Editor’s note: The following was submitted to the Finance Committee by Planning Board chair Stephen Johnson, who said it will also go to the Board of Selectmen. It is unedited and complete as provided to the Carnation as a public document.
*Note: Finance Committee, the following information was submitted to the Board of Selectmen after the annual town meeting in relation to the article withdrawn from town meeting regarding changing the Planning Board’s term. Although the current proposed warrant article is considered new, the subject matter and intent remains the same and the information that follows remains just as relevant to the issue. Although I make note of supplemental information that the Finance Committee received for the previous article, I kept that information in the following research as (1) I do not know yet if the proponents will attempt to submit the same or similar information for the current article and would rather have the information available to preemptively address it (2) to highlight the level of misleading or inaccurate information that was previously submitted to the Finance Committee so that they will be forewarned and on the lookout should similar information be put forward to the committee (3) the information highlights additional research into some of the communities that some might think do what the proponents propose in the warrant article and allowing the Finance Committee to have that information in advance of any potential comparisons will be to the benefit of the Finance Committee members.
Planning Board Term Information
The Board of Selectmen has asked for more information to try and review this issue. The Board has shown an interest in identifying if the term of office or other issues are the reason for less competition for Planning Board seats. I will discuss some of the reason that I think may discourage more people from being interested I serving on the Planning Board that are more likely a deterrent than the term of office. I have also reviewed the proponent’s supplemental information that was submitted to the Finance Committee. It is attached for reference in this email. I have also gone through all 351 cities/towns in Massachusetts to determine what exactly they all do in terms of their Planning Boards. The information below is the results of that research
Although this issue has been presented as a straightforward issue, I believe that this issue is more complex and there are more issues that must be considered beyond the idea that it is simply making elected terms match.
The proponent’s arguments for changing the Planning Board terms from 5 to 3 years are generally summed up as follows:
- The 5 year term of office is the main and most problematic issue that prevents more people from trying to run to serve on the Planning Board.
- We can do it. It is allowed.
- There will be more competition if the terms are changed from 5 to 3 years.
- There are no extenuating consequences to changing from 5 years to 3 years.
- Other places do it.
As to argument one. I believe that there are several other factors that are far more of a factor in limiting the number of people interested in trying to serve on the Planning Board.
As to argument two. The question should never be can you do something, but instead should you do something? You can jump off the Tobin Bridge, but if you think about it first, you shouldn’t jump off the Tobin Bridge.
As to argument three. The proponents offer little more than vague unsubstantiated evidence that this argument is actually true. I believe that the evidence I will provide below will actually contradict this vague assumption on the proponent’s part. In fact I will highlight how some of the evidence that the proponents have provided as support for their argument is in fact not evidence that supports their argument.
As to argument four. I believe that there are extenuation consequences. Some are easily identified. Others become more easy identified when the proponents vague information is for fully investigated for the holes that are present, but that the proponents either did not choose to mention or where not aware of because their research was not done completely.
As to argument five. It is true that other places do have 3 year terms for their Planning Boards. The proponents again offers either incomplete or skewed information to support their argument. It is important to know who the “other place” are that “do it”. Otherwise the proponent’s argument is little more than the argument that no parent in history would except from their child “but other people are doing it”. Every parent in history has had the proper response to this kind of thinking “if other people are jumping off a bridge would you?”
As was highlighted in the previous information that I sent to the Board of Selectmen on in connection with Article 28, there are several factors that I believe have a much greater impact on whether people are interested in serving on the planning board.
- The subject matter that the Planning Board deals with. The Planning Board deals with a very specific, difficult, and to many a very uninteresting subject matter. Zoning, and myriad of rules, requirements, limitations, legal decisions, etc. that govern what the Planning Board, can/can’t/must/mustn’t do are often daunting. It can take a very long time for many people, especially those without prior background in these types of issues to become familiar with them. To many the idea of trying to do so, can be a severe deterrent on its own.
- The workload of the Planning Board. The Board holds between 20 to 22 meetings minimum per term, plus town meetings. The Board members also serve on sub-committees. The information packages for each meeting are often huge with very technical information, reports, and letters from proponents, staff, outside consultants, etc. that must be reviewed and digested prior to each hearing. The hearings can and often do run in excess of four hours.
- Compensation. As many have stated, no one gets into public service for the town to get rich. However, there is a potential correlation with interest in serving on the Planning Board and the compensation that the board members receive. If someone were to consider the workload and time requirements that the Planning Board requires and then looks at the level at which the town values that in comparison to other boards they may see the calculous as not a good tradeoff for their time. Just as a comparison and not as any reflection. The Planning Board gets 1/3 of what the School Committee gets. Perhaps if the time commitment were valued more similarly to other boards that might increase the interest of people to be interested in serving on the Planning Board.
