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Planning Board Sounds Off On Citizen Term-Length Petition

After dispatching routine business at the Aug. 16 meeting, Planning Board chairman Stephen Johnson opened the floor to residents Paige Impink and Chris Mullins, proponents of one of two citizen articles expected to be presented at the Special Town Meeting on Oct. 5.

The proposed article reads:

“To see if the town will vote to change the length of term of an elected Planning Board seat from five (5) years to three (3) years, as provided for in M.G.L. Chapter 41 Section 81a. Current planning board members may fulfill their terms, and any member elected after adoption would serve a three (3) year term. Any appointments to the board for a vacated seat would fulfill the term of the seat vacated.”

Impink previously told the Carnation that the group presenting the article is looking to encourage more citizens to participate in town government. 

“Five years is a long time to ask someone to serve, and having only one seat up at a time tends to discourage people from running,” she said. “This article is about more opportunity, more often.” 

Among Tewksbury elected boards, only Housing Authority and Planning Board members serve five-year terms. In the case of the former, that term length is mandated by statute. Local planning boards, under M.G.L. Chapter 41, may have three- or five-year terms and may be elected or appointed. Some Massachusetts planning boards have seven or even nine members.

Johnson — who has been on the board since 2010 and became chair earlier this year — spoke at some length on his own research and the reasons he and his colleagues consider it detrimental to the town to shorten the term length.

“I’ve looked at all the cities and towns in Massachusetts,” said Johnson, “I came up with 96 out of the 351 that do three-year elected terms. That’s 27% of the state; 44 of those 96 are in towns with populations less than 10,000 people; 58 of them, 60%, are in towns of less than 15,000, and 72 of the 96 are in towns with 28,000 or less people.”

Tewksbury’s population is around 30,000.

We’ll summarize the key discussion points here, but interested residents are encouraged to view the full meeting on YouTube.  The term-length article discussion begins at 1:05.

Point 1: Continuity and Ability to Vote

Johnson cited Billerica’s and Chelmsford’s planning boards. While both serve three-year terms, they have more than five members, such that, were two incumbents to be unseated by newcomers, there would be continuity within the board for petitions that may carry forward for months or even years. 

“You put two up at the same time, you put in jeopardy the ability of the board to vote,” he said.

All sitting board members insist that, in the event two incumbents were defeated in Tewksbury in one cycle, those newcomers would face a significant challenge getting up to speed.

“There’s a big learning curve,” said member Eric Ryder. “Bringing two new members on that may or may not have the backgrounds, that could impact a project.” Ryder offered the example of the Hanover 40B development discussed at the last Selectmen’s meeting.

“What if that happened in the middle of an election and two members had changed?” he said. “There is a significant setback to the project.” 

Delays are a valid concern. Per MGL 40A, Section 9, petitioners to a town planning board have a right to a timely process, with delineated timetables. A change in board membership is not listed as a reason to extend that reasonable timely process. 

Mullins countered that the learning curve could be managed by viewing the recorded board meetings or via a formal onboarding process facilitated by Tewksbury’s paid town planners and other staff.  

“It is the responsibility of the new member — or any member who misses any multi-night hearing — to fulfill their responsibility to be prepared to vote,” he said. “When I cast my ballot for any local position, my expectation is that the prevailing elected official does their role as soon as they are sworn in.”

And, Tewksbury voters have shown a preference for electing members with applicable career experience. Ryder has spent 26 years in municipal government and is currently DPW director in Hudson, Mass., while Stephen Johnson is an attorney.

Point 2: Interest Within the Community to Run

Johnson and other board members also strongly disagreed with the premise that shortening the term length and structuring elections such that a challenger is not going head-to-head with a single incumbent would increase the number of citizens running. 

Longtime board member Bob Fowler, who will have served 40 years when his seat is up in 2023, brandished the packet of information provided by town staff to the board before each meeting.

“This is a thin packet — packets are usually two or three times that thick,” said Fowler. “It takes a lot of background work, a lot of information, a lot of communication with the planning office.”

