Letter Urging Rejection Of Proposed Town Manager Structure

Published Wellesley Townsman Letter to the Editor, February, 2016

Why We Must Vote Down the Ballot Question on March 15

Wellesley seems a long way from Flint, Michigan, but it may be closer than you think.

We have all heard of the catastrophe in Flint where lead in the drinking water poisoned tens of thousands. No one in Flint’s government wanted to do a bad job and of course, they didn’t intend to hurt anyone. But their failure to allow experts to do their job was catastrophic. The health disaster was caused by an attempt to save taxpayers $5 million, and now, after all the poisonings, it will cost between $100 million and $1 billion for the clean-up which will take years.

Throughout our lives, we use experts for their knowledge and experience, and we get unfiltered advice from independent experts. We do not go to a doctor who is paid by a fast-food company, to a lawyer who represents our adversary, or to a financial advisor with only one CD to sell. We go to impartial experts who are free to speak their mind, and having listened to their advice, we decide, not them or their backers.

I am concerned that the recent campaign for a town manager removes Wellesley’s experts from where they can effectively protect us and our town. The argument for a town manager has been made by appeals to efficiency and streamlining, and those are good things, but they are not ends in themselves. People do not buy houses in Wellesley because they are looking for the lowest tax bill or the fastest decision-making in town government. Wellesley is a desirable place to live because of our community feel, attractive streets, leafy neighborhoods, great schools, amenities, safety, and security.

Our town’s desirability did not come about by accident. We are blessed that Wellesley started off beautiful, and then over the decades, our experts like those in the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) have repeatedly protected us by removing toxic pesticides on school grounds, preserving Centennial Park, and scenic roads, grooming our trails, defending our wetlands, and protecting the safety and quality of our water. (Did you know that you use and drink well-water that has been filtered by the land of Wellesley itself?).

I am sure that past generations could have shaved a few pennies off their tax bill by cutting corners on these protections. Instead, they took the long-term view and preserved the real value of our Town; its character, integrity, and overall health. They defended these things and the value of our homes too.

Initial proposals for a Wellesley town manager were made by consultants who had proposed town managers elsewhere, and were never going to reach any other conclusion. In their model, the NRC would, bizarrely, be merged into a land use division and lose their administrative support to a pool that was dominated by building interests. This is a little like putting your financial advisor’s office in Goldman Sachs’ building, telling her that all her support will be provided by Goldman’s staff, that her recommendations would be reviewed ‘as a group’ before being passed on for approval. And now would she like to deliver her impartial advice on which is the best bank to use?

In its latest iteration, the plan does not include a land use division, but the plan does have nineteen direct reports to the town manager, a ridiculous number that I have never seen in my many years in organizational design. From this ‘design’ we know that the plan is either very badly made or is deliberately designed to be temporary, pending a return to the original idea of fox-guarding-hen-house. Unless we vote the Act down in its current form the NRC will further lose their voice, and we will all bear the cost.

Wellesley is both beautiful and cutting edge because of our existing system, checks, and balances, and the sometimes frustrating process of getting input from independent experts, and us, the residents.

Our system is not broken. With only one seriously flawed proposal on the table, I believe we should vote No on the March 15 ballot question. We should reject the proposed town manager structure until we can ensure that what is really valuable about Wellesley is protected.

-Quentin Prideaux, President, Sustainable Wellesley, on behalf of the SW Leadership Team