TRURO — For weeks leading up to Sept. 14, digital billboards on Route 6 advertised an event that promised to be different from the summer Concerts on the Green. “Educational panel,” the signs announced. About 25 civics-curious people were there.
The impetus for the panel was the proliferation of misconceptions about the inner workings of municipal government and administrative roles.
Town Manager Darrin Tangeman, his assistant, Kelly Clark, Moderator Paul Wisotzky, Town Counsel John Giorgio of KP Law, select board members, and regulatory board chairs were ready to answer questions at the session. Excerpts from the exchange are collected here.
What is the town manager’s role?
“I have a responsibility to be apolitical,” said Tangeman, who added that his duties include carrying out the select board’s goals and objectives. He can speak but not vote at select board meetings.
Of three government branches, the town manager is the administrative arm operating alongside town meeting’s legislative role and the select board’s executive one. The select board, Tangeman said, is the “visionary” body.
The town manager is also responsible for keeping the select board apprised of funding opportunities, needs, and problems, and for presenting the board annually with a proposed operating budget.
How can voters inform themselves?
Lee Swislow, who’s relatively new to town, asked that question and said she was struck by the idea that town meeting is the legislative branch of government. “That’s a big responsibility,” she said.
Wisotzky touted pre-town meeting at 5 p.m. on Oct 5 at the Community Center. Because there will be no deliberations, he said, “it’s a great opportunity to come and ask questions of the people who are moving the articles.” He also recommended watching committee and board meetings, which are now recorded and posted online.
Select board chair Kristen Reed noted the TruroTalks newsletter and an alert system, AlerTruro. Joining committees, browsing the town charter and bylaws, and talking with board members during their office hours were other suggestions. Tangeman will host a coffee hour on Monday, Oct. 2, at 8 a.m.
The fact that the Provincetown Independent reports on town affairs was not mentioned.
How do citizens’ petitions make it onto the warrant?
For annual town meetings, citizens’ petitions need 10 signatures to appear on the warrant. For a special town meeting the number rises to 100.
“Once it’s on the warrant, it belongs to town meeting, which means that town meeting can amend it, vote it down,” said Giorgio. The select board can also “adopt” petitions and create their own versions.
The town is not obligated to provide legal advice for creators of citizens’ petitions, Giorgio said.
Why does the select board have a later deadline for warrant articles than citizens do?
Clint Kershaw asked the question, noting that the select board has time to respond to petitioned articles and formulate new versions while the same isn’t true for citizen petitioners.
“That petitioned article has to go on the warrant exactly as it’s printed,” Giorgio said. But the earlier deadline is common, he said. Articles often require finance committee, planning board, or town counsel attention, he added.
Why do select board members have an agenda?
Reed pointed out that the positions are elected. When she ran, she said, “I was really clear about the platform that I was running on,” adding that she was passionate about housing. “Even if you don’t agree with me, you know exactly where I stand on issues.”
“I think all of us have certain positions,” said the board’s vice chair, Sue Areson, but “I wouldn’t call them agendas,” she added. “Your choice is always in the ballot box.” She urged townspeople to flag select board members if they veer into conflicts of interest.
“My chief agenda is to serve the community of Truro to the best of my ability,” said Bob Weinstein. Board members do not have individual authority, he said, and conversations with his colleagues are important: “In the course of listening to my colleagues, I may be swayed to vote in a way that I hadn’t been prepared to do at the outset.”
Who is responsible for civility at town meeting?
Tangeman asked this question of newly elected Moderator Wisotzky.
“I think we’re all responsible for civility at town meeting,” Wisotzky answered. He encouraged everyone to comport themselves “appropriately and responsibly,” and added that the municipal government handbook Town Meeting Time is his reference book of choice.
Referring to a quashed civility pledge proposal discussed by the select board this year, Giorgio said, “We all have to guard people’s rights under the First Amendment. That is absolutely paramount.” Just because a statement might hurt someone’s feelings, he said, does not make it a violation of the rules. There are exceptions, he said, like threats and hate speech.
According to the September edition of TruroTalks, the town will soon have a web page about how local government works. In addition to recorded meetings and helpful documents, the town “will even spice it up with some trivia.” Wisotzky fulfilled that promise then and there: the first town meeting took place in Dorchester in 1633, he told those present, adding, “I love town meeting.”
According to the New England Historical Society, however, the first town meeting was held in Plymouth by the Pilgrims under William Bradford in 1622.