Friday, March 19, 2010

Charter revisions - lessons learned

We seem to be close enough to finding out what the final charter revisions will look like to reflect on what we can and should learn from this process to improve it for next time. I won't get into the nature of the changes themselves but stick to the process as observed over the past couple of years.

1 - Situation: Not everyone knows of the two methods to change the charter.

One method is with a elected Charter Commission and one is with a citizens committee appointed by the Town Council. 

Both groups effectively do a study, solicit opinions, do some fact finding, and make a recommendation on what should be changed.
The prior charter changes were performed under the elected Charter Commission process. Hence, a number of folks remember this as "the way it was done last time."
The current charter revisions were made under the appointed citizens committee process and complicated by the Town Council using a subcommittee of members to fine tune the results. 

In both cases, the voters of Franklin have the final say.
Is either process better than the other? There are pros and cons to each.
The major similarities are a group does a study, makes some recommendations, and bottom line the voters still have to accept the changes by voting in a general election.

Lesson Learned: In the beginning, the Town Administrator/Town Council should make a clear explanation of the process chosen and why, and provide periodic reminders on what is being done and why. Or at least ensure that the committee (or committees) involved have a detailed communication plan as part of their objectives.

2 - Situation: Different level of understanding of what was done and being done in the committee and subcommittee work process.

Given the length of time taken by the first committee and lack of periodic updates back to the Town Council to ensure that all were kept abreast of what was going on. The folks coming recently to the issue were unaware of all that had gone before. There was a stack of documents, meeting notes, research, etc. produced or obtained by the Citizens committee. The final report of recommendations from the citizens committee could have done more to bring the level of effort to the table.

The second subcommittee also could have done better with their report. Given that the first had produced such output, they chose not to go that route and should have more clearly stated their rationale for doing so in their recommendation drafts.
Lesson Learned: The detailed communication plan (referenced above) should address this.

3 - Situation: The level of detail in the report needs to be understandable by the average citizen. 

For example, the technical changes need to be spelled out why they are "technical" so that the common folk can understand. Those heavily involved in the day to day operations already know, as this is what they are dealing with, while the rest of us have no clue. It does come down to determining whose line of argument we agree with. One where we can see and fully understand the logic or one where the money line sounds great but in reality means nothing. Emotions need to be kept of out business discussions. They only create problems by clouding or distracting from the issue at hand. 

Lesson Learned:  The detailed communication plan (referenced above) should address this in two ways; one by making periodic updates and two by addressing the level of detail in the final report itself.

4 - Situation: The Citizens Committee and the Council subcommittee addressed different items. 

The citizens committee did acknowledge that technical changes were needed to be made but left that work for someone else to do. The subcommittee did get into those details. The recommendations on the Town Clerk and Treasurer/Collector were heavily debated within the Citizens committee and also within the subcommittee. The subcommittee added the Board of Assessors, Board of Health and constables into the mix where the prior committee left them alone. There should have been a better explanation of what each did and why.

Lesson Learned:  The scope and objectives of the committee should be clear to the committee and to everyone else as to what they should be addressing and why. If there are changes to the scope, the change should be acknowledged in one of the periodic reviews and either approved as an accepted change or not.

5 - Situation:
 The final report discussion ended up being this convoluted mess, with emotions and sides drawn, arguments made by tossing about sound bites without substance. It becomes really hard to make sense of the issue because of the claim that 'voters are being left out'. Wrong! As mentioned above, when all is said and done, whatever the recommendations turn out to be, the voters will get their say at the ballot box.

Lesson Learned: With a better starting point, a clear explanation of the process chosen and why, periodic updates on what is being done and why, scope changes reviewed and approved or denied before the final report, the final report should have a better reception enabling a fair and open discussion on its details. 

Franklin, MA


  1. This was a mess from the begining. Both committees were a failure. Mrs. Pellegri had the right idea. Lets have an elected Charter Commission and do this right.

    Without staggered terms what is the point?

    Good summary of the problems.

    Ken Norman

    Note: posting on behalf of Ken

  2. Ken, saying both committees were a failure diminishes their effort in this matter. I think in their mind they did what they were asked to do. I think they could have done better with better guidance from the Council, hence my lessons learned.

    I think the process did reveal consensus around the Treasure/Collector position and the technical changes. I would proceed with those and see what the voters say on November.

    If the voters decide to NOT accept these changes, then there would be a need to start over. We would toss away a couple of years of time and effort but as there was not a real compelling reason to make these right away, then there is no great loss in doing so.