A town where council-manager works

Nick Grabbe

To find out how a council-manager system works, I met recently with one of the most experienced municipal officials in Massachusetts.

His name is Jeffrey Nutting (shown in photo), and since 2001 he’s been the administrator of Franklin (population 32,065), a town with the same governmental system that’s proposed for Amherst. He has been the president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association and has been the manager of Medway and Stoneham and the interim manager of 11 other towns, all with Town Meeting systems.

Nutting knows his stuff. And Franklin’s council-manager system has made great progress on some major challenges that Amherst has struggled with.

The average annual tax bill for a single-family home in Franklin is $6,100, compared to Amherst’s $7,269. And yet since Nutting arrived, Franklin has been able to spend $10 million on a new fire station, $10 million on library improvements, $6 million on a new senior center, $10 million on a new public works building, $6 million on acquiring and renovating a building for municipal offices, and $7 million on recreation improvements – all without tax increases! It has also built a $100 million high school and a $33 million K-8 school with the help of tax overrides.

Meanwhile, Amherst has been stalled on more than $100 million for necessary public buildings: for the elementary schools, the Jones Library, a new fire station and public works building. Approval of overrides to help pay for them is uncertain because of our already high taxes, and Town Meeting has declined to accept $34 million in state funding for new elementary schools.

That was not a smart move,” Nutting said. Franklin just got $6 million in state funding for downtown traffic and streetscape improvements. It didn’t turn down the money.

The main way that Franklin is able to fund all these improvements to public buildings without raising taxes is that it has a much broader tax base than Amherst, with more revenues from local businesses to help pay for them. While the commercial sector pays just 10 percent of the property taxes in Amherst, in Franklin it pays 20 percent (about the same as in Northampton).

The other way is that Franklin’s council operates year-round. “People don’t have to wait nine months for an answer,” as with a Town Meeting form of government, Nutting said.

We can get things done for citizens, not for politicians or special interests, and this can be a new sidewalk or a new fire station,” he said.

The Franklin council has nine members and meets twice a month. After every election (every two years), Nutting sits down with the council to work out a goal-setting document that guides his day-to-day work. The council then uses this document to request regular updates and evaluate his performance.

The average turnover in each Franklin election is two to three members, and the average councilor serves six to eight years.

As in Amherst’s charter proposal, the council ratifies Nutting’s choices for major municipal positions. Nutting makes appointments to citizen committees, but its Planning Board is elected. Candidates for council don’t spend a lot of money on campaigns, he said.

The beauty of this system is that we can protect citizens’ interests but also move forward in a timely and predictable manner,” he said. “There’s less politics and less minutiae, and more surety in government. It’s just more efficient.”

When informed that Amherst would spend $75,000 a year more on stipends for elected officials if voters approve the new charter, Nutting called that amount “stamp money,” compared to his overall budget of $120 million.

He compared the speed of a council-manager system to e-mail, while Town Meeting systems resemble the postal service.

Open Town Meeting, the kind Nutting worked under in his previous jobs, remains popular in small towns in Massachusetts. But “representative” Town Meeting, the kind that operates in Amherst, has become less common. And of the 45 communities in Massachusetts with more than 35,000 population (including Amherst), 38 have councils and not Town Meetings.

Of course, Franklin is not Amherst. But it provides a model for how a council-manager system works. With experience in 14 different communities, Nutting is an authoritative voice on the many benefits Amherst could gain from switching to a council-manager system.

Comments 19

  1. Very relevant article. My understanding is that years ago Amherst did have 20% of its tax base coming from the commercial sector. We have moved to 10%/90% over time and clearly the bulk of the tax burden falls on homeowners. We know that many of our municipal employees, firefighters, teachers for example, cannot afford to live in town. Broadening our tax base seems a no-brainer, to allow us to maintain the quality of life we enjoy. In the current political climate this is a toxic topic.
    Thanks, Nick

  2. Sadly the Charter Commission did not examine the 10 cities that use a Council-only form of government in Massachusetts. While this information on Franklin is a small piece of the puzzle, what about Chelsea, Palmer, Barnstable, Winthrop, Watertown, Bridgewater, Southbridge, Randolph, East Longmeadow? Wouldn’t it have made sense for the Charter Commissioners to have evaluated these communities by objective, measurable criteria and compare them to 10 Select Board-Representative Town Meeting towns including Amherst. Or even use the somewhat fuzzy criteria selected by the Charter Commission? Then there would be a way to evaluate these forms of government based on how they actually work and their results. Why didn’t they? What is the factual basis to support this Charter proposal, supported by only 5 of 9 Charter Commissioners?

    Why pick Franklin? Why only talk to one person, the town manager? Talking to one person, Nutting, is interesting info but not definitive analysis.

  3. Two women on Franklin’s council of nine. I’m not impressed with this as a model for Amherst.

    1. Post

      There are several ways in which Franklin is not like Amherst. For example, its residents voted for Trump at 4.6 times the percentage that Amherst residents did. Franklin has a shopping mall that would probably be unacceptable to Amherst residents. And it doesn’t have the long history of women’s involvement in elected boards that Amherst has.
      It just doesn’t make sense to claim that Amherst’s tradition of gender balance in government is going to suddenly change when there’s a Town Council. Do you think that Amherst women will be too shy to run? I don’t. Do you think Amherst residents will be too sexist to vote for women who run? I don’t. To quote Alisa Brewer, “Amherst is one of the few towns that consistently elects women to the Select Board, so of course you will elect women to the Town Council!”

