SHIRLEY -- Selectman Robert Prescott, who represents the board on the Joint Boards of Selectmen, asked his colleagues Jan. 27 to vote on a sticky issue JBOS is grappling with: Whether Devens residents should get first crack at a straw poll ton a JBOS joint governance proposal before taking the question to voters in Ayer, Harvard and Shirley via nonbinding referenda at the three Town Meetings.

The details haven't been worked out in the JBOS proposal championed by Harvard representative Leo Blair. But the gist is that government and municipal operations in the Devens community would shift from MassDevelopment to the towns whose historic boundaries were disrupted when the sprawling former Army base was created over a century ago. Meanwhile, MassDevelopment would continue its mission to redevelop Devens.

Discussion on the polling issue waxed hot at last week's JBOS meeting, which ended abruptly, leaving the question up in the air. But at a previous session, Blair took a stand against polling Devens residents separately, thus giving their opinion added weight versus voters in the other three communities. Devens residents, most of whom live within Harvard's historic boundaries, vote in that town, he said, so they already have a voice.

Tom Kinch, of Devens, said he was leery of causing acrimony among residents, as governance and early disposition bids have done in the past. Their voices aren't heard anyway, he noted.

Harvard's Ron Ricci said he'd be inclined to back off the current proposal if Devens residents say no, a view shared by Prescott.

At the recent selectmen's meeting, Prescott sketched the situation as it stands, noting that some JBOS members felt that polling Devens residents would be a double-dip, given that they can vote in Harvard.

Selectman David Swain disagreed. "If you're talking about governing a body of people," those people should get a separate say, he said, noting that JBOS is an advisory board.

Chairman Kendra Dumont pointed out that MassDevelopment's George Ramirez, who heads the agency's operations at Devens, has said the state has no plans to pull out early and will be there until at least 2033, with its provisional powers and duties spelled out in state law.

"So what right do we have to take that away?" she asked. Dumont indicated that even the referendum idea seemed iffy to her, all things considered.

No matter how Ayer, Harvard and Shirley voters respond to the question, if it comes to that, any change in Devens governance in the near future would require a change in state law and would almost certainly affect Devens residents first and foremost.

For example, Devens property owners and businesses now pay fees in lieu of taxes that might be much higher without state funding as backup and the community gets municipal and public safety services and an educational contract, all under the auspices of MassDevelopment.

Prescott pressed. JBOS wants "an official vote" from each board, he said, and the questions are: Are you interested in shared Devens governance? And if so, should Devens residents be polled first?

Swain said the polling question should be taken up first, not the other way around. In his view, shared governance can be considered later, after hearing what Devens residents want to do. He made a motion to poll the residents in advance of Annual Town Meeting, which in Shirley is set for June 2.

Selectmen voted unanimously in favor of the motion.