Government Structure History, Blog #1

To Change or Not to Change…???

There is a proposal from the Governance Committee on the Town Meeting Warrant (May 10) that calls for bylaw changes to the fiscal procedures of town government. I have spent many, many hours trying to understand the current budget process, how it has evolved, the history of our structure of government, what any problems are and why we should care about the fiscal procedures at all. Mind you, I am part of some of this history, as I will note. I come to this with my own opinions, but in today’s blog, I am just trying to report on our history.

Some among us do not believe there is a problem with the budget process, and therefore we do not need a solution. That part of the conversation will come in future blogs.

Residents Call for a Plan

Holliston was a pretty stable community with little change in population or building growth until the 50s and 60s. Farms, open fields and woodlands were bulldozed to make way for hundreds and hundreds of new homes and roads. In came developments like Strawberry Hill (Appleyard Lane), Brentwood (Chamberlain St.), Holly Hill (Holly Lane), the Orchards and others. Then came the Queens, which dominated the housing scene through the 60s.

1950s Downtown Holliston by Robert Moore

There was a high demand for these new houses among populations with more income than many Holliston residents earned.   Many of the new people had college educations and demanded more from the schools than Holliston was used to providing. Taxes rose dramatically. The only “high rises” were built as three apartment buildings on Turner Road (now condos) as an effort to offer more affordable housing options.

People who moved here from urban areas struggled with the idea that their septage management system was in their backyard and not off at a sewer facility somewhere. They were unprepared for local government New England style. In 1970, the Holliston Jaycees (a civic club) prepared a Comprehensive Town Management Plan. They called for a Charter Commission to revamp the organizational structure of town government, based on their experiences in places where the government was very different.

Some locals resented new people trying to tell them what to do to govern themselves – after all, Holliston had been using this government structure since the Town was founded in 1724 when the government was the church. It worked just fine, thank you very much.

The Charter Commission proposal was on the ballot in 1973 and was defeated, 881 to 818.

The Numbers

In 1950 there were 3,753 people here; in 1980, 12,622. In 1980 the median house price was $61,500.

Below are census data from the state’s profile (monograph) of Holliston, produced in 1984. There are some 2018 demographics on the Town’s website.

Having grown dramatically between 1950 and 1970, things leveled off over the next decade. Everyone complained about high taxes and limited services. There was no Damigella field, no Miller School, no HYSA soccer fields and, of course, no Rail Trail. There were multiple places to buy house paint. The center of town looked pretty much as it does today only the building with Fiske’s had not been rehabbed. There was Goodwill Park in one of its three iterations, rehabbed by volunteers twice. No Johnson Drive, Rolling Meadow’s Phase one started in the mid-80s, and there were a lot more wooded areas all around town. I remember the woods.

Studies Ahead

But other things were happening, too. In the late 70s, the tax rate was high and then Prop 2 1/2 came along in ’80 and was fully implemented by ’82. Suddenly the budget process was no longer a free-for-all on Town Meeting floor where we debated for days about how much money went where. Schools won a lot of the time! Prop 2 1/2 made for more orderly meetings but also dampened the interest of voters who knew their taxes were capped. Prop 2 1/2 also created more of a bureaucracy for recordkeeping. Government was getting more complex.

In 1980, the Finance Committee asked the Selectmen to contract with the Mass Municipal Association for a management capacity study. The 1981 findings of the Government Study are shown in box.


By 1984 Federal Revenue sharing ended and increasingly the state started to pick up costs that formerly were funded with federal dollars. While Prop 2 1/2 was supposed to stop “unfunded state mandates,” that has not been the case even to this day. Government services were in more demand. I served on the Board of Selectmen from 1986 – 89 and again in 1996 to 99. There were two big differences for me between the two terms. One, in the ’80s we were not on television. We always had an audience in the room, a few regulars, and we could be candid in our discussions. Our debates were rigorous. We were able to build real working relationships – something that is impossible today.* We did nothing illegal, but we really had to be careful about those expletives! Government was looser in the ’80s, more like a dysfunctional family, fewer rules, but not necessarily better or always fair. By the ’90s, the number of rules and regulations governing us increased. Things were just not as friendly…they were becoming complex and bureaucratic. The 90s were a lot less fun.

Dateline: Holliston 1987

Today the Holliston Government Study Committee, initiated by Town Meeting, released its report on the town’s governmental structure. “The GSC considers the following four recommendations to be the minimum necessary to be taken now to insure effective financial management of the Town.” 1 & 2. Make the elected positions of Auditor and Treasurer/Collector appointed. 3. Establish a financial team that has technical expertise and insures accountability, coordinated by the Executive Secretary. 4. Modify the Finance Committee’s role to focus on review, recommendation and planning – rather than compiling budgets.  

Government Study Committee, l-r. Norman Morrison, Jr., Jenny McGee, Samuel Tyler and John Hawley. Patrick Shea not shown. Published in Natick Suburban Press & Recorder.

Also from that Report, “Coordination of policy and administration is established not by structure but occurs only through the personal cooperation of equally independent boards and offices.” That remains the case today.

The Auditor and Treasurer became appointed positions as the incumbents retired. The horizontal line of elected officials evolved with some changes in the ensuing years. The Tree Warden became an appointed position, the Board of Water Commissioners was eliminated and the water department was folded into the DPW.

Here’s the organizational chart today. Please Notice: you/we are still in charge.

In 1993 the Selectmen appointed the Government Study Committee (once more under the chairmanship of Sam Tyler) to again identify ways to improve the operations. This time the proposal was to upgrade to a Town Administrator who would have more authority than the Executive Secretary. In order to do that, we passed the recommendations at Town Meeting, but it was not all smooth sailing. The proposal did not give the TA as much authority as proponents wanted, but some officials and residents worried that the changes would weaken the Board and put too much authority in the hands of the Town Administrator. But it did pass, and that became the Special Act of 1994. The Executive Secretary became the Town Administrator.

I asked Paul LeBeau who was the Executive Secretary and then Town Administrator and serves on today’s Governance Committee… How did things change for your position from before and then after the Act of 1994?

“The Act lent a little more stature to the position and the fact that the Act had been approved by town meeting gave it more credibility.  The Selectmen advertised the position and interviewed candidates once the Act was passed, which signified a sense of importance regarding the role of Town Administrator.  All of that was helpful in assuming some new responsibilities and exercising a limited amount of additional authority.  I think the position went from being viewed as staff support to something closer to a leadership role.”

Governance Changes Part II — in process.

* 04/17/2021 – A reader asked what I meant with the sentence, “We were able to build real working relationships – something that is impossible today.” I was referring to the fact that as a result of the Open Meeting laws, as a three-person board, we could no longer really get to know one another. The law prevents two members (a quorum) from talking outside of the publicly posted meetings – so there is no time except in public meetings when they can brainstorm and just talk…without fear that they will make a mistake and something will get blown out of proportion. It changed things a lot.

2 responses to “Government Structure History, Blog #1”

  1. Warren Chamberlain says:

    Yes I can see how the open meeting law makes it difficult for the select board with only three members and two make a quorum. It wasn’t so bad for the planning board with three as a quorum, Do you think we should have a five member select board? I do.

    • The Governance Committee will be discussing that as part of their look at the entire structure. That’s when we should consider it – not piecemeal like this. There are disadvantages to both models and I don’t have strong feelings either way as of now.

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