Brookline town hallPart 1 of the Series

How Did This Happen?

The situation Marge Amster experienced did not occur in a vacuum. Our Town Government created an environment that made it possible.

Due the Advisory Committee’s governing rules, Town Meeting must take direct action to change this situation and eliminate the possibility of repeated injustices. Town Meeting members are voted into office by their respected precincts. Over 90% of those running are usually voted in. In the last election, only 7% of the registered voters showed up to the polls. It takes a concerted effort to keep an incumbent Town Meeting member from being re-elected. The only way not to win re-election is for people to strongly support you not serving the town. In the case of this committee member, he was not re-elected to serve on Town Meeting a while ago.

Up until a few years ago, there were 16 members on the Advisory Committee, each one a Town Meeting member representing their own precinct on the committee. This changed when Town Moderator Sandy Gadsby filed a warrant article to add at-large Advisory Committee members. Many at the time criticized the appropriateness of the Town Moderator filing his own warrant article, but it passed anyway. That opened the door for Mr. Gadsby to appoint members to the committee who were voted out of Town Meeting. They are appointed and reappointed by the Town Moderator on his terms. According to Mr. Gadsby, not even he can dismiss a member of the Advisory Committee in mid-term. There must be some law that protects citizens who are appointed to a town committee no matter what acts they commit. Shouldn’t the town dismiss any volunteer or appointee who acts in a way that it as best inappropriate and at worst threatening, consequences be damned?

Our publication chose not to mention this person’s name except in comments made on the record by our Town Moderator. It should be stated that many have reported to us this person has served the community well over the years. No physical harm has come to Marge Amster, although there are other ways to injure a person. It is not our intent to discredit a person’s career or service to his community. To be honest, I have had conversations with him, and he has a side that is hard not to like. Even his defenders, however, admit his level of inappropriate behavior at times rages out of control. We understand this incident is part of a bigger issue that must be addressed, but actions must have consequences. In this case, his actions amounted to a violation of the community’s trust and abuse of power. It is the view of this publication that this individual should step down voluntarily or be dismissed.

The Town Moderator’s view that the decision who is allowed to serve on the Committee and for what reason is his alone is reflected by Committee Member’s attitudes and actions as they conduct business. While many who serve don’t receive nearly enough credit, the unfortunate truth is that when one member’s behavior is unchecked, it affects the reputation of the group as a whole.

Although it is comprised of appointed members, the Advisory Committee wields an exorbitant amount of power. Almost mimicking the Town Moderator’s exclusionary attitude , the AC’s process of dealing with important issues is confusing and often infuriating to concerned citizens. The AC first splinters off into sub-committees to address issues. Public hearings are then held, with testimony at times going on for hours. The subcommittee then votes on a recommendation to the full AC. At the full AC, the Chairman of the Subcommittee gives a 3-5 minute report on the testimony heard and submits the voted recommendation. The public is invited to the full assembly, but not permitted to speak during debate. The Chairman at times allows and/or invites community leaders to address the body, usually for 3 minutes. Those new to the process are almost always alarmed and confused by what they experience during debate. Many AC members are always respectful and articulate during the debating process, but it at times seems some members are allowed to say anything they want to sway the opinion and eventual vote. Further, a system to fact check information offered during debate seems to be nonexistent. One is left to wonder how many decisions are made based on inaccurate information.

Similarly, some member’s conduct during meetings is often quite disappointing. Often, community members who testified during open hearing attend the full assembly to hear the final vote. Frequently, the 3-5 minute Subcommittee Chair report is met with shaking heads from disapproving AC members. Guest testimony is often ignored. Committee members have been seen eating, texting each other, and even reading the newspaper during it.

Of additional concern is the lack of accountability to the town the AC serves. Unlike Town Meeting and Board of Selectmen meetings, AC hearings are not broadcast on BATV. Member votes are not recorded for the public.

So what we have is a powerful committee, appointments to which are made by one person, meetings of which cannot be seen on TV, and a public prevented from addressing impropriety in its ranks. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

So where are we now? The Advisory Committee member in question still serves on this committee. With the very real possibility that the person who acted against her would still be allowed to sit in judgment of her, one of our town’s top employees was given no alternative but to retire. When asked about his intentions with regard to reappointing the AC member in question, Mr. Gadsby wrote “Fred’s current term expires on June 30, 2012. Whether I will reappoint him is a decision that I will make next June.”

Is this how we want Brookline Government to work?

Correction as provided by Town Moderator Sandy Gadsby:

“For many decades, the Town By-laws provided that the Advisory Committee was to consist of not fewer than 20 nor more than 30 members, at least one TMM from each precinct and not more than six who are not TMMs. A few years ago, the Selectmen at my suggestion put an article in the warrant to increase from six to eight the number of at-large members of the Committee. Because I had taken a public position in favor of this article, the debate at Town Meeting was conducted by a substitute moderator. The article passed by a vote of 190+ in favor and exactly 16 against, which I interpreted as a rejection of the argument that the article was some kind of surreptitious power play on my part. The point, however, is that the Town By-laws have always allowed for at-large members of the Committee, that there has never been any prohibition against appointing former TMMs as at-large members, that several ex-TMMs have served in this capacity over time, but that the vast majority of at-large members have at least during my tenure never served as TMMs.”

R. Harvey Bravman, Publisher