Photo: Special Town Meeting approved the one article on the agenda
In an overwhelming show of support for transforming how the town runs its finances, the Belmont Special Town Meeting voted Monday, Jan. 30, to place a ballot question on the 2023 annual Town Election to convert the elected town treasurer’s post to an appointed position.
The vote – 195 yes, 52 no, with one abstention – will place before town voters at the April 4 election the opportunity to implement a major recommendation proposed by the 2022 Collins Center Report in reshaping Belmont’s fiscal structure or to retain the current framework that stretches back to the town’s founding in 1859.
On Monday, the 247 members who attended the virtual meeting expressed a clear preference for change.
“The town would be best served by being able to hire the most qualified person available, not the most popular resident who wins an election,” said Belmont Select Board Adam Dash who presented the board’s position.
In his final Town Meeting as a member of the Select Board, Dash noted the Treasurer’s position requires a state-regulated set of technical skills and experience which, by, “restricting the pool of people to just Belmont residents prevents us from casting a wide net which includes looking outside for the hire.” According to the Collins Center report, 821 Belmont residents work as financial managers in the finance and insurance industry, while Middlesex County has 40,000 in the same occupation.
Mark Paolillo, chair of the Select Board, said adopting significant change in the town’s financial management – as recommended by the Collins Center report and advised by a 2011 Division of Local Services analysis of the town – which has been hampered for years by the lack of a unified approach in the budget process.
“The town of Belmont is one of the most decentralized towns in Massachusetts … and it really diminishes our effectiveness around financial management,” said Paolillo.
The meeting also heard from Treasurer Floyd Carman, who decided not to seek re-election in April, ending 18 years in the post. Carman – who received unanimous praise from the meeting for his stellar tenure at treasurer – primarily spoke on the duties and requirements of the job. Carman did not expand on the Special Town Meeting article itself, remaining agnostic on his personal views of the article.
If voters approve the ballot question, the town will begin a process of advertising for and vetting candidates before making a selection while the Treasurer’s Office staff runs the day to day operations. If the measure fails, the person who receives the most votes, including write-ins, will serve three years as treasurer.
While state statute names the Select Board as the appointing agency, Belmont’s Town Administrators Act passed in 2014 supersedes the state law, with Town Administrator Patrice Garvin holding that responsibility.
During the 66 minutes of debate, many members supporting the article concurred with the Collins Center’s findings that Belmont needs to revamp its management structure to meet current and future budget challenges effectively.
“The town is in a financial crisis and I strongly support making this position an appointed one for all the reasons described in the Collins Center report,” said Roger Fussa, precinct 8. Speaking from the report, Fussa said effectively dealing with Belmont’s structural deficit is rooted in its financial organization. If the residents and town officials back away from the 19 Collin Center recommendations being proposed – which an appointed treasurer is considered a priority – long-term solutions “will bare little fruit,” said Fussa.
Others believed Belmont can no longer roll the dice on selecting one of the most important posts in town based on politics.
“This position is simply too important and requires too much expertise to leave up to a vote and up to chance,” said Nicole Dorn, precinct 1, who works in a financial role for a public entity. “There is an incredible amount of complexity and compliance that goes into these roles. Imagine if we got someone in this position without the skills to manage our bond rating and it tanks? That would have a greater negative impact on our town that perhaps any action taken by the Select Board or Town Administrator or even ourselves.”
While politics plays an integral and essential role in shaping Belmont’s future, Paul Joy, precinct 7, said some positions in town government require “a different set of skills and experience, a level of professionalism that simply can’t be politized.”
“It is imperative that we separate politics from the professional role in town government to ensure that our financial health remains strong and secure,” he said.
Those seeking to preserve the current elected Treasurer’s post view the proposed change as taking the resident’s voice out of the selection process. Judith Ananian Sarno, precinct 3, said “my perspective is our town officials are proposing we take the hiring decision away from the 1,000s of voters … and then want to make the change to making it a position hired by one person. In this case, the town administrator with sole authority to hire,” noted Sarno.
“[Currenty] our elected treasurer is required to be a Belmont resident and in my view, this ensures that the persons running for the office will have a commitment to serving Belmonts financial interests is not necessarily true of the professionals we hire from outside Belmont,” Sarno said.
Judith Feinleib, precinct 6, questioned the “significant unintended consequences” to the town if the Treasurer is no longer providing an independent voice on financial matters.
Feinleib argued – counter to the finding in the Collins Center report the town has too many separate financial entities – that Belmont’s “unusual but effective governmental structure” in which the elected offices such as the Select Board, Town Clerk, Assessors and Treasurer, provides a balance not just to each other, but to influential volunteer committees, ie. the Planning Board and the Warrant Committee, “on which Belmont depends for so much of the work that is needed to keep our town running.”
Feinleib said this “healthy balance” of multiple power structures will be lost if the Treasurer is made into “a mid-level appointed bureaucrat,” resulting in the volunteer committees and “our unelected town administrator … will have too much power.”