- Respect. The Planning Board is not necessary viewed in the best light within the town. I believe that this is a combination of issues, including: Anger with decisions the Board has made, a misunderstanding of what the Board can/can’t do as well as what the Board should/shouldn’t do, the lack of people who come to hearings and voice their comments, concerns, etc., but instead do so in online comment boards, often with misleading or a lack of factual information that only serves to incite and misinform other citizens as to what the Board is or isn’t doing.
It is true that the term of office can be changed from 5 to 3 years. The question should never be can you do something, it really should always be should you do something. You can jump off the Tobin Bridge. However, if you consider it for a second you will likely realize that it is not something you should do. In this case I believe that without considering all the other factors and having all the information and not just skewed or incomplete information prevents making an informed decision of whether we should do what the proponents have proposed. I believe that that information is contained above and below in this document. If you are going to jump off a bridge it would be good to know if it is the Tobin Bridge or the Miceli Bridge.
This is one of the more flawed arguments that the proponents put forward. The proponents simply make this statement and offer no verifiable evidence to support it. The vague information that the proponents do offer if dug into do not actual backup the claim and in some cases are actually an argument in the opposite direction. In addition, it presumes that the term of office is the main problem that reduces the number of people interested in serving on the Planning Board, which is addressed above.
The proponent’s argument presumes that there has not been enough competition in Tewksbury for seats on the Planning Board in the past and that it is the term of office that causes this. This raises the question about why then has the Planning Board and the School Committee (which has a 3 year terms), had exactly the same number of contested/uncontested races over the last 10 years. Both the Planning Board and the School Committee have had 3 contested races and 7 uncontested races over that 10 year period. If the 3 year term that the School Committee has, has resulted in exactly the same rate of contested races, what does that mean for 3 year terms being a real factor? Under the proponent’s thinking should the School Committee’s term be considered to be reduced to 2 years or 1 year in order to increase competition?
Having reviewed ALL 351 cities/towns in Massachusetts there are 11 of the 96 three year Planning Boards (11%) that actually have vacancies on them (meaning they cannot even find enough people to serve three year terms). Of the non-three year boards there are only 9 boards with vacancies (3%).
Using the proponent’s supplemental information submitted to the Finance Committee (also attached to this email for reference), there are some glaring holes in this information that is presented in a way that might make someone think that the information supports the proponent’s argument when in fact after a deeper look it does not necessarily do so. The two towns that the proponent asserts that they have spoken to are Ipswich and Dedham. The proponent’s information states that they have found out that both these town have done research (which the proponents do not supply) that found that 3 year terms are better than 5 year terms for planning boards. Both of these towns have 5 member 5 year term planning boards. Neither of these towns has had or had at their most recent town meeting any or any other recent town meeting a warrant articles to change their planning board terms. This would raise the question as to why if they have “research” to the contrary why haven’t they changed their planning board size or terms? Also, Ipswich does not elect their planning board. So this would question why the proponents are using a town that does not elect its planning board to make the argument that Tewksbury should change its election terms? What would Ipswich know about electing a planning board if they do not do so themselves? This is not the only time that the proponents pick and choose the types of cities/towns they use to make their argument even when those cities/towns do no actually elect their planning boards. Of the six neighboring communities that the proponents use as comparisons in their supplemental information that have 3 year terms. Four of the six have boards larger than 5 members. This matters because it alleviates one of the extenuating consequences discussed below that is an important consideration. Two of the comparison communities have populations of less than 10K which makes them poor comparisons to Tewksbury at 30K. In addition, Billerica has only had contested races in 3 of the last 7 years. Chelmsford has only had 1 contested race in the last 10 years. So neither of these communities that the proponent tries to hold up as examples of why Tewksbury should change actually shows any better levels of competitive races with 3 year terms. In fact, Chelmsford which is held up by the proponents has actually had 2 less contented races in the last 10 years. How can the proponents offer Chelmsford up as supporting their argument? Did they not know that they have only had 1 contested race in 10 years and chose not to mention it, which would be very misleading? Or did they not know and that calls into question the level of research being done by the proponents and submitted as support for their argument? The proponents have also failed to show what towns have switched from 5 years to 3 year terms. They have also failed to show any information that of those towns that have switched to 3 year terms that competitive races have increased as a result. Also, of the 23 cities/towns that the proponents listed as to who they contacted (they are presented in a way that might lead a reader to think that these towns are towns with 3 year terms and are therefore support for the proponent’s argument. In fact 12 of the 23 have 5 year planning board terms, 5 are actually cites and not town (Everett, Braintree, Attleboro, North Attleboro, and Lowell). Methuen doesn’t even have an elected planning board. They have a different entity all together that act in place of a planning board. Four of these communities appoint their planning boards and do not elect them. While it may not have been the intention of the proponents to offer this information in a way that might mislead the reader, it is important that the above information about these communities be clarified so that no one is misled by the information.
