SHIRLEY -- "The general consensus last time was that there's support" for the idea, Harvard Selectman Leo Blair said.

He was speaking at the most recent of two Joint Board of Selectmen meetings devoted to discussion of his idea to form a collective government for the Devens Redevelopment Enterprise Zone. The area is now operated by MassDevelopment, the state agency charged with redeveloping and governing the former military base until 2033.

The challenge going forward would be to come up with a viable plan and ask voters to endorse it, Blair said. That is, after a Town Meeting straw poll determines it has a chance.

If voters in Ayer, Harvard and Shirley -- the three towns with historic boundaries within Devens -- say yes, JBOS anticipates it will take two to three years to frame a plan, take it back to Town Meetings for ratification and then forward a request to the state legislature to amend the law (Chapter 498) for the purpose.

Blair's argument hinges on the premise that change will come, like it or not, when MassDevelopment pulls out of Devens and if people don't start steering the process now, they might not have much say about it then.

But MassDevelopment's mission is crucial and the agency should stay on to "ease the "process of self-governance" slated for 2033, Blair said. Meantime, a collective Devens government culled from existing town governments would do what municipalities historically do best, he said, govern and manage budgets, without hindering the state's development goals.

Acknowledging that this is a "big idea" that must pass public muster, Blair said it's key to spread the word about what JBOS aims to do before presenting a fully developed plan. JBOS doesn't even know the answers to all the questions people might ask at this stage, he said, such as how the new regime would affect schools.

For now, the question is "Should we find out?" Blair asked, which is the purpose of the proposed nonbinding referendum at Town Meetings in the spring.

Trial balloon

"If we get a strong outpouring of support, we can go back and work out the details," Blair said.

Harvard Selectman Ron Ricci suggested using the existing "Super Town Meeting" method laid out in Chapter 498 to roll out the question when and if the process gets that far. It might gain more traction with the legislature in terms of a home rule petition, he said.

But Shirley Selectman Bob Prescott wondered if Devens residents would back the idea. "Looking back at the last meeting, people seem very happy with their services," he said. And MassDevelopment has said it aims to stay the course.

It could be a case of, "why fix what's not broken?" Prescott said. The current proposal may be "an interesting idea" if not now, then in 2033, he said.

But JBOS Vice Chairman Tom Kinch, of Devens, said time is a major issue. "We do need to define what happens in 2033" before that date, he said. For now, he asked if members considered it important to ask Devens residents' opinion of the interim governance concept before presenting it in the Town Meeting format. And if so, then what?

The board tossed that around for a while: If Devens residents are asked first and they say no, should JBOS halt the process? Most seemed so inclined, but Blair strongly disagreed.

Most Devens residents are Harvard residents, he said, noting that they can vote and run for elective office there. "You're part of Harvard ... and we're thrilled," he said. But it would not make sense, in his view, to allow such a small number of people to stop this big idea in its tracks.

Blair said Devens residents are constituents, same as other Harvard residents, and he takes his responsibility to represent them seriously, but he's against giving them veto power. "Their input should guide -- not decide -- what we do," he said.

Maybe not, but "we should hear what they have to say," Prescott said.

Harvard Selectman Stu Sklar agreed but said it's not a "deal breaker" for him. 

Given the "wildly successful" job MassDevelopment has done and the comfortable community it has created for Devens residents, they might not support any change in the status quo, Sklar posited. "But it's not supposed to go on forever," he added.

"It's important to ask Devens residents how they feel," Ricci said. "If they are opposed, the legislature might be inclined to listen." Anyway, a "general buy-in" would help planners devise a better government model, he added.

"We're small, but we've fought awfully hard to create a (civilian) community" in Devens, Kinch said. But whenever an issue calling for big changes came up, "it splintered us," he said, from the failed "Scenario 2B" (early disposition) to two unsuccessful attempts to rezone and redevelop Vicksburg Square. "I'm tired of creating fractures in our little community," he said. "Why do this now?"

Blair conceded those were "divisive" issues, but the upsets Kinch described were not unique to Devens. "Welcome to Harvard," he said, noting that whenever an issue comes up, there are always different opinions in town, often in opposition. In other words, it's controversial to stump for a cause, but necessary. "We'd never do anything" otherwise, he said.

Betty Barbadoro, a Devens resident for 13 years, expressed doubts about the idea. "You say it would take three to five years" to put this plan into action, she began. But MassDevelopment will undoubtedly propose its own plan and, having been involved in three abortive tries to make the community a town, she's content with that for now. "Don't worry about 100-year old (town) boundaries," she advised. In her view, all this talk about taking over Devens governance is "just spinning your wheels," she said.