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Letter: Should We Change the Planning Board Term Length To Three Years?

At the Oct. 5 Special Town Meeting, voters will decide whether to approve Warrant Article 17, which proposes to Change the Term of the Planning Board from five years to three.

I have the utmost respect for the amount of work the role of the Planning Board requires. Having spent 35 years in corporate real estate and facilities management roles, I know firsthand how challenging the work is. It is definitely a service to the Town for someone to give up their time and talents, at next to no compensation, to fulfill the responsibilities of the Planning Board for the Town.

That being said, I believe that the role of the Planning Board is no more important, nor more challenging, than the role of the Select Board/Board of Selectmen, and other major boards that have only three year terms. Turnover, or the potential for turnover, is good for an organization. It keeps fresh ideas flowing. It causes incumbents to keep looking at what they are doing and how they are thinking to stay in tune with what the residents of the town are thinking.  Of course, that’s a big part of the challenge the Planning Board faces.

There are numerous rules, regulations, bylaws, construction constraints and on-and-on that drive the outcomes from applications to the Planning Board. Changing the term of the Planning Board from five years to three years will drive more conversations about what is happening during the Planning Board’s decision-making process. It will allow new people, with different ideas and different skills, to challenge the outcomes and thinking behind those outcomes on a more frequent basis.

A five-year term is a long time if someone is thinking they’d be willing to step up to take on the responsibility. Five years is more than high school or a typical undergraduate college education takes.  Committing to three years is much easier to consider. If after three years the work load is acceptable and one has the interest, he or she can run again with more experience, and a track record for voters to evaluate in a contested election. Two three-year terms is just one more year than a single five-year term!

Contested elections are good for the town. We, the voters, have to make and own the decisions our votes imply. We can’t say we don’t like what the Planning Board did because we are the ones who frequently elected them to do what they did. We need to listen to what candidates say when they were running for office and follow up on how their outcomes match up with what they said.

But how do we hold them accountable?

Here’s where I think we need to do more as citizens than just evaluate what we like or don’t like about the decisions of the Planning Board. Our town meeting form of government requires us to pay attention, to attend informational meetings and to ensure that our elected and volunteer boards have the resources required to allow them to deliver the outcomes we think are best for the town. 

Attending Planning Board meetings, or at least watching the recordings, is one way we can stay tuned into, and provide input into, the Planning Board’s actions. I’d also suggest that the Planning Board might hold periodic update sessions to explain what is going on in the “big picture” based on what projects are coming through the Planning Board for approval.

Perhaps the Planning Board needs additional professional support, such as budgeted access to a consulting engineering firm to provide specialized support in evaluating alternatives on an ongoing basis. Given how the Planning Board’s decisions affect the town for the long term, it is entirely reasonable to consider beefing up the resources that support the board. Those resources could enable more people with less technical expertise or on-the-job learning gained over multiple terms on the board to provide valuable executive level decision making.

I encourage you to attend the Special Town Meeting on October 5 at 7:00 p.m. to participate in the discussion and to vote for what you think is best for the town. When this particular question is decided, we need to move forward together to continue the process of evaluating how to achieve the best, achievable Planning Board outcomes for the Town.

Bruce Shick

Provider of hyperlocal news, insights and events from Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Community-driven journalism by Tewksbury, for Tewksbury.

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