Size Matters: Committee Recommends Selectmen Increase Number On Board

Photo: Not enough according to the committee set to review the number of selectmen.

Just how thorough the Committee to Study the Number of Selectmen took its mission, the appendix which documents the details of studies, interviews and raw data comprises more pages, 41, than the 32-page final report.

“It’s a big relief to finally get this report out after so much work by the members of the committee,” said Committee Chair Paul Rickter.

After seven months of discussions with the 16 current and past selectmen, speaking to countless elected representatives from outside of Belmont, leaders from municipalities that went through a similar process as well as gathering copious amounts of data – one of the first set of facts it compiled was a set of data from the 44 towns in Massachusetts with populations between 19,000 and 31,000 residents – in January the committee voted 9 to 4 to recommend increasing the number of selectmen from three to some number to be determined by Town Meeting

“My sense of the committee is that we found the town to be generally well-run, but that some felt that there are opportunities to improve town governance by increasing the size of the Board,” said Rickter.

Read the committee’s recommendation here.

The committee was created at the annual Town Meeting this past May and made up of 13 members – selected by Town Moderator Mike Widmer – representing each of the town’s eight precincts. Its charge was straightforward: to recommend whether or not the Board of Selectmen should be expanded from three members. After months of meetings – starting in June and really got going in October – the committee produced 11 arguments both pro and con on changing the status quo which has been in affect since Belmont’s founding in 1859.

On the pro side, the committee saw greater stability for town government in policy, planning, and hiring; an increased representation, diversity, and viewpoints; less likelihood of one Board member being isolated or dominating others; the potential for wider range of skills and experience on the Board; and permits members to use one other member as a sounding board.

For those in favor of keeping the current board size all Board deliberations remain transparent and open to the public; elections would remain competitive; three members are more apt to reach a consensus, meetings are efficient and reasonable in length; and there is too much at stake for a change of this magnitude right now.

For Rickter, the most convincing arguments that swayed the majority were “the ideas that a larger board could be more broadly representative of the town as well as the potential for a wider variety of skills and experience benefiting a larger board.”

“The minority also saw those ideas as … benefits, but they thought they were only potential benefits,” he said, while expressing concern about the transparency of board deliberations – the state’s Open Meeting Laws requires a quorum of three for the three-member board to legally discuss issues brought before it – and competitiveness in elections with a larger board.

“As we said in the report, we all see valid arguments on both sides — we simply weighed them differently,” said Rickter, who added that the committee will attend Town Meeting in May to answer questions rather than “holding any advocacy role … going forward.”

Rickter said an important byproduct of the report is that a majority of members on both sides of the size question believe the town must consider strengthening the role of Town Administrator, whether or not Town Meeting increases the board’s size.

“But that topic was outside of our charge, so we limited ourselves to making only observations in that area,” he said.

For Rickter, the committee’s comprehensive reporting will allow for an honest discussion on the issue without the specter of bias.

“This was a conscientious group that worked together well, gathered tons of information, and engaged with the work of compiling this report in a truly collaborative way,” he noted. Even though the decision was not unanimous, “we never wavered from the goal of giving Town Meeting members a detailed snapshot of both sides of the issue.”