Depends how you define responsibility

(1/22/08)  Suppose you operate a soup kitchen.  Suppose your supplies are running low and endangering your ability to feed those who depend on your services.  Suppose you were to try to make people aware of this plight and its terrible implications so that they might contribute the money and supplies necessary for you to provide this valuable program to the community.  Would it be wrong for you to do that?

Of course not.

If people are aware of a need and its consequences, and if they agree that filling that need is something they value, they are likely to want to help.  If they are unaware of the need or its consequences, there is little likelihood of their contributing.

Should people be offended that you, as the operator of the soup kitchen, are advocating for contributions?  Would they think that you are abusing your position or overstepping your authority?

Of course not. 

How else could people know about the needs of your program if you, the expert, don’t make them aware?  The general public can’t be expected to be as knowledgeable about the program as you are – you know its ins and outs and all its complicated details, so informing people about what you need in order to keep the program running is your responsibility.  People are relying on you to provide that information; to not do so would be a dereliction of your duty. 

This example is meant to illustrate the misguided criticism being directed at the Budget Coordinating Group (BCG) as it wrestles with how to make the public aware of the Town’ fiscal crisis and its effects on programs and services, and how to gauge the public’s willingness to pay for that which it values.  Select Board member Hwei-Ling Greeney has been particularly outspoken in her concerns that the BCG is trying to “sell” an override, and is overstepping its authority.  But if we can’t expect the BCG – made up of representatives from the Select Board, the School Committee, the Library Trustees, and the Finance Committee, as well as Town, School and Library staff – to be the body that best understands the combined fiscal needs of the Town budget and its implications, and to recommend a course of action, and to then advocate strongly for it – then really, what is the point? 

An editorial on the topic in the January 22nd Gazette says groups like the BCG should “stick to the facts, present the information in an impartial manner, and then let voters decide.”  In other words, the leaders shouldn’t lead.  Of course the voters should decide, but if they can’t rely on the informed recommendations of those elected and appointed to provide guidance and leadership to the community, again, what is the point?

-- Stephanie O’Keeffe         

Comments

The pernicious point is they should not use taxpayer money in order to extricate more tax money from hardpressed taxpayers.

If Hochman or Ms. Brighty had their way the Override would already be scheduled (even though we don’t know what state aid will be) and Unicom ARC would be given a 100-K to package the product—you know the old putting ‘lipstick on a hog’ routine.
http://www.unicomarc.com/elections.php
http://amherstma.gov/minutes/view_minutes.asp?id=775

The silent "minority" in Amherst will become a majority when the overide vote comes up. Ooops, I guess they hadn't heard or don't care about falling home prices and the rest of the financial crisis.

"But if we can’t expect the BCG … to recommend a course of action, and to then advocate strongly for it – then really, what is the point?"

The point is that State law does not allow this. Leaders need to obey the laws as well as lead.

Mary –

I would like more information about what you’re saying is illegal. I found these incredibly informative bulletins issued by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and I don’t find that anything the BCG has done – or my mention of advocacy in the sentence you quote – is illegal.

http://www.mass.gov/ocpf/ao/IB-92-02.pdf

http://www.mass.gov/ocpf/ao/IB-91-01.pdf

But if there is other relevant information, please share it. Certainly no one wants to be on the wrong side of the law.

Thanks.

Stephanie

For those of you who have not actually watched a BCG meeting, it can be very enlightening. BCG members have been discussing a "public engagement" process for at least three months. This process had two phases: a survey phase in which the public attitudes and proclivities in dealing with the budget problems would be assessed and an educational phase in which the BCG preferred view (whatever that might be but most likely a long-term plan and override) would be advocated. An outside consultant was brought in to explain these phases and give cost estimates. The cost estimate for the survey phase was in the neighborhood of $20K. The second phase could cost up to $80K or more! Well, members of the BCG thought that they could legally spend the $20K but nobody has the money. Now they are discussing finding some help from UMass or some other place that would do the survey without pay. In response to discussion about the second phase, the educational phase for which there was also no money, I explicitly remember that Mr. Shaffer reminded BCG members that public money could not legally be used for political advocacy purposes. So, Mr. Kusner was technically correct in saying the ideas were discarded but both Mr. Weiss and Mr. Kusner were a little less than forthcoming since the topic of an override had been discussed at the noon meeting of the BCG on 12/17, six hours before the Selectboard meeting in question. Ms. Greeney was closer to the reality of what BCG has been doing than Mr. Kusner and Mr. Weiss.

I watch the BCG meetings. The frustration in that room is palpable. Some of the BCG members are pushing very hard to get Amherst's leadership to actually engage in leading on budget issues. That may include advocating an override but again it may not. It is correct that BCG members can advocate for anything they wish (at least the elected members can, I don't know about the legality or prudence of administrators advocating)but they cannot spend public money on the advocacy nor can they speak for their home boards and committees. BCG members know that, they always talk about it, but then thir frustration with the inaction seems to overcome them and they say some unfortunate things.

The BCG should stick with its charge of making sure that the most important budgetary groups are informed of each other's thinking and discuss these ideas as no other group can. But then the results of the discussion have to go back to the sending bodies for official action.

Yes, BCG has extremely important roles: a mutual information exchange and a clearing house for ideas. It cannot, however, in effect engage in a coup on decisions. The members know that, they accept that, they should speak more precisely than they sometimes do, and we should support their efforts to get Amherst off the dime.

As just about anyone in town knows, we have way too many committees.

The BCG does not do anything that could not be done by the Finance Committee--as toothless are they are--or Joint Capital Planning Committee: just change their name to Joint Budget Planning Committee. A rose by any other name…

Quoting Mr. Chumley: "So, Mr. Kusner was technically correct in saying the ideas were discarded but both Mr. Weiss and Mr. Kusner were a little less than forthcoming since the topic of an override had been discussed at the noon meeting of the BCG on 12/17, six hours before the Selectboard meeting in question. Ms. Greeney was closer to the reality of what BCG has been doing than Mr. Kusner and Mr. Weiss."

If one were to listen to the transcript, you would find that what was discarded was the idea to use large sums of town money to fund a public engagement process or a public survey. No one tried to represent anything other than that fact.

Neither of us have denied that the BCG has and will continue to discuss the uses, misuses, possibilities, probabilities, mechanics of, timing of, pros and cons of overrides. Overrides are one tool to increase revenues and it would be negligent and incompetent of the BCG to fail to include overrides in our discussions of how to create a long term financial plan for Amherst; just as it would be incompetent of us to fail to discuss the state of the Mass economy, the politics of the State, the condition of our reserves, long range revenue projections, long range spending projections, taxes, and more. Ms. Greeney seemed to be characterizing the work of the BCG as focused on how to sell an override to the public. I refuted that version and will continue to refute that version of reality.

Post a comment