Welcome to the continuing series of discussions with thought leaders who are bringing new and innovative solutions to the challenges government faces in delivering services to the citizen.
My guest for this episode is Chairman of the Board of Selectman for the Town of Ipswich Massachusetts, Charles Surpitski. Mr. Surpitski and I discuss a range of topics including how the Board of Selectman conduct business as the Chief Executive body for the town, how the Board relates to other boards and panels in town and the planning for the upcoming Oct 15, Special Town Meeting.
Mr. Surpitski has worked for the Town of Ipswich for 35 plus years starting as a patrolman in the Police Department in 1971 and rising through the ranks culminating in being appointed the Chief of the Department in 1989.
In 1991 the Town reorganized the department adding to Mr. Surpitski’s duties as Chief the responsibilities as the Town’s first Director of Public Safety.
His duties included managing the police department, fire department, shellfish warden, overseeing the harbors, emergency management, ambulance services and animal control.
Mr. Surpitski retired in 2006. He did the usual newly retired projects and trips and then had an urge to return to public service. He decided to seek election as a selectmen and in 2008 was elected and then re-elected in 2011.
He is a lifelong resident of the town and comes from a family of civil servants. His Dad was a police officer and Chief of Police and his only sister was a public school teacher.
Mr. Surpitski says that it has been an honor and pleasure to grow up in such a wonderful diverse town and to be able to contribute to the quality of life of the residents.
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Charlie and I discuss a typical Board of Selectman meeting which begins with the “minutia” of government. In addition during each meeting the board tries to deal next with one or two issues that are important to the community. Recent examples include efforts by the board to use town resources to enhance economic development in the town. The town has three sources of revenue: property taxes, fees and state aide. “In order to continue the services that we offer in town government,” Charlie says, “it is necessary to find other sources of revenues.”
On the subject of economic development, Charlie says the board’s recent discussions have been about what areas of town are attractive to businesses and what infrastructure resources will attract new businesses to the town. “There is always some items of substance related to the future of the community that are on the agenda,” Charlie says. Correspondence, new business and updates round out the typical Board of Selectman meeting.
Charlie urged that citizen participation is important. The best way to view the meetings are to come to the meetings. Recognizing that people are busy there are other options to participate. Citizens may watch the meetings live on Ipswich Community Access Media (ICAM). Board meetings are also available for on-demand replay via the Community tab of the town’s web page. The Board of Selectman is, “One of the few places where we legislate in front of the people,” says Charlie.
Charlie talks about the responsibilities of Chairman. These include working continually through the weeks with the town manager and the professional staff keeping on top of issues that are import to the Board, to the town as a whole, setting the agenda, running the meetings and dealing with the significant amounts of correspondence received.
Charlie says that it is really important that someone respond the correspondence. “We don’t wait, it’s the responsibility of the chair to direct communications to the right party and that someone get in touch with that person and let them know that someone is looking into their issues.“ Charlie says, “It takes a great deal of time, but it is time well spent,” he continues.
Other important issues in front of the Board today include finding a way to renew the town’s public safety facilities. Charlie said, “Our fire station was built in 1907 actually for horse drawn fire apparatus and certainly apparatus has changed.”
Storm water, sewer extensions, no matter what the issue is, even if it is in relative terms small, if someone took the time to bring it up, Charlie says, “We view these smaller issues as just important as the bigger ones.” He goes on, “We continue to try to improve town services, make sure they are running efficiently and economically; their all big issues.”
Getting back to the issue of economic development, Charlie points to New England Biolabs and EBSCO Industries as two examples of businesses who have made a big commitment to Ipswich revitalizing the downtown and being great community partners.
We talk about how the Board of Selectman works with other boards and panels in town. Charlie says the Board of Selectman is made up of only five members and so they depend a lot upon volunteers. He says the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and the Conservation Commission are regulatory boards and they need the support, understanding and thanks of the Board of Selectman. They are, “Folks stepping forward, without pay, to make sometimes very difficult and tough decisions,” he says.
Charlie continues that there are also a myriad of other interests in the community including the Shellfish Committee interested in preserving the resource, the Storm Water committee who are making sure that water that flows through the rivers and over the clam flats is clean. Charlie says, “It is so important that people who have an interest participate and to advise us as to how to proceed.”
We then talk about the role of the Board of Selectman in planning for what Town Moderator Tom Murphy describes as the, “Pure Democracy” of the town meeting. Ipswich maintains the tradition of the open town meeting where all residents are encouraged to attend town meeting and participate in decisions including passing the town budget. Charlie says, “It’s one of those unique situations where people decide the fate of government.”
With regard to the town meeting the role of the Board of Selectmen is to bring the issues that need to be decided upon by the body politic to the warrant. This is includes working with the Town Manager Robin Crosbie, other boards and citizens of the town to create the warrant which forms the agenda for the meeting. All citizens have the right to bring issues of concern to the town meeting. The most important issues is probably the town budget. “The people,” Charlie says, “actually vote to implement it, Charlie says” In between town meetings he continues, “It’s up to the Board of Selectman to make sure that will of the legislative body is implemented.”
The interview concludes with Charlie encouraging the citizens of Ipswich to attend the public hearings, to hear the pros and cons of the particular issues and to be prepared to participate in the town meeting. Charlie urges citizens of the Town of Ipswich to attend town meeting. “We understand that it can be difficult to get there and to dedicate three or four hours on a Monday or Tuesday night,” he says. The bottom line is that, “It is our town, it is important, and we want to have the widest participation that we can,” Charlie says.