AYER -- As the Board of Selectmen prepares for a busy Town Meeting on Oct. 28, another date is on their minds as well. A vote to reduce the board to three members will go to a Special Election on Nov. 5.
The Board of Selectmen last consisted of three members in 1998 when it then increased to five. For the past 14 years, it has remained that way.
The Town Government Study Committee recently found that a board consisting of three members might better serve the town after all.
"We, basically, just looked at town government and asked, what can we improve. (A BOS of five) really hasn't worked. Meetings go longer now than they used to," Town Moderator Tom Horgan said.
The TGSC gave the study results to selectmen in April 2012 when the recommendation to return to a three-person board was brought to spring Town Meeting, and passed.
"If the ballot question were to pass on November 5, all five terms would end on the same day in April 2014," Horgan said.
At which time all three spots would be vacant.
"The person with the most votes would then be awarded the three-year-term. The next would get the two-year-term, and the third would get the one-year-term," Horgan said. After the first election, selectmen would be elected to staggered three-year terms.
"This would prevent selectmen from ever having to run against one another," Horgan said as he feels this may be an issue with the existing BOS.
Currently, selectmen Pauline Conley and Jim Fay are up for reelection in April 2014, Selectmen Chris Hillman and Gary Luca are up in April 2015 and Selectman Jannice Livingston is up in April 2016.
The Board of Selectmen gave its opinions of returning to a three-person board.
"I've served four terms and I believe that a board of five better serves a town because we each excel in a different area," Fay said. "If you look at the background of the five of us, we each bring something different to the table that brings knowledge to our decision base. I think if we were to reduce that to three we are taking two leadership skills out."
Livingston addressed the perception that a five-person board argues too much.
"My concern about a three-member board is this: Will the three that are on the board work together or will they continue to argue," Livingston said. "Reducing the board does not stop arguing. It only removes a couple of voices. There will always be arguing.
"Each selectman is passionate about what they feel is right and just," she said, "and passionate about representing this town. My other concern is we could end up with the same two always being able to attend a meeting and those two members would always be the deciding votes. I am concerned about too much control being established. Will the voters/residents still be heard?"
Selectmen Chris Hillman and Pauline Conley have similar concerns.
"My main concern is that one board member could be rendered almost irrelevant if the other two members are in lockstep in their beliefs, good or bad," Hillman said.
"Allowing two people to make decisions that affect 7,500 residents and untold businesses is not, in my view, a wise or fiscally responsible thing to do," Conley said of a majority vote of two. "At least with five members, there is more of a balance."
Selectman Gary Luca agrees with the study and feels too much time is taken up at BOS meetings that could be dealt with beforehand.
"I believe that the important thing is to delegate more authority to the town administrator for the small items that we deal with on the agenda and that would free up a lot of time at the selectmen meetings," Luca said. "I would think (a three-person board) would work fine, but like anything else, the personalities have to work well together to accomplish any meaningful progress in reference to town policies."
Hillman feels the board of five has made significant progress in recent years and feels changing the board to three is not the way to continue that progress.
"In my opinion, if people want to make a change, (reducing the board to three) will do none of that. It will make matters worse," Hillman said. "The way to make change is to get involved, run for office, come to town and selectmen's meetings, make your ideas and opinions heard.
"When the board was three," said Hillman, "the town's crime rate was through the roof ... With a five-member board (and with the help of many other groups), Ayer has dug itself out of the Devens closure, has built new police and fire stations, renovated the library and Town Hall, and most recently, began construction on a renovated state-of-the-art high school, all while keeping the tax rates one of the lowest in the state! Will going to a three-person board make that progress even better? I doubt it."
Fay feels that the idea for the board going back to three members may be due to a perception of the board being "unprofessional" at times.
"That's a perception, but perception is reality," he said. "I believe we are now back on the right path towards conducting our business in a more professional way. The board is doing good things, but the image we sometimes present isn't the best, and that's not good. It's not always what you do, but how you do it."
"The fact that five people do not always agree on a subject is not a bad thing," Conley said. "Rather, it is the very hallmark of our democratic process."
Luca feels differently.
"Currently with five members, there is more pettiness and self-promoting than any recent board in memory. I think the taxpayers are tired of the infighting and will vote after taking all into consideration," he said.
Although there are varying opinions and concerns for the possibility of the board going to three members, Selectmen Fay, Livingston, Conley and Luca currently plan to run for re-election. Hillman is undecided.
"If we do go to three, then so be it," Luca said. "It's not the end of the world, so let's embrace the change and deal with it."
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