Tuesday, February 1, 2011


HYANNIS - Tomorrow is not just the beginning of a new year in Barnstable, the largest and most populous community on Cape Cod.
It is, after 350 years, the dawn of a new era: Town Meeting is history.
Voters last spring endorsed a new charter and a council-manager form of government by nearly 2-1. While Barnstable will still call inself a town, and Hyannis will remain its largest "village," as of tomorrow Barnstable will be, legally and effectively, a city, the Cape's first.
An 18-member council has been elected to replace the 248-member legislative body of the representative town meeting system that was adopted in 1973, itself an outgrowth of the earliest town meeting form of government. A professional town manager -- Canton's executive secretary, Warren Rutherford -- has been hired to replace the three full-time selectmen at the executive level. While the selectmen will remain in their offices at Town Hall through March to help with the transition, they seem destined to go down in the history books as the last in a long line in Barnstable.
As of tomorrow, there will be just two towns in Massachusetts governed by full-time boards of selectmen -- Bourne and Falmouth, both on the Cape -- and there are indications those two might see changes before the new decade is very old. On the Cape as elsewhere there a number of very small towns that operate with part-time boards of selectmen.
The winds of change are blowing all through the Cape. The tremendous population growth in the '70s and '80s put the traditional selectmen-town meeting form of government under increasing pressure from Falmouth to Provincetown. In almost all 15 Cape towns, major changes have been made in the past three years to deal with the burgeoning demands for services and the consequent fiscal and managerial complexities of government.
"It really is a historic moment," said Barnstable Selectman Jeremy Gilmore, 46, a former commercial airline pilot who ran for office as a charter supporter, knowing his first year as selectman might be his last. "It begins a process of bringing Cape Cod into the mainstream in Massachusetts. The region can't be looked at any more as some magical bucolic place that doesn't quite exist except in summer and that is defined primarily by its visitors. The fact is it's a place where a lot of people live and work and raise children and face problems year-round -- even including some urban problems, quite frankly."
Paul Lebel, 56, a contractor-builder who has served as a volunteer member on many Barnstable boards over the past 25 years, will lead the new council as its elected president.
"We got a clear mandate from the voters for sweeping change," Lebel said. "They want a more professional executive and a permanently in-place legislative branch. They went further than I might have liked, but the votes are in, and we've got to make it work. And it will."
"Managing certainly will be easier," said Selectman William Friel, 31, a Barnstable native and former police officer. "With a three-man executive, you had to lobby for another vote before you could even start to get something done. I'd have to go to Jerry Gilmore or to chairman Martin Flynn, and see if they were with me. They had to do the same when they had an idea. You know you're not always going to find agreement. Plus some departments didn't answer directly to us, so that was a problem. Now we'll have a strong executive."
Flynn, 65, a former naval officer who retired to Barnstable after 26 years with the Central Intelligence Agency's Office of Medical Services, has been selectman for most of this decade. He, like Friel, was not a supporter of the charter proposals during last spring's election campaign. But, he said, "now that it's happened, I think I'm excited."
Among the changes buffeting the Cape in 1990:
- Falmouth, a sprawling 45-square-mile town with a diverse year-round population of nearly 30,000, operates with a representative town meeting and three full-time salaried selectmen. But last month, a charter commission completed a year-long study by recommending sweeping changes, including the hiring of a professional manager. The charter question will be on the town ballot in May.
- Chatham, on the Cape's "elbow," gave up the full-time selectmen approach in 1987 in favor of a five-member, part-time board to set policy and a professional executive secretary to handle day-to-day operations. But it retained an open town meeting, which means any registered voter can speak and cast a ballot on every article on the warrant. In May's town election, residents will vote on a nonbinding referendum that asks if the community of 6,900 wants to adopt a representative town meeting system, under which all voters still can speak at town meetings, but only their regularly elected representatives -- chosen by district -- can cast votes.
- Eastham, where the "narrow land" of the Outer Cape begins, still has a three-person, part-time board of selectmen whose members also serve as the board of assessors and the board of health. But a citizens group was organized this year to promote a charter commission to study government and recommend changes for the community of 4,700 people. Two weeks ago, charter advocates stood outside the town's two post offices for two hours and gathered 450 signatures on a petition to have the proposal put on the May ballot. Just 467 certified signatures are needed by the Jan. 30 deadline.
- Truro is the quintessential "Old Cape" town, with a year-round population of just 1,400 and a landscape largely frozen at 1959's development level, since 70 percent of its acreage is within the protected Cape Cod National Seashore. But after 30 months of meetings, the Truro Government Study Committee 10 days ago recommended the three-member part-time board be expanded to five, that a professional executive secretary be hired and a charter commission established. The proposals have stirred up a hornet's nest, however, and an old-fashioned small-town political donnybrook likely will precede any changes.
- At the tip of the Cape, Provincetown adopted a charter more than 20 years ago -- the first town in Barnstable County to do so. But that didn't change its politics, legendary on the Cape for their tumult. Last spring, a new charter commission was formed, and its members are voting weekly at meetings for proposals that could dramatically change the way Provincetown is operated by its five-member part-time board and professional manager. When line-by-line revisions of the charter are completed -- the deadline is Jan. 17 -- public hearings will be held. The issue will likely dominate the March Town Meeting and April election.
In every Cape town, governing is becoming more difficult, more time-consuming, officials, town employees and volunteers all say. When John F. Kennedy was president and Hyannis Port burst into the nation's consciousness, it was a village in a sleepy seaside town of about 13,000. Now US Census Bureau officials say they expect Barnstable, with a population in excess of 50,000, will be designated a metropolitan area after the 1990 census.
"Growth protected us against the Prop. 2 1/2 problems lots of towns faced in the '80s," said Lebel. "But now that it's slowing, finances are a major problem, one that requires a new approach. And the other big issue in Barnstable is the growth versus no-growth question. Again, the slowdown and the new structure make this the perfect opportunity to sit down and hammer out a plan that's comprehensive and makes sense to both sides.
"We're fortunate. The makeup of the council is a textbook case of diversity -- with men, women, liberals, conservatives, minorities, professionals, homemakers all providing balance. I hope we do the town proud."
Gilmore, who traces his Cape Cod roots to Barnstable's early 19th-century sea captain Nehemiah Smith, offered his perspective. "The arena in which this new structure will be judged a success or failure is the same one that's always been at the heart of the democratic process, which was born right here on the Cape: Can it be responsive to the citizens? Can it provide them access and real input into the way their community works? That's what it's all about."

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