Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
Fairhaven’s first appointed Charter Committee held its first meeting on September 9 to discuss its mission, conceptualize a process, and establish its values and expectations of itself. The consensus was that transparency was critical to the committee’s success.
The committee voted on a list of nine values/expectations: keeping an open mind, maintaining respect, acting in the best interest of the town, “listen to understand,” complete transparency, accessibility, emphasizing public engagement, keeping open communication, and proactively seeking public input throughout the entire process.
One of the committee’s first debates centered around how and when to provide a time for public comment during each meeting. Appointed Chair Kyle Bueno suggested limiting each participant from the public to two minutes, but there was some concern from other commission members that two minutes could lead to an hour should 30 members of the community wish to speak.
Committee member Kevin Gallagher said he thought the public comment section should be offered at the beginning of the meeting, saying that he has often seen other boards and committees place it at the end of the agenda to deter public comment, given that longer meetings often lead to citizens leaving before the end and giving up.
Committee Vice-Chair Cathy Melanson, however, disagreed but then later changed her mind after Town Moderator Mark Sylvia echoed Mr. Gallagher’s sentiments.
“Let’s not get too dug in here,” said Mr. Sylvia. “You all talked about transparency; we promised transparency…and this is a very small way to be transparent.”
Mr. Sylvia said that while he would not be attending every meeting, he would be available as a resource any time the commission requested. He congratulated all nine members he appointed as per the Town Meeting article.
“This is a diverse committee,” said Mr. Sylvia, and that will drive its success, he commented.
He emphasized the historic nature of the committee and reviewed its mission, saying it goes beyond “just looking at what exists and what we should do differently.”
“It’s really more about giving us more local control,” said Mr. Sylvia. “Town Meeting’s expectation is that you will take what exists and create a charter,” which, at a minimum, would provide citizens with one document they can refer to “to understand how the [town] government functions and gives us local control over what happens in the future.”
The ultimate charge: to create a charter through due diligence while looking at the entire picture with recommendations on what the committee believes needs to be implemented to make it a “modernized government reflective of the community,” as Mr. Sylvia put it. “The best government that you think we should have if it’s not what we have right now.”
This will be a lot of hard work, Mr. Sylvia said: “Town Meeting is supporting your efforts and looks forward to taking up a charter sometime in the future based on your effort.”
Still, it is not a process to be rushed, emphasized Mr. Gallagher: “The community is best served if we do not rush to meet the deadline.”
Mr. Sylvia added that a report on the status of the committee’s progress would suffice at the next Annual Town Meeting.
“I don’t think…anybody wants you to rush this,” said Mr. Sylvia, and the committee agreed that it would likely not have a completed draft of a charter by next spring.
The committee concurred it would likely need to act with “aggressive transparency” by actively seeking out public comment on a number of different platforms so that come the time for a vote, nobody can say that they were excluded from the process.
The group also discussed the possibility of hiring a consultant, which committee member Robert Grindrod was not so fond of.
“I will say, right upfront, I don’t want a consultant,” said Mr. Grindrod. “We were not given this task to hand it over to a consultant.”
Nonetheless, the consensus was that the committee should at least listen to potential consultants on how they would guide the committee along the process while keeping in mind that the committee has only been appropriated $10,000.
“I’m okay with having my hand held by a [consultant] who has experience putting charters together in other committees,” said Mr. Gallagher.
Committee member Morgan Dawicki said the need to hire a consultant might not come until much later in the process after the committee performs its research, consults with other towns that have a charter, and conducts interviews with town officials, department heads, staff, and the public.
The committee agreed to meet every other Thursday, setting its next meeting for September 23 at 6:30 p.m. with an alternate date of 9/30.
Before adjourning, Mr. Gallagher cautioned the group, saying, “If you spent five minutes involved in any Fairhaven-related governmental task, you realize how shark-infested the waters can get rather quickly.… I think it would be naïve for us to think that at some point we’re going to [avoid doing] something that gets people worked up. There’s a small percentage out there that’s is going to be negative and aggressive simply because that’s in their DNA, but I think it’s important that how we respond to those … sharp elbows will reflect on our good work.”
He recommended committee members refrain from responding to criticism on social media and allow the chair to speak on behalf of the committee as a whole, to which the committee agreed.
Other committee members include Ronnie Medina, Lilia Cabral-Bernard, Brendalee Smith, and Marybeth Vargas.
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