Monday, September 24 at 7:30 PM is a special town meeting that all town citizens should attend. Two votes are critical. First, Article 1, calls for the repair of the Nixon roof. Keeping our school infrastructure in good shape is as critical for making sure we staff them with the best teachers. SPS member Lisa Gutch wrote a good column asking for support of the roof that you can find here.
The second critical article involves increasing the number of selectmen from three to five. As important as keeping our school infrastructure in place, increasing the number of selectmen from three to five keeps our political infrastructure in shape. Petitioner Mike Troiano delivered a compelling case to the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday night for increasing the board members from three to five. You watch a video walking through his prepared statement here.
Most interesting in his presentation is that going from three to five is common in Massachusetts and many of our peer communities have already made the move. Using a citizen’s petitions to make this change is also common. It is our right and duty as both residents and members of the town legislature to petition the state legislature to change our town charter.
I fundamentally believe increasing the number of selectmen from three to five will increase our governance processes, provide greater representation to everyone in town, and provide a more meaningful discussion of issues. You can look at some past issues to see the how things might have played out differently with five selectmen.
First, with just three selectmen, a single recusal can paralyze decision making. Look no further than Lavender or the proposed rezoning of the condominiums at Northwoods. A single recusal got us no decision on one and a bitterly divided board during the other. With five selectmen, there should be enough representation to move these issues forward or not consider them at all.
Second, having five selectmen should improve the chairmanship rotation. By tradition, the chairmanship rotates each year. But this year, since two of our selectmen don’t like the politics of the third, the chairmanship didn’t rotate this year. To pull off the same partisan action with five selectmen would require a lot more selectmen in the town to sign up to such an action. At exactly such a time when there are pressing issues facing the town, we need a more inclusive board of selectmen, not an exclusive club where one member is shut out.
Third, increasing the number of selectmen to five will help to maintain the essential detached oversight required of our town management and employees. Look no further than the town manager contract signed the night before the election in 2010. The contract was negotiated between just one selectman and the town manager with no surviving notes, minutes or records of the negotiation. Not only was the term of the contract unprecedented but the contract included the requirement that a unanimous vote of the selectmen be required to terminate the contract.
In Sudbury no public discussion was held on our Town Manager's contract while other towns ask voters to discuss and approve their Town Manager's contract on the floor of their Town meeting. With five board members, these types of contracts would get greater and much needed scrutiny.
The overly cozy relationship between our career town employees and selectmen is visible in other ways. Our housing production plan was submitted one day after the Johnson Farm developer submitted his 40B plan. Had this plan been submitted earlier and with more urgency, Johnson Farm would have been more difficult to build. This fact seemed often ignored by a board that talks of 40B as a useful tool.
But the real telling moment that revealed just how the relationship between some of our key town employees and the board has changed came at a recent selectmen meeting. At 1:07:50 into the September 4 Board of Selectmen meeting, the town planner, under scrutiny from Selectman Haarde over possible plans to develop the Malone property, asks Selectman O’Brien to gavel down Selectman Haarde to silence him. For a town employee to feel so comfortable with our selectmen to request that one selectman gavel another quiet in the middle of a board meeting says a lot about the political structure of our town.
I don’t expect a majority of the selectmen to support the increase to five selectmen. At Tuesday’s board meeting, several expressed concerns that the issue hadn’t been studied enough. The “we need to study” explanation is used on all manner of items to delay and bury initiatives. After all, the residents who signed the petition and petitioner are asking the selectmen to voluntarily reduce their power and political influence. This is precisely why you should vote to increase the number of selectmen. Concentrated power in the few is rarely a good thing and not in the best interests of Sudbury’s citizens.
I don’t expect increasing the selectmen from three to five will solve the town’s problems. But I do believe this is fundamentally a step in the right direction to improve representation for the town’s citizens which will lead to better decision making for all. Please join me at town meeting on Monday, September 24th at LS to vote yes to support the Nixon roof and yes for restoring our governance foundation.