March 16, 2023
• Needham Town Meeting members will need to decide whether a few elected positions should be appointed by the Select Board instead.
reported by Yuxiao Yuan
The elections process is the cornerstone of our government, and a responsibility every citizen should take seriously. However, low voter turnout, poor understanding of what certain positions do, and the need for specific knowledge to hold key positions can translate into voter and candidate apathy–especially when the jurisdiction of the position is specific to a town or district. Is it better to have people appointed to these positions or is there a better way to stimulate people to run and cast a ballot? This question is being posed to Needham this April.
A recent proposal to appoint certain elected positions raised concerns among residents who fear losing their voice in the election process. At the Select Board public hearing on Tuesday, March 14th, locals made their voice heard.
Based on its recent studies of Needham’s elected boards and officials, the League of Women Voters of Needham recommended changing certain positions from elected to appointed. Specifically Constables, Commissioners of Trust Funds and Board of Assessors could be appointed by the Select Board as they often run uncontested during elections.
“As a result, voters are less inclined to assess whether candidates are qualified for the positions,” explained Carol Patey, President of the League of Women Voters of Needham. “That’s not to say at all that our present officials are not qualified. Rather, it advocates for that determination to be made more consistently by an appointing authority who looks at the position needs and the qualifications of the applicants.”
Some officials who currently hold the affected positions spoke out against the change. Joe Scalia, chair of the Commissioners of Trust funds brought a dense manual that had been compiled by a previous member to demonstrate the commitment of elected officials to their roles. Speaking of Ford Peckham, Scalia said,”He spent weeks and weeks over months and months in the Treasurer’s Office, copying each and every one of the trust funds and all the legal documents pertaining to each one as well as the correspondence behind each one. Then he made copies of all of them for each of the commissioners and one for the Treasurer of the town. These manuals are passed on when people leave the office. I say to myself, ‘Would an appointed official go to that (extent)?'”
The Commissioners of Trust Funds are responsible for managing various funds donated to the town as bequests, either in honor of a person or for a specific purpose. Their role involves investing these funds in the manner consistent with the donor’s wishes and prudently growing those assets over time. Commissioner Dan Burns, who also serves as the chief financial officer of a multi-client family office for high net worth families, emphasized the importance of maintaining the independence of this function.
“I think keeping sort of a maximum distance between the politics of it, meaning…the town politics of this board versus the management, both of the disbursement process and of the investment process, because those are two separate pieces of our mandate, I think that’s just really important.”
Barry Pollack, a member of the Board of Assessors, also spoke out against the proposal, citing his own experience as a write-in candidate. He pointed it out that in 2021, there were no candidates on the ballot for this position, and he won with 233 votes compared to the incumbent candidate who received 107 votes on a write-in campaign.
“In total, three hundred and forty voters wrote in names for both candidates. Three hundred and forty write-in votes. They didn’t have to just fill in an oval, they wrote in names. That’s democracy.”
Finance Committee member Joshua Levy spoke about the importance of maintaining the independence of the Board of Assessors, which is responsible for evaluating property values and plays a key role in the taxation process. “In order for residents to continue to feel comfortable that their taxes are being appropriately assessed and fairly assessed, I think they want to see that independence of different boards having different functions.”
While many attendees agreed there is often a lack of competition for certain town positions, they shared the view that appointment was not a solution to this problem. Pollack cautioned, “I don’t think the solution is the anti-democratic way of moving election to appointment.”
Attending the hearing on Zoom, Henry Ragin wondered where the line would be drawn in the future.”After these three boards, what about Trustee of Memorial (Park), for example? What about other boards, which are largely uncontested that we see, and how far down that road are we gonna go before we, say, before we have very few boards being elected?”
Levy suggested another approach would be to engage more citizens. “A better thing to do would be to try to educate the populace more, communicate more with the populace, let them know what these positions do and how they can be involved affecting change in these positions and affecting meaningful change in the town.”
The proposal will be put to a vote at the Annual Town Meeting in May. The Select Board is anticipated to announce their stance on the matter prior to the meeting.