Opinion: Five Member Board of Selectmen

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Contributed by Phil Mathews, Warrant Committee member, Town Government Study Committee member, Town Meeting Member, Precinct 3.

Tuesday is Election Day.  In addition to the races for various offices, there is a ballot question which requires your attention.

It appears at the bottom of the ballot and is called Question 1. It asks whether you support an increase in the size of the Board of Selectmen from 3 members to 5 members. The recommendation for this change came from the Town Government Study Committee, of which I’m a member. It was supported at the time by the Board of Selectmen and passed rather handily at Town Meeting.

The Town Government Study Committee (TGSC) spent over a year studying this issue after the Massachusetts Department of Revenue recommended it in a Fiscal Management Review published in September of 2013.

Fellow TGSC member Leroy Walker and I led the research effort to provide the entire committee with the information necessary for informed discussion and decision making. Phase I involved talking with former Milton Selectmen and Selectmen in other communities similar to Milton. A variety of views were expressed, but it became apparent that merely tapping the experience of people who had only real world experience in one type of Board would not provide us with the best comparison of 3 and 5 member Boards.

Phase II of the research attempted to target this concern by:

Focusing on communities who had made the switch from a 3 to a 5 member board

Further narrowing the target to communities who switched recently (last ten years)

By talking to towns who had made the switch recently we could expect to find strong institutional memory about why the size of the board was increased; how the change was implemented; and how the results of the change lived up to expectations. We identified a number of such towns with the help of the Massachusetts Municipal Association and conducted extensive conversations with them. The results revealed very strong support of the switch with a number of benefits for those communities.

  • Better distribution of Selectmen workload – A larger number of Selectmen allows for greater opportunity to assign executive-level work (long-term planning, policy development, oversight of implementation of policies, programs, initiatives and organization structure changes). This should also allow for more work to be completed and faster decision-making in a shorter amount of time.
  • Better Selectmen accessibility (for residents) – Should allow for residents to have greater success in reaching a Selectmen more quickly with issues of concern or feedback on pending matters.
  • Greater Efficiency/Opportunity for offline discussions between Selectmen – The resolution of many of the executive-level decisions that Selectmen are asked to make requires significant analysis and discussion. Allowing some of this analysis and discussion to be completed and discussed by two Selectmen between meetings could produce more efficient and effective decision-making and increase the likelihood of more quickly achieving consensus.
  • More Flexibility/Opportunity for Selectmen Subcommittees – A larger number of Selectmen would allow for the organization of two- person subcommittees. Such subcommittees could work in between regular Selectmen meetings to organize, delegate and complete required work.
  • Ease of Operation on Difficult/Controversial Issues – Bringing a larger number of Selectmen perspectives to bear on difficult or controversial issues increases the likelihood that at least three members could agree and successfully address such issues.
  • Broader Diversity of Views/Skill Sets – Increasing the number of Selectmen also increases the likelihood that there would be a greater number of perspectives on any given issue.

Phase III of the research looked at the distribution of Board sizes state-wide overall and by population size.

There are 298 communities with a Town Meeting and a Board of Selectmen. Overall they are fairly evenly split between 3 and 5 member boards.

  • 157 (53%) have 3 member boards
  • 140 (47%) have 5 member boards
  • 1 town has a 7 member board (Wakefield)

When you look at the split by population size however, you discover that 3 member boards are overwhelmingly a small town phenomenon.

that 3 member boards are overwhelmingly a small town phenomenon.

For communities with populations over 20,000, only 11% still employ a 3 member board. Including Milton, that is 5 communities of this size out of 44 total communities.

This overwhelming propensity for towns with larger populations (20,000+), larger budgets and greater complexity to have 5 member BOS is undoubtedly what led the Massachusetts Department of Revenue to recommend:

“…expanding resident representation on the board of selectmen by increasing its membership from three to five. The current three-member board is conducive to small town governance in which the selectmen play a stronger role in daily municipal affairs. In a town with a population over 27,000, a budget approaching $98 million, and a wide range of town administrative functions, the role of the selectmen shifts. An expanded number of selectmen creates greater oversight of the town administrator position and broadens resident representation on the board. The board will therefore have greater capacity to explore issues by allocating responsibilities to more members and decisions will be more thorough because two additional perspectives are present. Also, because winning a majority of three, versus two votes, is more difficult, the prospects increase for greater collaboration; and with no more than two members elected each year, the board will experience greater stability and continuity. One possible downside is that meetings could be longer.”

The following TGSC’s conclusions were presented to the Town Meeting.

  1. The TGSC research indicates significant differences in terms of the advantages offered by a five-member Board of Selectmen vs. a three-member Board of Selectmen.
  2. The management challenges for the BOS presented by a $100 million Town budget are dramatically greater than when the budget was a quarter or half that size.
  3. The five-member Board model offers many more advantages and fewer disadvantages and is the best model for Milton and the recently-approved Strong Town Administrator model.
  4. It also represents a more appropriate size for a “Board of Directors” overseeing a day to day executive of the Town.

During conversations with the Chairmen of the Board of Selectmen from Sudbury, he put it more directly.

More brains

More educational backgrounds

More work capacity

More areas of expertise and skillsets

More perspectives on problems

More representation for citizens.

What’s not to like!

I hope you’ll support Question 1 on Tuesday. Just as Milton residents agreed decades ago to switch from an open town meeting to a representative town meeting, we must once again adapt to ensure that the Town Meeting form of government continues to serve the needs of our town.

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