  4. So what’s the mechanism of exclusion underlying the implementation of a Town Council that’s going to drive the women off of Amherst’s political landscape? Is it money? I will state it as bluntly as I can: no offense to the men, but over the years, the public servants in this town that I’ve trusted the most have been predominantly women. If I thought that women were going to be removed from our politics simply by this charter, I wouldn’t vote for it. But the presentation of stats about other communities doesn’t make that case by itself. As we know from Critical Thinking 101, correlation is NOT causality. I’m still a YES.

  5. I looked at the Franklin Council meeting document for February 14, this year. They took 15 actions in one night, all of them passed, unanimous, including the dissolution of 3 committees. Very efficient, that town seems to be proceeding VERY fast! Maybe that’s why Mr Nutting called the compensation of the council “stamp money”, right?

    1. Post

      What he meant by “stamp money” is that $75,000 would be an insignificant amount of money in his annual budget. Sorry I didn’t make that clearer. Actually, the amount by which the new Amherst charter will cost more than the current system of government will be much less than the $75,000 increase in stipends, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere.

      1. I think you are right about the insignificant expense-differences. The name is still ironic though, “stamp money” for the Council that stamps everything:-)

        1. Post

          Are you saying that the council would act only as a rubber-stamp? For whom? The council will be in charge of policy.

          1. Yes, they are in charge of the policy, and they will be in charge of passing it. They create it, they pass it, so it is always going to pass, and, in this case it is always unanimous, even when it involves the dissolution of various committees. How would you like it if you were enthusiastically part of a committee, and a 9 or 13 member entity all of a sudden voted your committee out of existence?
            Of course we don’t know whether those committees were useful, but eliminating 3 of them in one session is a big change.

          2. Gabor–I hope you do realize that you’re speculating about how the elimination of those committees in Franklin came about, right? It’s quite possible that the committees themselves requested their dissolution. For example, Amherst’s Electronic Voting Study Committee, of which I was a part was dissolved by the Select Board at a meeting, likely with no substantive conversation other than the motion. And why was it dissolved? Because the committee itself asked for dissolution. Yet, from what you’ve written, you’d look at that meeting and say the process was rigged–complete speculation no based on fact.

            It’s also quite possible that new committees were formed at a prior meeting that subsumed the work of the committees being dissolved. Speculation about motives when you don’t know the history behind the action is no help to anyone.

  6. Not surprising at all that a professional Town Manager will like a system weak in checks and balances. People of power are often dismissive of other opinions and view inclusion and participatory decision making as an impediment to “getting things done”. We see this all too often in politics, in business and in education. Getting things done at the expense of community building and inclusion is not what I would call productive or efficient. Getting things done that only a minority or a slim majority want does not measure as a successful outcome by my standards.

    How does a town have overrides and not have its taxes go up?

    I am not against natural growth or holistic development. Broad inclusion and participatory planning will lead to a more productive and efficient process and better outcomes that reflect well our collective values

    1. Post

      As Andy Steinberg and Mandi Jo Hanneke have explained on this blog, it is incorrect to say that our current system has more checks and balances than a council/manager form. Where’s the check on Town Meeting? The Select Board and Town Manager can’t overrule it. I might feel OK about this if voters were able to choose all the members, but as we’ve demonstrated, at least half of Town Meeting members are self-appointed because there weren’t enough candidates to give voters choices.
      Town Meeting is “participatory” only for the 180 people who show up, and the other 37,000 residents have little or no participation in decision-making (except for those who serve on volunteer boards). “Getting things done that only a minority want” seems to be a good description of Town Meeting.
      To answer your question, Franklin was able to build all those public buildings without raising taxes by including the debt payments within the operating budget. That’s something that Amherst has been unable to do. Franklin got overrides (which increased taxes) only for the new schools.

  7. The check on Town Meeting is the ability to easily call a referendum on the question, a much lower bar with town Meeting than the time frame in which a far greater percentage of the electorate must sign, and much higher percentage of voters needed to repeal an action of the Council under the Charter now. the required percentage is virtually impossible to obtain in Amherst due to the huge inflation in number of voters in national election years from student who vote here.

    1. Actually, Hilda, referenda can’t be easily called after Town Meeting, nor is it easy to succeed at one currently. Witness the one last year that did not reach the turnout required under the current system. Yet, if the proposed charter were in place, the turnout requirement would have been met, by over 500 voters. In addition, the current Town Government Act allows for only 5 days to collect the required 5% of active voters signatures after a Town Meeting action (829 signatures last spring). The proposed charter allows for 14 days to collect the required 5% of registered voters signatures (1098 last spring). In other words, the proposed charter allows 7-9 more days to collect just 270 more signatures–it’s a much easier bar than the current system.

      1. Regarding “the ability to easily call a referendum on the question,” Ms. Greenbaum clearly wasn’t part of the mad scramble to collect signatures in the wake of Town Meeting’s voting down the school building project. There was nothing easy about it – all for the privilege of trying to clear a daunting 2/3 bar for turnout for passage!

        This is a much smarter, more voter-friendly approach. Thank you for clarifying, Mandi Jo.

  8. Once upon a time we had a few more businesses in Amherst, i.e. the Carriage Shops that contributed to the tax base. Hmmm, I wonder what happened to them?

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      I think 1 East Pleasant St. will bring in more tax revenue than the Carriage Shops did. And let’s not pass judgment on its appearance until after construction is completed. As for the Carriage Shops, that was the site of an abandoned motel; did anyone think it was attractive? Or flourishing? In 2018, with people shopping more online, traditional retail is much less viable than it used to be.

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