Stockbridge Select Board votes to scuttle tri-town shared administrator plan
The 2-1 vote by Chairman Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo and Selectman Don Chabon to scuttle a joint administrator and deputy for Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge followed a nearly three-hour informational forum on Monday night attended by about 200 residents. Selectman Stephen Shatz voted against withdrawing from the plan.
The Select Board also voted to withdraw completely from the tri-town Administrative Review Committee, which has been pursuing various forms of shared services since October 2015 through an inter-municipal agreement.
Meanwhile, in Lee, the shard administrator concept received mixed reviews during a public forum Tuesday night.
Several of the 30 people in attendance at the Lee meeting — primarily town officials and town meeting representatives — were receptive to a centralized municipal administration.
"If we don't give it a try at the top, we're not setting a good example down the road," said Dayton DeLorme, chairman of the Board of Assessors.
However, others were concerned about time constraints of a single person running multiple towns and how he/she would split their time between communities.
The Lee Select Board said they hope to have more specifics on the job's logistics before putting the proposal to a vote in May, likely for the annual town meeting.
Back in Stockbridge, however, few of the two dozen speakers voiced support for the proposal crafted by Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason, Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen and Stockbridge's interim Town Administrator Danielle Fillio, based on a state shared-services blueprint.
"We don't think the issue is a loss of identity of the town," said resident Philip Heller. "What's going to change our identity is a town that's not going to be viable anymore."
"I don't think there's any reason why Stockbridge should not embark on this project," he said. "If we don't have shared services and a process to hire quality people at fair pay, we're going to suffer grievously as a community. We can't sustain a town of 1,800 people."
Like many other residents, Heller urged the Select Board to defer a decision until the annual town meeting in mid-May.
But Bronly Boyd, who headed the local citizens committee seeking a new town administrator last year, told the Selectmen: "I hate to scuttle this proposition, because I think I might be in favor of it, but I'm not sure. But if you're going to hire a town administrator, then don't go forward with these discussions, because a town administrator needs to be a full-time, hands-on person. If you're going to vote to delay this, you're not going to be able to hire a town administrator."
Former Selectman George Shippey supported the shared-administrator plan.
"We need to have a new model and this is an attractive alternative," he said.
Jean Rousseau, former Finance Committee chairman, voiced strong backing for the plan, arguing that the town needs major help in budget planning, which he described as "basically home cooking."
However, the majority of speakers dissented, arguing that Stockbridge had little in common with the two larger towns and could get the short end of the stick in any joint decisions.
"This is not about shared services, it's about a shared regional administrator for three towns," said Mary Hart. "I believe we should be looking from the bottom up at shared services, not from the top down."
"If we were to share a town administrator, why would we ever do it with two towns that are so much larger than we are?" she asked. "Why would we not do it with West Stockbridge, which really, truly is our neighbor."
"We are divided severely when it comes to a shared administrator," said Bob Jones. "I think there's probably nobody in this room who's against shared services."
"Stockbridge deserves somebody who is devoted strictly to the interests of Stockbridge," he said. "I'm against increasing the bureaucracy involved in getting things done. I don't think we're going to get a fair shake if we're going with the two larger towns."
"This board has made momentous decisions without going to the town meeting," Jones told the Selectmen. "I think you should make a decision tonight and get on to the business of shared services with all the surrounding towns. Let's not tie our hands."
"I think we're already a viable town, frankly," said Sally Underwood-Miller. "I totally oppose a shared town administrator because I think we're going to get totally swallowed up by Lenox, They have many more people in their town and bigger needs."
Citizen-activist Terry Flynn pointed out that declines in the town's full-time population from 2,400 to 1,800 in the past 20 years are offset by "thousands of other people who have moved into town and own valuable property here and are part of the base of the town."
"This agreement would not give us a full-time administrator dedicated to our needs," Flynn said. "The sky is not falling, this town is not in danger of being in serious, serious trouble." He urged withdrawal from the tri-town Administrative Review Committee that produced the shared administrator proposal, "which frees us to do shared services with Lee and Lenox still, and frees us to look anywhere else."
Flynn also said withdrawal would enable the town to do a "careful search" for its own, highly qualified town administrator, "one that is not encumbered by a shared service clause that says, `Oh, by the way, your job may be ending.' "
"It's urgent to put an end to all the controversies we've been going through for a long time," Flynn told the crowd. "This is a Select Board decision because they're the ones who decide what goes on to the [annual town meeting] warrant."
"We can share services with all our neighboring towns and not have a regional administrator," said Chabon, who plans to attend a meeting on Jan. 23 initiated by the Sheffield and New Marlborough Select Boards to explore potential collaborations with 10 other towns.
"Since Christmas, a group of concerned citizens have circulated a petition asking for more information and to delay this vote until the town meeting in May," said Ginger Schwartz. She noted that 111 residents had signed the petition.
"It seems to me there's a consensus that we all want much more information and to be much more involved," Schwartz said.
"It seems to me the purpose of this meeting is simply to determine whether or not the Board of Selectmen is going to make this decision on their own or whether they're going to refer it to a town meeting," said resident Fredric D. Rutberg. (Rutberg is president of New England Newspapers Inc., owner of The Berkshire Eagle and three southern Vermont papers.)
He asserted that the large turnout of citizens "makes it very clear that the answer should be to refer it to the town meeting. We do everything at the town meeting, we don't buy a police car without referring it to the town meeting. Why would an issue that is obviously this contentious be something that the Select Board wishes to decide on its own?"
Cardillo told the crowd that the plan could give Lee and Lenox, "four times the size of us in population," a chance to "gobble us up" in key decisions such as hiring and firing.
"I think there'd be a great amount of conflict between the towns in many things," he added. "If this keeps going, we could end up with regionalization of the three towns, and I strongly believe that this is the start of that."
Cardillo also questioned "how one person could handle three towns, all the meetings we have, to be able to work out three town budgets, negotiate contracts for three police and highway departments, two schools in Lee and Lenox plus negotiate with Berkshire Hills Regional [School District]. How can one person do all that and still maintain everything else we need him to do?"
"Stockbridge is doing very well," he said, offering praise for Fillio, the interim administrator. "She's doing a great job on the budget. We're in good hands and I can't see fixing something that's not broke. I can't see getting into a regional person for this position."
Cardillo stated that, according to town counsel, the decision on a shared administrator is up to the Select Board, and any vote at the annual town meeting in May based on a citizens petition would be non-binding.
"Some seem to feel this Select Board should make only very unimportant decisions, but I feel we should do our job, this is why we are here and what we have to do," Chabon said.
He declared that the plan "is not a good fit; Lee and Lenox are much different in character, orientation and size, we are one-fifth the population Lee and Lenox, that's ridiculous."
Chabon insisted the town has a long list of needs requiring its own full-time, professional administrator "that is 100 percent focused on Stockbridge we need to control developers that wish to turn us into a Disneyland."
"These things cannot benefit from one-fifth the attention of someone up the hill in Lenox," he added.
The vote to kill the proposal came as no surprise to some Lee town officials.
Select Board Chairman Thomas Wickham believes the tri-town concept might have been tough to pull off.
"Lee and Lenox are more like-minded communities," he told The Eagle. "Two might be doable, I thought three was a stretch."
Lee Selectwoman Patricia Carlino hears her constituents say, "Why not try it?"
"One of my biggest things is we can at least hire a human resources person," she said.
Staff reporter Dick Lindsay contributed to this article.
Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at email@example.com or 413-637-2551.
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