and committees could change from elected positions to appointed, in which case a town manager would appoint and selectmen would ratify members.
A town manager would also become chiefly responsible for formulating a municipal budget with review and recommendation by the Finance Committee. As the person
If approved, such a switch in town government would represent substantial change, one that former Selectman and current Town Moderator Scott Blackburn cautioned against.
"We have 313 years of history in this town and it has worked and worked well," Blackburn told commissioners Wednesday night. "From my perspective, I like the way the town is run. I don't want to lose that small-town feel."
Describing the way Pepperell is run as "efficient," Blackburn said he would not like to see the power or responsibilities of selectmen reduced, nor would he like to see membership of the board increased from three to five.
Elections for various town positions, said Blackburn, who has held many of them over the years, was needed to preserve accountability to voters.
"You have the ability to create a monster in a strong town administrator," Blackburn told commissioners.
Blackburn, however, was comforted to hear from Sergi that the commission had no intention of rushing through the review process or had any definite conclusions in mind.
"We're definitely in the crawl, walk and run mode and don't want to go too far in the other direction," said Sergi of the balance between town administrator and town manager forms of government.
In meeting with some department heads Wednesday night, including for the Recreation Department, library trustees, Board of Health, and the chief of police, commissioners sought opinions on a number of questions.
Commissioners asked department heads what changes they would like to see in local government and their recommendations on how those changes could be achieved. They asked what concerns department heads had with the commission's role, the possibility of a town-manager style of government, and elected versus appointed positions.
Police Chief David Scott considered better communication between his department and the head office as well as clear policies and regulations as top concerns. Scott also asked that directions on how to write and present warrant articles also be clear.
Scott concluded by noting his support for a town manager was based in part on a manager's ability to streamline the budget-formulation process and to set clear policies that would work from the top down.
While Council on Aging Director Marcia Zaniboni agreed that a streamlined budget process was needed, she expressed reservations about placing responsibility for the entire budget in the hands of a single person.
She urged that a new charter retain the services of a finance committee and recommended more help in the hiring process from whomever was involved with human resources.
Checks and balances would be an important factor in any form of government, concluded Zaniboni.
With a deadline of between 10 and 18 months to complete its charge, the commission is not expected to conclude the review process for some time.