The proponents argue that changing the term from 5 to 3 years does nothing but make the terms of office the same across all boards. Again this argument is overly simplistic and does not take into account that there are valid reasons for the Planning Board’s term to remain a 5 years. The Planning Board operates differently from other boards in town. The time table of the issues that Planning Board works under is not as stable and predictable as the other boards. The Planning Board often has hearings that can go on for weeks or months before they reach a decision. The reason this matters is that under the proponent’s proposal the Planning Board will have multiple seats up for election in multiple years. This is a problem as the Board only has 5 members. Many of the Board’s decisions require a 4/5 vote. If 2 new members are elected as the same time, then the hearings that have been ongoing will now not have sufficient members to vote on the issue. This results in the need to use the rule of necessity to allow the new incoming members to potentially vote on an issue that they have not heard one minute of testimony for. This would be neither fair for a petitioner nor for the best interests of the town. Many of the towns that the proponents point to has examples of “other places do it” have boards made up of 7 or more members. That alleviates this issue. However, the proponents have failed to recognize that this important difference it a potentially a major factor in why some of these “other places” choose to have 3 year terms and not 5. The proponent also incorrectly claim that there is some process in place to bring new board members “up to speed”. This simply untrue. There is no process in place that brings members up to speed on hearings that can potentially have been going on for months. Also, because the proponents don’t take into account the size of the “other places” that do it. They fail to take into account that the volume of work that is ongoing in these towns differs greatly from Tewksbury. For example, Florida, MA (population 752) only has two scheduled meetings per year for their planning board. Is it reasonable to make an apples to apples comparison between Florida, MA and Tewksbury, MA?
The argument that “other places do it” is another of the more flawed or vague arguments that the proponents put forward without any real supporting information. After reviewing ALL 351 cities/towns the following information is important to consider in determining if Tewksbury should be one of the towns that has a 3 year elected planning board term.
- 96 out of 351 cities/towns that have 3 year elected planning board terms, which is 27% of all the cities/towns in the Commonwealth. The remaining 73% of the cities/towns do not have 3 year elected terms.
- 44 of the 96 are in towns with less than 10K populations 45%.
- 58 of the 96 are in towns with less than 15K populations 60%.
- 72 of the 96 are in towns with less than 20K populations 75%.
This means that 75% of the towns with 3 year terms that the proponents attempt to compare Tewksbury to have a third or less of the population (30K) of Tewksbury. Only 24 towns out of the 351 cities/towns above 20K in population in the entire Commonwealth have 3 year elected planning boards. The proponents argue that Tewksbury should become only the 25th town in the Commonwealth to have 3 year elected planning boards terms and join towns like Monroe, MA population 121, Heath, MA population 706, Florida, MA population 752, and Petersham, MA population 1234.
Just so that no one can accuse me of doing the same cherry-picking of information that I a have suggested that the proponents may have done. Of the 20 towns just below and just above Tewksbury in population (40 total), 10 have 3 year terms (25%). However, 6 of those 10 are appointed planning boards and not elected. Meaning that only 4 out of the 40 actually have 3 year elected planning boards (10%). The proponents therefore are in favor of Tewksbury joining the 10% of similar size towns who have 3 year elected planning boards. As a reminder 2 of those 4 towns are Billercia which has had only 3 contested races in the last 7 years (the same number Tewksbury has had in the same period), and Chelmsford, which has had only 1 contested race in the last 10 years (Two less than Tewksbury has had in the same period).
In conclusion, the proponents have put forward a proposal that on its face may seem like a straightforward idea. However, the proponent’s proposal lacks the information to back up their position and in fact the information available suggests that their proposal is not at all straightforward and is unlikely to produce the result that the proponents claim is their goal and more likely would put Tewksbury in a category of towns that are not comparable to Tewksbury.
The proponent’s arguments do not stand up to further research and information. The 5 year term for the planning board is not in and of itself the biggest deterrent to more people running to serve on the Planning Board. Although the term can be changed to 3 years it shouldn’t be based on numerous factors. There is no evidence that there will in fact be more competition simply because the term of office is changed to 3 years instead of 5. In fact there is evidence that it will do no such thing. There are extenuating consequences that will result for the town as a result of a change from 5 years to 3 and some of those could be detrimental to the town’s best interests going forward. The vast majority of the “other places” that have 3 year elected terms are not comparable to Tewksbury for population and those that are do not support the assumption that 3 year terms will lead to more competitive elections.