Advisory: a night at the opera

The Advisory subcommittee on administration and finance met at 6:00 pm Thursday, March 26, in the fourth-floor conference room at Town Hall. Groucho, Chico and Harpo were away; Zeppo had left the troupe. New chair Leonard A. Weiss of Hawthorn Road, not a town meeting member, Clifford M. Brown of Precinct 14 and new member Dennis L. Doughty of Precinct 3 were on hand. Town Clerk Patrick J. Ward, whose budget comprised the 6:00 pm agenda, had gone missing.

That did not seem to bother subcommittee members, who immediately advanced to the agenda advertised for 6:30 pm. They briskly dispatched four warrant articles for the spring town meeting: 1. Measurers of wood and bark, 4. Close-out of special appropriations, 5. Unpaid bills and 7. Budget amendments. Following town bylaws, Advisory subcommittee meetings are docketed as public hearings at specific starting times. Members of the public who might have wanted to comment would not get a chance unless they came early.

Hobnobbing with mayors while stiffing selectmen: The subcommittee then turned to the budget for Board of Selectmen with Melissa Goff, the new deputy town administrator, and Item A: $10,000 to join the Massachusetts mayors club–even though Brookline is a town and has never elected a mayor. Town Administrator Mel Kleckner had opted to part with this luxury unless voters pass a tax override in May, but the subcommittee was not so disposed.

A majority of subcommittee members seemed to have their own sense of priorities, and hobnobbing with mayors made the cut. They voted to recommend the $10,000–with or without a tax override–Mr. Doughty dissenting. Maybe compensating for such largesse, they voted to zero out stipends for the Board of Selectmen–with or without a tax override and without consulting them–Mr. Doughty again dissenting.

Members of Brookline’s Board of Selectmen have historically received stipends for their work, dating from colonial times when they constituted the town government. This year the stipends are $4,500 per year for the chair and $3,500 for the other four members. Stipends have not kept up with inflation, going up $1,000 over the last 40 years. The subcommittee proposed to ax them once and for all, as an economy measure. The elected town officers “can be like the rest of us,” a member of the subcommittee remarked, in serving without pay.

With Mr. Ward still missing in action, the subcommittee turned to more than $3 million in the “unclassified” budgets proposed for fiscal 2016: reserve fund, liability fund, stabilization fund, affordable housing fund, contingency fund, out-of-state travel, printing fund and Massachusetts Municipal Association dues. The last of these, often a substantial benefit to Brookline, is to cost $12,278–just a little more than the price for hobnobbing with mayors. The whole $3 million was waved on after about ten minutes.

Summoning the clerk: With no more business at hand, Ms. Goff volunteered to search for the town clerk, whose office stays open Thursday evenings. She found Mr. Ward there. He began pleading ignorance, saying he had not yet caught up with Daylight Saving Time–which started March 8. Subcommittee members seemed unaware of unusual strains in his office during the past year.

Mr. Ward did not enlighten them much, mentioning only that he lost an employee in the previous budget cycle. Willingly or not, he has had the traditional duties of Advisory Committee and Board of Appeals reporting yanked away. Advisory now has its own paid assistant, and Board of Appeals moved in 2014 to the Planning Department. As reported in the Brookline Beacon, during the past year one other employee was fired, and one quit to take a different town job. There has been more turnover in the office than in about the last 20 years. The subcommittee did not wish on Mr. Ward any added grief and will recommend his proposed budget.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, March 27, 2015

Board of Selectmen: Hancock Village, budget reviews, Brookline Beacon, March 4, 2015

Craig Bolon, Brookline’s workforce: signs of strain, Brookline Beacon, January 9, 2015

Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx, A Night at the Opera, MGM, Sam Wood as director, 1935

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