By Chris Mazachrism@thereminder.com
EAST LONGMEADOW – A committee of residents has assembled with the hopes of presenting a petition that would allow for exploration of other forms of government.
Sid Starks, co-chair of the committee behind the petition drive, told Reminder Publications
that the petition asks residents to allow an article on the April 2015 Annual Town Election ballot that would call for the formation of a nine-member Charter Commission that would do a review of the town’s governmental structure and study other forms that might better serve the community.
The Charter Commission would then present its findings and make a recommendation on how the town should structure its leadership going forward, which would be voted on at a Town Election.
“[The Charter Commission] should really be called the ‘Local Government Review Committee.’ The main goal is to look at the current form of government. We’re not attacking the current form of government; we’re just seeing if we can enhance it,” Starks said. “This is to look at if there is a better way to do things. If not, then it confirms that what we’re doing is the best we can.”
He said the committee behind the petition drive is made up of business owners and residents on both sides of political party lines. “We’re all residents here before anything else,” he said.
He also stressed that the committee was not advocating a change to any specific kind of government.
“Our goal is to let the registered voters decide,” he said. “With this, a town manager is an option; another option is a mayoral form of government. Everyone has their opinion.”
He explained that instead, the petition was in the interest of making sure the town was “doing its due diligence.”
“The town went through the same process 10 years ago. The taxpayers voted on it and they failed it [the proposed charter] and decided to keep the current form of government the way it is,” he said.
He added his belief is that the interests of Beacon Hill do not necessarily reflect those of the local municipalities and that gap could continue widen. With that in mind, the town should have the strongest local government it can, he explained.
Starks also noted that previous pushback to a change to the charter that resulted from “misinformation,” including the notion that the proposed changes were related to Charter Communications cable and Internet services.
Meetings will take place in the future to help citizens better understand the mission of the petition and the process. Dates for those meetings have not yet been determined.
A change in government has been a topic of discussion during the past couple of years, specifically in the wake of the resignations of former Selectmen James Driscoll and Enrico “Jack” Villamaino, the latter leaving the board in the midst of an investigation of his now admitted criminal activities. Villamaino left the board on his own volition, but if he chose not to, the town could not remove him. That is an issue that could be resolved through a change in the charter.
“With our little situation we had a few years ago with some elected officials, there was no way we could actually remove them from office unless they resigned,” Starks said. “There could be no recall vote in town.”
There are two locations at which the petition can be signed – Acres Power Equipment at 104 Shaker Road and at Starks’ office at 69 Maple Road. The committee will also be collecting signatures at the Annual Town Meeting on May 19.
Starks said the petition would require signatures from 15 percent of the registered voting population – 1,681 signatures – but the committee was aiming for approximately 1,800.
“The hope is as spring comes and there are more sporting events out in the community that we will be out collecting signatures,” he said. “Hopefully people will be inquisitive and ask questions.”
If residents vote in favor of the formation of a Charter Commission, those interested in running for the position would be able to take out nomination papers in December and the nine top vote getters at the ensuing election would make up the commission.
Starks said the review could take anywhere from eight to 16 months and once completed, a report would be made available to the town and the Attorney General’s office and at least two public hearings would take place to discuss the findings.
If there is a recommendation for a new charter and a new form of government, it would have to be approved by the voters at an Annual Town Meeting, most likely in 2016. Should a change in the charter be rejected by the voters, with at least 35 percent of the population in favor of it, the charter could be resubmitted for a vote within two years.