GROTON -- In an updated report dated March 7, Robert Nunes, deputy commissioner and director of municipal affairs for the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, Division of Local Services (DLS), concluded that Groton had done almost everything right when it changed its form of government to include a town manager.
"Among the many municipalities where the DLS Technical Assistance Section has provided its services, the town of Groton stands out," concluded the report. "Achievements began when voters recognized the merits of professional management in government and adopted the town's first charter. Local leaders, working with the new town manger, acted decisively to create continuity in government.
"We do not often see communities where voters, Town Meeting members, local leaders, the town manager and department heads are as uniformly receptive to new approaches for improving municipal government as in Groton," concluded the report.
"Obviously, I'm pleased with the report," said Board of Selectmen member Peter Cunningham, who had also served as chairman of the Blue Ribbon Form of Governance Committee that shepherded the town's charter to eventual acceptance by voters. "I think it reaffirmed the decision by the town to adopt a charter and change of governance to a town manager form of government. It was a good decision."
The DLS was originally asked to conduct a financial management review of the town by the Board of Selectmen in 2004. At the time, concerns had been raised about the budget formulation process and what, if anything, could be done to make it easier.
In a process described in the updated report as being a "disconnected form of government," Groton's annual budget was put together by the Finance Committee with some input by the Board of Selectmen and town administrator. And although the report is careful to state that in Groton's case, the system had worked well, that might not always be the case.
In response to the warning, the Board of Selectmen established a Blue Ribbon Town Governance Committee to look into the possibility of changing town government so that it would be the responsibility of a town manager to work with departments in preparing a municipal budget that selectmen and the Finance Committee would then review and recommend to Town Meeting.
Those changes were approved by voters in 2008 with the adoption of a new town charter.
"In the five years since the selectmen appointed Groton's first town manager, the open Town Meeting/Board of Selectmen/town manager government structure appears to work well," concluded the updated report. "Success can be attributed, in part, to the ability of the selectmen and the town manager to establish an effective working relationship."
The report went on to praise town officials not only for hiring a town manager, but a human resources director and information technology director as well.
But as laudatory as the report is, it nevertheless found room for improvement, including giving the town manager the power to approve payroll and vendor warrants and to appoint personnel.
"The town benefits when all department heads report to one person," states the report. "All are accountable in the same way and all are collectively working toward the same town-wide goals."
"It's been 10 years since the DLS conducted its original review, so I think the idea of giving the town manager more authority is something we might review going forward," said Cunningham of the recommendation. "After 10 years, it's time we looked at the charter again, and signing warrants and appointing people are topics to be considered. I don't know if I'd take a position one way or the other, but I think we got most things right the first time. Sometimes from the state's point of view what might be a perfect form of government may not reconcile with what people in the community want. People at the time we adopted the charter felt pretty strongly that there needed to be a check and balance in financial matters. They felt that if the Board of Selectmen were signing the warrants, it insured that we were reviewing them and approving the expenditures. There was a feeling at the time that if those responsibilities were taken away from selectmen and concentrated in one individual, there might not be a balance. Sometimes it can be a problem in terms of efficiency if no one is around to pay people or vendors, but that's a relatively minor issue and not a big one in the scheme of things."
The report also gives a "high priority" to the Finance Committee for making sure the budget as proposed by the town manager complies with the policies it has set out.
Although giving the recommendation a low priority, the report also suggests that the town abolish its Personnel Board, a group it revived only last year in response to a vote at fall Town Meeting.
That vote amended the personnel bylaw to restaff the board, emphasizing its advisory and consultative capacity and allowing employees to seek the board's advice on issues.
Arguing against a Personnel Board, the report stated that since its responsibilities were duplicated by the town manager and human resources director, its role was redundant, especially considering that its provisions covered only three nonunion employees.
The report also notes a number of its recommendations, including implementation of employee performance reviews, the assignation of personnel administration responsibilities, beginning the budget formulation process with revenue projections, formalizing a budget calendar, the adoption of specific budget policies, creation of a full-time IT director and desktop specialist, discontinuance of manual records in the assessor's office, and the expansion of building permit inspections, have been completed over the years while others are still pending.
Recommended tasks that remain include creation of a formula covering payments in lieu of taxes for tax-exempt organizations such as the Groton School and Lawrence Academy, a self-sufficient Country Club, and enhancing IT training among employees.
"On balance," concludes the update, 10 years after the original report, "the decision-making and collaboration that now exists throughout town government offers evidence that voters were correct in their decision to alter the structure of government."
"It was a positive report, and I'm glad to see that the DLS in particular saw things the way it did," concluded Cunningham of the update. "What we've had to deal with this year from having to take over construction of the new fire station from the contractor to the school budget situation, if we were still operating under the former system of government, they would have been very protracted and difficult to handle. If it were not for having a town manager with his type of experience and fiscal management, those problems would have been more costly to the town. I'm convinced of that."