2009-10-29 / Front Page

Final pre-election forum held

By Phil Zahodiakin

Candidates for Jamestown’s Town Council and School Committee took part in their final public forum before next week’s election in a freewheeling Oct. 26 session sponsored by the Jamestown Taxpayers Association at the Senior Center.

Association President John Pagano allowed the public to pose questions at will, and invited School Committee candidates to answer questions posed to the council candidates.

Pagano asked the council candidates if they would “recognize a citizens’ finance committee that would have input into the town budget process?” The question was one of several reflecting the group’s position that Jamestown does not govern itself with enough transparency.

Most of the candidates said such a panel wasn’t necessary.

“We don’t need another committee,” said council candidate Michael Schnack. “Citizens can bring their comments to the council; they have an open process and open meetings.” Candidate and current council member Bob Sutton agreed, adding that he has spent “a portion of the last two years trying to reduce the number of committees we already have.”

Council candidate Ellen Winsor said she would support the formation of committees to advise the council on budget issues, including debt service for the water and sewer systems, as well as compensation costs for municipal employees.

Sutton acknowledged, “For whatever reason, we didn’t do a good job of allowing people to speak at the budget meetings, and we need to find a more inclusive format.”

When an audience member pointed out that she was “not allowed to ask a question” during budget debate, Sutton said that “those meetings are also business meetings,” but said he suspected that any limits on public input “came out of an opinion from the town solicitor several years ago.”

Speaking from the audience, Council member Bill Kelly hastened to add “our current solicitor has said that we can have give and take [with the public]. There is a desire to move the meetings along, but there hasn’t been any prohibition from our solicitor.”

“That’s why I brought up the [budget] committees,” Winsor said. “I’ve been to council meetings regularly over the last five years and they have been very closed.”

Pagano stepped out of his role as moderator to agree, saying, “You say your piece and they just look at you as if to say, ‘Thank you very much,’ and that’s the end of it.”

An audience member further added that, “At a minimum, the council should refer you to someone in a department that you could talk to.”

Council candidate William Murphy said that times have changed.

“When I was on the council, the meetings were open and we practically begged people to come,” he said. School committee candidate Julia Held said her panel is currently in that situation, adding, “Our meetings aren’t crowded and we would appreciate more attendance.”

Asked what they would do to increase the transparency of town meetings, council candidate Robert Bowen said, “I have served on a couple of committees and [inadequate transparency] has been a problem there, too. They barely meet their 48-hour posting requirement, and I think meeting announcements should be posted at least a week in advance. We once had a well-run traffic committee, and we went out of our way to create workshops that helped inform committee decisions.”

Council candidate Michael White said the council has already taken steps toward enhancing transparency by scanning and posting all documents scheduled for discussion, along with any letters sent to the council.

“And I will continue to answer every email I receive,” he added.

Although the public has the opportunity to ask for issues to be included in meeting agendas, council candidate Michael Smith said, “The council still controls [the proceedings]. They can shut off discussion if they don’t like what’s going on. So, it’s important to elect people who are comfortable with transparency.”

Sutton said that “there has been a tendency, over time, for the council to hold more and more executive sessions, which are justified if we’re talking about personnel issues or [real estate] acquisitions, but I have tried to reduce the frequency of those sessions. As council members, we have to learn to debate and talk about things in public. It’s a skill like any other skill.”

Other questions Pagano posed to the candidates involved contract negotiations. One was, “Would you consider using a professional negotiator?” Another was, “Do you believe that the town administrator can represent the interests of the taxpayers in union or non-union contracts?”

“A professional negotiator would put up a wall and change the dynamics of the negotiations,” Schnack said.

Smith said, “Asking the administrator to walk into contract negotiations with the police all alone is just throwing a lamb in with the wolves. He needs backup.”

Other council candidates agreed that the administrator should have at least one council member at his or her side during negotiations.

School committee candidate Sav Rebecchi said that hiring a professional negotiator would be “very expensive” – a cost that school committee candidate and current Chairperson Catherine Kaiser defended as worthwhile.

“We hired one for our negotiations with support staff, who earn the lower end of the salaries, but the larger point is that these contracts set the precedent for all other contracts. The teacher’s union has a professional negotiator, and we plan to use one for our negotiations with them, too,” she said.

Winsor said that the result of the previous police contract negotiations bucked a statewide trend when “they lowered the eligibility for retirement benefits by five years. That’s just one instance of how we could have recouped the [negotiator’s] fee [by prevailing against that provision of the contract].”

An audience member said it was particularly appropriate for the school committee to hire professional negotiators “because [the teachers] have a national association with scores of lawyers, and you’re up against a union and the Department of Education, which, by the way, issues unfunded mandates.”

Another audience member, who said she negotiates contracts for a living, told the candidates that “the thing that really bothers me is our preference for Blue Cross & Blue Shield. I have tried to discuss this and my advice hasn’t been welcomed. We need to open up our town to Tufts and United Health. There were savings [in the Blue Cross deal negotiated through a broker], but Jamestown would have saved more if we had negotiated with all three carriers. Be vocal about this.”

Winsor applauded those remarks “as a perfect example of why citizen input is so vital.”

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