The October 22 Tri-Town Selectmen’s meeting delved into the contractual language, or lack thereof, of the agreement the Towns of Rochester, Marion, and Mattapoisett have with ORCTV, as well as the agreement between the Old Rochester Regional School District and the three towns.
First up was the ORCTV contract now motoring along on an agreement that was penned in 2011, according to meeting moderator and Marion Town Administrator Jay McGrail. Marion was the host town for the meeting.
McGrail said that the agreement has been on his to-do list since the first day of his employment over a year and a half ago. Now with proposed edits to the contract in hand, the selectmen sought to add text that would provide clearer and more concise verbiage.
Specific areas of the agreement the selectmen found most in need of improvement involve timely deliveries of financial audit reports, more regularly scheduled agreement reviews, and insurance policies that would protect Old Rochester Regional High School. ORCTV operations are run out of space located inside the school.
ORCTV Director of Operations Robert Chiarito and ORCTV Board of Directors Chairman Chris Charyk agreed that, in the event that the contractual agreement wanes (as is currently the situation), a letter of agreement should stand in to keep the cable operation on a steady course until the invested parties produce a new contract.
Regarding financial audits, Chiarito said that he has had to “chase down” invoices from the member communities in order to make franchise payments and that he had not seen agreements between the towns and their two cable providers, Comcast and Verizon. But he did assure the towns that audits had been conducted, except one due back in April that has been postponed due to COVID-19.
Mattapoisett Selectman Jordan Collyer said that he wanted to add language to the agreement that would require ORCTV to include equipment and asset management as part of the annual audit. Charyk concurred it was a reasonable request.
Of the local membership, Chiarito said that it fluctuates between a mere 50 to as many as 200 members. He said a board of directors was chosen from the membership by the membership to keep governance as non-political as possible.
McGrail wondered if the selectmen had a say in the selection of the board of directors.
“We are the shareholders,” said Marion Selectman John Waterman. “We have no say in the board of directors.”
Collyer commented that since ORCTV is a certified 501(c)(3) organization, it is incumbent upon them to remain non-political. Chiarito said that board members serve a two-year term and could be reinstated for up to six years. While Waterman acknowledged that the board’s roster should not be chosen by the selectmen, he asked if the directors should be reviewed by the selectmen. Rochester Selectman Woody Hartley said town government should not be involved with the selection of the directors.
Marion Selectman Norm Hills requested a performance review, given that the last one was years ago and that such a review should be done by a third party. Collyer agreed, saying it should be completed in the next 12 months and would help to establish a baseline for future improvements.
With edits in hand, McGrail will now update the agreement and distribute it to the three Boards of Selectmen and ORCTV for a final draft.
The Tri-town team then turned its attention to the matter of the ORR School District agreement. Newly appointed Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations Howard “Howie” Barber said there were two areas that need attention when discussing the district-wide agreement: 1. the three-year assessment, and 2. the five-year stabilization fund.
Under the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), any regional agreement would require DESE vetting, which Barber said was currently underway.
“Our intent is to move forward and, within the next two school committee meetings, complete our review and then turn it over to the towns for spring town meetings,” said Barber.
Marion School Committee member Heather Burke said, “We know we have complied with all the state laws, but [DESE has] come back with some pretty bizarre things.” She said that DESE has the final word on all school district agreements and that those agreements were with the individual towns, not the Boards of Selectmen.
As the agreement stands now, Waterman stated, “I’m not comfortable saying I agree with it. I’d like a legal review – am I being unreasonable to ask for that?”
Burke replied, “I see no reason why not,” adding that it would protect the towns and the schools.
Collyer suggested using KP Law, PC because they have experts on this topic, further adding that he wants to see an independent audit of the district’s financial records.
Barber told him that the Department of Revenue audited the district, but Collyer stated that a history of non-responsiveness to requests for audits had “left a bad taste” in Mattapoisett’s mouth. Collyer wants language added to the agreement that mandates the submittal of certified audits to the boards of the three towns “to look out for the interests of the three towns,” he said.
Collyer went on to say that he has confidence in Barber in his role as the district’s new business and operations leader. Barber acknowledged the importance of providing audits. Burke was unsure if DESE would allow language mandating that the district provide audits directly to the selectmen. She said she would follow up on that point. ORR School Committee member Tina Rood said the selectmen are welcome to attend the district budget meetings.
Before the meeting ended, Collyer asked his fellow selectmen how their towns were coping in terms of local receipts and revenue in the wake of COVID-19. McGrail said that Marion was a little behind projections, but that the first quarter had been “OK.”
Mattapoisett Town Administrator Mike Lorenco said, “We are behind.” Waterman said that sewer and water receipts were trending up in Marion, which Lorenco agreed is also the case in Mattapoisett. But Lorenco also cautioned, “Motor vehicle excise tax sparks some concern for us.”
Collyer and Rochester Town Administrator Suzanne Szyndlar said their towns had just recently been placed in the ‘red’ zone due to a spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Collyer noted that an updated plan was being developed for Mattapoisett possibly returning to earlier restrictions and asked the group what their plans were.
Szyndlar said, “We went red today.” The challenge as she sees it for protecting town employees was that “every (municipal) building is different.” She said that at Town Hall it is difficult to manage the flow and movement of people entering the building and that a new intercom system would be installed to help control access to the interior of the building. Szyndlar also said that Rochester would be using CARES Act funding for an upgraded telecommunications system that would allow some town employees to work from home utilizing a town department telephone number. McGrail said that Marion is moving in that direction as well. Marion is presently an island in the gray ‘no color designation’ zone, surrounded by abutting towns in the red.
Tri-Town Selectmen’s Meeting
By Marilou Newell