Board member Jay Delaney, who joined the board in 2017, echoed Fowler’s comments.  

“We attend a lot of meetings over the course of the year,” said Delaney. “We do a lot of research.” Yet he pointed out that the planning board stipend is only about $700. 

Johnson opened a comment section for those attending the meeting, and resident Bruce Shick took the podium. Shick was one of several article proponents who collected signatures to get the measure on the Special Town Meeting warrant.

One hundred registered voters must sign to get an article on an STM warrant; Impink says the group has collected close to 500.

Shick told the board that, as he was collecting signatures, residents asked what the article was about. When he explained the concept, he said the response was overwhelmingly positive, indicating an appetite for a new direction.

“It’s like, ‘Planning board? Oh yeah, sign right here,” said Shick. “It was very clear to me that they feel that something has to change.”

Whether that desire for a new direction will translate into quality candidates stepping forward is a question that will be answered in 2022, when the seat held by Jay Delaney comes up.

Johnson was just reelected in April, unopposed, to a five-year term.

Point 3: Lack of Respect and Deference to the Board

Board members overall stated that they felt the petition was disrespectful and showed a lack of appreciation for the hard work and hours they put in.

“You people have no idea what it takes to be on this board, what this board does to protect the people in the town,” said Delaney. 

As to a perceived lack of deference, Ryder specifically pointed to other elected officials signing the sheets to bring a previous version of this article to Annual Town Meeting.

In fact, board members frequently revisited the previous article, though the petitioners pointed out that the language has changed and that the current outreach effort is beyond the scope of what is required under the state-issued process for a citizen petition. 

That previous version was withdrawn on TM floor; when asked about that by board member Vincent Fratalia, who won his seat in 2014, Impink cited intense pressure from some elected town officials. 

“Several boards had mentioned that they didn’t feel that enough outreach was done, even though we followed the rules for a citizen article,” she said. “So we decided as a group that we would go back and revisit the article, provide outreach, provide a courtesy notification.” 

Ryder readily acknowledged that he was one of those elected officials who had picked up the phone and explained his perspective.

“My concern was that the people that signed that petition sat on boards in this town and did not call any member of this board,” said Ryder. “That’s a big concern with me, because if I signed a petition against any sitting board member in this town, before I signed anything, I give those board members a common courtesy … phone call.”

Impink stressed that this initiative is not punitive and recognized the board’s efforts.

“This is a forward-thinking article,” she said. “This is not about any member of the board, and I really want to emphasize that there’s utmost respect for the work that goes on, for all of the boards in the community. I myself have been on an elected board, so I completely understand. The level of information that’s reviewed by his board is intense, there’s no question about that. That is not what the article is about.”

Next Steps

Johnson signaled his intention to address the Finance Committee and again ask for that board to recommend indefinite postponement of the article on the Town Meeting floor, as he did previously.

It would be highly unusual for the Finance Committee to recommend a negative motion on a citizen petition, especially one without a budgetary component, but that meeting will be an opportunity for interested residents to hear his perspective.

“I worry about the vagueness of this, and whether all the concerns have been thought of,” said Johnson. 

Shick disagreed: “The notion is, it’s citizen-run government,” he said. “The underlying principle is to make more opportunities for people to get involved.”

Mullins pointed out that the only requirement an elected official actually needs is the support of voters.

“If there were special requirements for boards, they’d be appointed and not elected,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable insinuating that residents don’t have the capabilities to serve on the planning board. The town manager’s office carries staff development in the Community Development budget and offers training opportunities to the Planning Board and ZBA for reimbursement. If they see fit, town bodies are also able to implement their own onboarding procedures to bring new members up to speed.”

Delaney summed up the board’s position.

“You fix broken things,” he said. “This is not broken. This system works.”

If you wish to be reminded of Special Town Meeting, please subscribe to the Carnation. We will push reminders to our email list along with updates and explainers of warrant articles.

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