Friday, July 29, 2011

SBC is Winner in June Elections

Below is an opinion written by Alex Grant which was recently published in the Longmeadow News.  He makes some interesting points about the spending authority of an unelected committee.  It is reposted here with permission of the author.

            In 2008, Brian Ashe campaigned on the slogan, "if nothing changes, nothing changes."  It's one of the sayings that you have to look at sideways to make sense of, kind of like, "it ain't over til it's over."  I think what our town's foremost politician meant was that unless voters put new blood in government, government does not change.  With no contested races in last month's town elections, and candidates' platforms failing to take issue with anything that has happened in town government recently, town residents can expect nothing to change.

            For residents who might be concerned about the unelected School Building Committee (SBC) spending tens of millions of dollars without oversight by the voters or the elected boards of our town, the message again is, expect more of the same.  Prior to the election, I asked each of the School Committee and Select Board candidates to comment on the issue of the oversight of the SBC.  Marie Angelides and Laurie Flynn declined to make a comment on the record.  Gwen Bruns opted to say nothing more than to stand by the March 2011 statement of the SBC defending its formation and subsequent management.

            Michael Clark and John Fitzgerald, to their credit, did respond, and they offered full-throated defenses of how the SBC was formed and how it has operated.  According to them, all is well with the SBC.  In short, because a minority of the SBC's members were selected by the School Committee and the Select Board some three years ago, and because the two elected boards receive updates on the SBC's doings, there is proper oversight.  Fitzgerald went further in saying that I was wrong to call the SBC "unelected," since it was "elected by the School Committee and the Select Board."  And besides, Fitzgerald added, "any decisions that raise questions would be challenged by the SC, if they deem them worthy of challenge."

            Town residents who might have a different definition of "elected" than Mr. Fitzgerald, as in candidates being, you know, chosen by the voters of the town, and having to prove themselves worthy of re-election every now and again, are out of luck.  With the status quo reigning, SBC members, who have never been chosen by the voters, will continue to hold their positions as long as they want.  If someone resigns, then the SBC, and not its ostensible overseers, will continue to decide on replacement members.  This, I should repeat, is unlike any other board in town.

            At the May Town Meeting, residents voted on a budget and voted on expenditures big and small.  There was the decision on what to do with $5000 from vending machines, and the decisions on windows for the Community House, repairs to one of the town pools, and a fire truck.  We make these decisions at Town Meeting because that is Longmeadow's form of government under its charter.  The voters at Town Meeting are literally the legislature, the law-making body of the town.

            And yet, the SBC makes its own decisions about expenditures for the new high school.  Earlier this year, the SBC voted on "add alternates" (or "add-ons") to the original project scope that totaled $665,000, such as an "exterior environmental gardenscape."  The SBC had kicked around the misbegotten idea of an astroturf field, which would have been resurrected had the various bids come in lower so that the SBC had some more spare cash.  I happen to think the turf field was a horrible idea, but some of these other "add alternates" may be great ideas, and well worth the money.  But then again, my opinion and your opinion did not matter, since the voters never had a chance to vote on these items.

            How is it that Town Meeting voters must approve the budget and some rather detailed spending proposals in the regular town budget, but when it comes to spending proposals for the new high school budget, those same voters have no say?  Even more paradoxical is the fact that the elected Select Board has no power itself to spend money, but the supposedly inferior SBC does.

            These nagging questions are issues that town residents can rely on the newly constituted Select Board and School Committee to ignore.  None of these contradictions were addressed by the prior Select Board and School Committee, and the latest round of elections has placed in power a group of people who will not upset the status quo.

Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow.   
His email address is