In a recent Dorchester Banner Town Square column, some citizens expressed their outrage at the ousting of Mike Diaz as head of the Dorchester County Department of Recreation & Parks. One person complained that the county government is “constantly losing experienced personnel,” while another commenter asked, “Where is the transparency?” Dorchester Citizens for Better Government believes it has the solution for both of those issues. The nonpartisan group is currently circulating petitions to put two amendments to the county charter on the November ballot.
The first one would change two sections of Article 4 of the charter. It states, among other things, that the county manager, who could not have been a member of the county council for at least two years, would be appointed without regard to political affiliation. The manager would hire personnel based on education, training and experience, and only the manager could suspend or remove them. Individual council members could not make the manager take any action not approved by the full council, nor could they directly manage or terminate other personnel. The manager’s removal would be accompanied by notice that provided specific reasons for the termination, and the manager could request a hearing if she or he felt the termination was unjustified.
The second amendment would add a new section to Article 6 of the charter: Governmental Transparency. It states that “the County Government shall provide comprehensive public information about its affairs in a timely and convenient manner” by furnishing access through CATV or other remote means such as live streaming on the internet. This would promote “the informed participation of citizens in [the council’s] policy and decision-making processes.”
“[On February 17,] 2021, I wrote a ‘Cambridge Matters’ [column for the Cambridge Association of Neighborhoods website] about the high number of county staff that had resigned or been fired, as I thought that was unusually high,” says retired Judge Steve Rideout. “I have never received so many responses to one of my ‘Cambridge Matters’ articles before.”
Encouraged by the feedback, Rideout conducted some research, which included listening to the meetings of the county council. He felt that the council was, on numerous occasions, violating the Open Meetings Act, and so he wrote about his concern. CAN subsequently filed a complaint with the Open Meetings Act Commission, which ordered the council to obey the charter.
Allen Nelson, then-president of the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce, read Rideout’s columns and contacted him. He was unhappy with the council’s secrecy and thought the level of government employee turnover was “horrendous.” He had provided input during the creation of the charter and felt, as others did, that the county manager’s role had not been well enough defined when the charter went into effect in December 2002. In fact, the only requirement in the charter for the manager job was U.S. citizenship.
Fast forward to December 2018, when the county council voted 3-2 to release manager Jeremy Goldman from his contract. There had been no warning to the public, and the only explanation given was that the council wanted to “move in a different direction” and it was “time for a change.” Almost exactly two years later, county manager Keith Adkins left the job after a month’s notice. The council said only that the resignation was a “personnel issue.”
Nelson frequently attended council meetings, and he witnessed the suspicions people had toward the council. Members of the public repeatedly requested that the meetings be broadcast on television or the internet, which would have made it easier for working citizens around the county to view the meetings.
“If you’re living in Elliott’s Island and see something on the agenda,” said Nelson, “are you going to drive 45 minutes to an hour to come up here [to Cambridge] for a 10-minute portion that you may or may not understand?”
But the council denied the request three times, by a 3-2 vote. They said people could call in and listen on the telephone. However, as DCBG put it, that method “is inadequate since the council members do not always identify who is speaking and connections are not always good.”
So, Nelson and Rideout got together with several other people to discuss their concerns. In their opinion, the loss of two county managers within the previous three years, along with turnover in department head positions, has been abnormal. This “causes a lack of stable leadership, declines in morale and inefficiency.” The conclusion was that the council’s powers needed to be reined in, and that the county manager needed to be the chief administrative officer.
“I see that our county is now a sizeable business,” said Nelson. “A couple of hundred employees. That is a lot to be responsible for, and our county elected officials have a role to play. In my mind, it’s not in managing the day-to-day activities. Their role is [like] a board of directors.” He says a full-time county manager would handle the employees and the expense of running the county while the part-time council would set the overall direction for the government.
Nelson and Rideout spoke with former county employees and concerned citizens. When they and the other members of their group concluded that a charter change was in order, they formed Dorchester Citizens for Better Government, with Nelson as president and Ted Brooks as treasurer. They looked at the charters of other cities, counties and organizations, and decided to focus on two issues: transparency/full disclosure and abnormal turnover in key personnel. DCBG hired an attorney with experience writing charter language and set about drafting their amendments.
Once these were prepared, DCBG conducted some fundraising to pay for their attorney as well as advertising. Then they set about meeting with different groups, such as local businesspeople, the Rotary, the Lions Club, and area fire companies. To be prepared for the November election, DCBG will be passing around their petitions into the summer, with the goal of gathering 5,000 signatures, a little over 20% of the county population. That number would allow for any signatures discounted by the county election board, who would approve the amendments for the ballot.
Some have asked why the group doesn’t just concentrate on getting good people elected to the council. Rideout responds that electing quality candidates in all five districts is important, but that each citizen’s vote counts in only one of those districts. “Improving the charter should be something that everyone is concerned about” because it gives the public “the opportunity to voice their opinions [about] how county government as a whole should operate.”
Four of the county council members did not respond to email requests for comment. The fifth stated he would only comment after reading the amendments.
The proposed amendments, along with the petitions and an FAQ, can be found online at cambridgecan.org/cambridge-matters-proposed-county-charter-change.