Wellfleet Finance Committee Chair Fred Magee says that the town’s financial crisis is motivating his committee to try to take on a “radically different” role in town management and oversight.
Magee wants to have regular, frequent meetings with the town administrator and finance staff, the department heads, and the select board. He wants regularly updated information not only about short- and medium-term topics like the annual operating budget but also about long-term capital projects.
“One of the challenges for the finance committee was that we were treated as — and we operated as — a reactive group,” Magee said this week. “We would react to budgets year-to-year.”
It remains to be seen whether Magee’s ideas for the finance committee will be adopted, as the committee’s role is not clearly defined and increasing its authority could require a change in the town charter. But his statements exemplify a recurring struggle in local government between the management and finance professionals hired to run towns and the volunteer members of finance committees trying to use their common sense, experience, and sense of civic duty to ensure that their towns are in good fiscal order.
In Wellfleet, where professionals are trying to unravel years of bungled policy and practice, there seem to be no heroes. Magee, who is in his third three-year term on the finance committee, says that the committee’s role until now has been “largely rote.” The group would meet with department heads to discuss their budgets, but the town administrator and accountant had no formal obligation to report anything to the committee, he says.
Oversight in Orleans
The Orleans Finance Committee appears to be watching Wellfleet’s situation as it tries to increase its authority to provide financial oversight and to strengthen reporting relationships with professional staff. The committee is facing pushback, however, from the town administrator and director of finance.
At a Dec. 6 meeting of the charter review committee, finance committee chair Lynn Bruneau recommended changes to the charter that would require the town administrator to give quarterly reports to her committee. The town administrator would also be required to include the finance committee when reviewing the annual capital improvements plan with the select board. The Orleans Finance Committee also requested that its letter to the town and annual fiscal report be included in the town warrant, and that the finance committee and select board both receive the results of the annual audit.
At the next charter review committee meeting, on Dec. 20, Orleans Finance Director Cathy Doane expressed her displeasure with the finance committee’s request.
“They’re not qualified to do that,” she said. “You hire experts in the town of Orleans who are responsible for advising the town policymakers. You pay us a great deal of money in order to advise the town accordingly.” Doane said that giving the finance committee more authority would result in “chaos and confusion.”
But in Orleans, some members of the finance committee are hardly financial novices. Roger Pearson, who resigned from the committee because of the recent turmoil, is an accounting professor at Boston College. And Bruneau is a former partner at Coopers & Lybrand (now Price Waterhouse Coopers), one of the world’s largest accounting and management firms. She also worked in internal auditing at Goldman Sachs.
An underlying source of tension between professional town staff and finance committees is that town administrators are hired by select boards, while finance committee members are appointed by the town moderator, who is independently elected. Select boards, therefore, have no official authority over finance committees.
Doane elaborated on her views in an email to charter review committee chair Jon Fuller. She wrote that the finance committee’s purpose is “solely to consider town meeting articles with monetary implications for the purpose of making recommendations to the Town.”
Doane objected to giving the committee more authority or creating a reporting relationship with it. She said that the town’s annual audit already provides an independent analysis of the town’s finances. Since 2017, Orleans has retained auditors Powers & Sullivan — the same firm that has handled Wellfleet’s audits for the past 25 years in spite of general agreement in the field that towns should change auditors every five to eight years.
Bruneau proposed that the finance committee’s purpose be broadened to “independently examine and analyze all aspects of the town’s financial affairs, and to inform the citizens of the town of its findings and recommendations.” She also called for the town administrator to deliver quarterly reports to the committee and to report revisions to the capital improvements plan that now go only to the select board.
Wellfleet’s finance committee would like to have similar authority. Magee points to the town’s charter as a reason for the committee’s heretofore limited role.
“There is nothing in the charter that says we have to do anything after we receive the operating budget,” Magee said. “Every other Outer Cape town’s charter requires a joint public hearing between the select board and the finance committee. We accepted the way things were working in Wellfleet because they were working in Wellfleet.”
Financial chaos has visited the Outer Cape before. In the mid-1970s, Provincetown’s government was in shambles.
“The board of selectmen was derelict,” says Mary-Jo Avellar, who is now Provincetown’s town moderator. “There were no books. There were no records.”
Watchdogs, Not Show Dogs
Avellar says that, back then, the finance committee was among the few functioning town groups, sounding the alarm and rallying residents to fix the problems. She and other finance committee members formed SCRAM, Serious Citizens Revolting Against Mismanagement, which worked to recall the old select board in a 1976 election, form a new board, and send the town manager and town counsel packing. It took the new government years to resolve the problems, Avellar says. She was one of two SCRAM candidates elected to the new select board.
Of finance committees, Avellar says, “They’re a watchdog. It’s their job to oversee what’s going on in town finances.”
She says that a background in finance isn’t a prerequisite to serve effectively, and that she looks for people who understand town government and who care about oversight. “You don’t hire your bookkeeper to reconcile your books,” says Avellar.
But finance committees don’t automatically have any decision-making authority. Massachusetts General Law calls for finance committees to submit budgets to town meetings, but most towns give this job to their select boards. Otherwise, the committee’s defined role lacks teeth to “consider any or all municipal questions for the purpose of making reports or recommendations to the town.”
Provincetown’s finance committee is an effective watchdog today because the group has regular communication with department heads and town financial staff, according to its members. The committee reads the annual audit reports and tracks all facets of town spending, says member Mark Hatch. In short, the committee members get their noses into everything.
Hatch says that the group’s aggressive oversight was a point of conflict with former Provincetown Finance Director Dan Hoort, who later became town administrator in Wellfleet.
“We fought constantly,” says Hatch, “because he always thought that he knew better and that we had no business sticking our fingers in what he was doing. We did it anyhow.”
Staff reporter Michaela Chesin contributed research for this article.