Column: The Time Is Now To Change Town Government

Chris Perry •

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Chris Perry is a contributing writer and columnist for Nantucket Current

If a vote was held tomorrow, I think it would pass. Right now, I can sense something in the air. Maybe it is momentum building or some initial public support growing. But as they say, timing is everything.

Despite the fact it could be seen as one of the most controversial warrant articles ever presented, the interest level is just starting to brew. Even if one goes back several generations, I think Beau Barber, Jeff Carlson, Michael Alvarez, and Roberto Santamaria are onto something.

In a nutshell, the citizen warrant article that they sponsored would change the town’s current form of government from a Town Meeting/Town Manager & Select Board to a Town Council/Town Manager. Going back as far as Nantucket’s incorporation in 1671, this could be a milestone.

We are not talking about a spot zoning article in Surfside or banning gas powered weed whackers or funding for the school system. This is groundbreaking stuff that is long overdue.

For those of you who have been exposed to bits and pieces of this warrant article and enthusiastically jumped on board out of sheer frustration with town government, that’s not what fueled this warrant article.

For those of you who have an axe to grind with someone within the walls of town government and want to march in front of the post office in support of this warrant article, that’s not the intent of these public servants.

What started the conversation was “good friends at game night when we regularly get together” said Beau Barber, a Nantucket firefighter. “We often discuss our jobs - good and bad - and slowly one thing led to another. Our conversation turned to what could we do to make things better. All of us have a unique perspective on town government and we just want to see it run more efficiently,” Beau added.

“I just think we are missing out on a lot of opportunities as a Town,” said Carlson, Nantucket’s Natural Resource Department Director. “We have nothing against the present Select Board. We just feel we need to be nimbler and move faster. We don’t have all the answers, but as we started talking amongst ourselves like friends do, it became obvious that changes were needed,” Carlson added.

He’s right. Changes are needed. Our present form of town government is woefully inefficient. That is not a comment on any past or present members of the Select Board, it’s just a fact. And while nostalgia plays an important part in any seismic decision, I think behind closed doors most people in town government on Nantucket would agree that things are frustratingly outdated. Serve them a dose of sodium pentothal or scopolamine at Lemon Press for lunch and I bet any inhibitions that may exist about speaking in favor of a “radical” change to our present form of town government by a town employee would disappear.

But change won’t come easy.

Between a few hundred years of tradition, the intoxicating effect of power, the romantic notion that Nantucket runs an effective Town Meeting, the entertainment value associated with watching a handful of charismatic locals dominating the discussion, the stubbornness of some to even discuss the subject and the resistance of those who have been able to “game” the system and stack the debate at the appropriate times, these are just a few who will be part of the opposition party. But will that deter the efforts of Barber, Carlson, Alvarez, and Santamaria? I doubt it.

“With big changes, you are going to get a high level of resistance, but that’s okay,” Carlson said. “We just wanted to start the conversation.”

Whether they realize it or not, the cat is out of the bag. At last Wednesday’s Select Board meeting, Chairperson Jason Bridges slipped into the agenda a presentation from the MA Municipal Association that highlighted various forms of town government. Was this a coincidence or foreshadowing of what’s to come?

Before presenting the warrant article to the town, the Gang of Four did their homework. Various forms of town government across the Commonwealth were investigated including Georgetown, Cambridge and Franklin, MA. Moreover, they also acknowledged the fact that many things presently taking place on Nantucket are working well. But in the end, it was clear to them that changes are needed.

“During our investigative process, we narrowed it down to about three or four communities that had similar problems and these towns opted to make changes,” Alvarez said. “One important factor was that Franklin, MA went through a relatively recent change; and consequently, we seemed drawn to that community which has a number of similarities to Nantucket.”

Clearly, “change” like this won’t happen overnight. After listening to Town Counsel address the matter at Wednesday’s Select Board meeting, it was obvious that there are a number of legal issues to deal with and several required state procedures to follow.

Santamaria, the Town of Nantucket’s Health Director and co-sponsor of this article, admitted that he learned of several technicalities that exist with the present warrant article that he hopes can be cured before Town Meeting. But is it a bridge too far?

Definitely not. Realistically, this appears to be more like an 18-to-24-month process once the warrant article is presented to the voters. Assuming it gets a positive recommendation - and that is a unique question for the Select Board since a positive recommendation would, in effect, eliminate the Select Board - the clocks starts ticking at Town Meeting. However, there seems to be some method to their madness.

For example, they intentionally left out many of the details such as the size of the districts and pay scale for those elected. I believe this vagueness will actually work to their benefit as they are perfectly willing to listen to suggestions. While their long-term goal remains a council management form of government on Nantucket, their immediate plan is to get the conversation started.

As Alvarez summed it up; “Right now, our efforts are focused on getting the ball rolling and push Nantucket into the 20th century. From there, I see the goal of the new Council is moving Nantucket into the 21st century.”

The horse race has just started with the introduction of this warrant article. I think these guys broke from the gate smartly and are sitting just off the lead as they head into the first turn. With Barber, Carlson, Alvarez, and Santamaria in the saddle, I like their chances. I like my chances. I like the Town of Nantucket’s chances. I like them to win, place, and show.

We have all heard the expression "Be careful what you wish for.” More often than not, that is an ominous warning for what’s to come. But in this case, I think it may be a wish that hopefully comes true.

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