HARVARD -- Time was, the Board of Selectmen held a retreat each year to talk business on a more informal plane than regular meetings provided, away from the public eye and preferably out of town. Usually, it was a day-long event.

The School Committee followed a similar practice that in recent years was posted as a public meeting, even when it was held in a member's home. The meeting functioned as a quasi-social event and as a workshop, often featuring a speaker or facilitator.

Over time, the state's Open Meeting Law and other factors, including public disfavor, made BOS junkets passé, but the retreat tradition endured. And evolved. Now, when the selectmen schedule their annual get-away, or strategic planning session, the timeframe is seldom longer than a few hours and the venue is close to home, as distant as Devens or as near as the old Library.

It's always a public meeting, duly posted but minus outside input.

Despite the changes, the purpose is basically the same as it was in the old days: to set aside a substantial block of time on a given morning and/or afternoon to map out selectmens' vision for the coming year.

The take-away is a list of goals selectmen review regularly to see where they stand. At their recent meeting, for example, they talked about department audits, one of the items on their to-do list.

Work in Progress

Town Administrator Tim Bragan was tasked with finding an independent professional to assess and analyze the procedures, practices and protocols of departments under the board's jurisdiction that are not currently monitored by a state agency, such as the Department of Revenue, which conducts annual audits of Town Hall business in addition to the annual accounting analysis of town finances done by a regional auditor.

Specifically, the selectmen said they wanted an operational overview of Police and Fire Departments and the DPW, respectively.

Bragan told the board he'd found a taker: U.Mass, Boston, which will do the job for $5,000 to $10,000 per department. Because it's a state agency, the procurement process doesn't apply so there's no need to go out for bids, he said.

Asked what the university proposes to do for the price, Bragan explained. "They review and analyze labor, management, operations...whatever you want and give you a report," he said.

But Selectman Ron Ricci said he had a "one for all" rather than a "one for each" approach in mind, or something more like evaluations provided via the Massachusetts Municipal Association, such as police certification or internal audits of municipal fire departments conducted by the Fire Chief's Association.

"Ron has a valid point," Stu Sklar said, noting that the Mass Association of School Committees does audits for its members.

Lucy Wallace favored an independent, outside entity, however.

Bragan agreed, posing a rhetorical question to make his point. "No offence, but what do you think the FCA would say about your fire chief?" he asked Ricci.

And, it might be argued, the same caveat would apply to any organization the department heads in question belong to, such as a group of police chief's evaluating one of their own.

Ricci conceded the point. "One entity doesn't have to do it, but I'm open, either way," he said.

Chairman Marie Sobalvarro said she'd like to see samples of the work UMass does to determine if it's worth the price and that the audit is more than a "best practices" review.

Bragan said he'd get sample audits for the selectmen to look at. As for funding, he said they could do it all at once or phase in the cost by auditing one department at a time.

"I'm more interested in the what and the how than in the who," Leo Blair said, adding that he, too, wants to get a clear picture of what the UMass audit report looks like. It should include action item recommendations, he said.

JBOS

Leo Blair gave an account of doings at JBOS, the Devens-based joint boards advisory (to MassDevelopment) group on which he serves as his own board's appointed representative.

Serving as a sounding board and communication conduit for the three host towns and the Devens community, JBOS efficacy waxed and waned in recent years and the towns' participation ebbed as well. Previously, Harvard selectmen determined it wasn't worth the effort and decided to step aside unless and until an important issue came up. Ayer came to a similar conclusion, Lucy Wallace pointed out.

Now, both towns have reengaged.

With the next JBOS meeting set for later that week, Blair said each member group, Ayer, Harvard and Shirley selectmen and the Devens Committee, had been asked by acting chairman Gary Luca to appoint an alternate representative, as spelled out in the original Memorandum of Understanding. "It can be tough to get a quorum," he explained. And the representative doesn't have to be a selectman.

When Stu Sklar volunteered to act as Blair's stand-in, the board wasted no time voting to appoint him as Harvard's alternate JBOS representative.

In addition, at Wallace's suggestion, the board agreed to formally re-join JBOS, voting to rescind its earlier vote for limited participation. With the town's Master Plan process ramping up and Devens looming large in the forecast, it only makes sense, Wallace said.