Town Eyes Spring, Encourages Civic Engagement in Election

January 5, 2024
• Needham’s local election cycle has officially started. Potential candidates for public office can now pick up nomination papers, which became available Jan. 2.

A number of seats are up for grabs in April, including two on the Select Board, two on the School Committee and one on the Planning Board. A number of returning candidates have already stopped by the town clerk’s office for their papers, including Select Board Vice Chair Kevin Keane and School Committee Vice Chair Elizabeth Lee and member Michael O’Brien, Town Clerk Tedi Eaton said.

Keane, who joined the board after a special election in December 2021, said he’s hoping to serve his first full three-year term in office starting this spring. With the institution of board office hours, Keane said he aims to promote civil discourse and transparency.

“I think what I’ve seen is that those actually really do matter and they really do work, and they’re the necessary ingredients for good government,” Keane said. “So I’m eager to continue that.”

Given his seniority, Keane, if reelected, would likely become chair of the board.

Fellow Select Board member Marcus Nelson is also up for reelection, though he is not running to keep his seat, per the Needham Observer. Nelson cited the cost of living in town as a factor, stating he’s “not sure I can afford to stay.”

Keane stressed the importance of following and participating in local government, as it’s “where the rubber hits the road.” The Department of Public Works is largely responsible for keeping Needham up and running, he added.

“Your water, sewer and snow all are managed by town government, and that’s a huge one,” Keane said. “If we’re living the life of ‘The Truman Show,’ they’re the people that are moving the set and making our lives livable.”

Jeanne McKnight, a longtime Planning Board member, will also not be seeking reelection for her open five-year term, instead focusing her energies on her “second stage of retirement,” she told Needham Local.

After her appointment to the board in 2006 — following the resignation of a former member — McKnight ran uncontested in all three of her Planning Board races, which she said signaled residents’ trust in her experience and dedication to the position.

A retired municipal attorney, McKnight documented her time working carefully. In 2023 alone, McKnight said she clocked close to 400 hours on Planning Board matters, though the actual tally is probably higher given the other committees on which she represents the board.

Her successor shouldn’t underestimate the required effort and energy they’ll need to become a productive participant, McKnight said.

“To be a member of a board, you have to review the material that comes in ahead of time to be prepared,” she said.

Engaging with constituents is a highlight of Keane’s campaign season, he said, as their perspectives help shape the Select Board’s agenda.

The use of leaf blowers may appear as a ballot question this election, thanks to a number of local advocates, Keane said. That, as well as the recent passage and partial implementation of a citizens petition on plastic bags, symbolize a level of involvement in local politics that’s “refreshing,” Keane said.

Still, voter turnout in local elections is usually low, Eaton said.

“If you have a lot of incumbents and not a lot of contests, it’s really not very high,” Eaton said, “maybe 15%.”

The League of Women Voters of Needham, which looks to increase civic engagement and inform voters on local issues, will host a candidates night and a forum for any contested races, the league’s Voter Service Chair Jennifer Geraci said. During last year’s election, Geraci found that some didn’t even know there was an election, which was “painful.”

Local elections greatly impact Needhamites’ day-to-day lives, Geraci said. To spread awareness, the league creates guides for voters and candidates running for office and is also launching a reusable sign campaign called Needham Votes.

Having representation at town government is important, Geraci said, which is why there should be more than one candidate vying for a seat.

“You want choices. You certainly want people who have their own opinions to have a choice on who they feel might better be in that role, and be able to elect that person,” Geraci said. “If we don’t have a contested race, we don’t have a choice.”

McKnight encourages those interested in politics to start by volunteering on a committee — before her time on the Planning Board, she joined the League of Women Voters. Needham is “a community blessed with a lot of community engagement,” she said. McKnight said she plans to stay involved as a Town Meeting member.

To qualify for the ballot, candidates for town office will need at least 50 signatures by Feb. 20, Eaton said, though she advises they return with 60 just in case. New candidates for Town Meeting will need at least 10 signatures from their precinct. Incumbent Town Meeting members must file a notice of candidacy one week prior, by Feb. 13.

One-third of Town Meeting members are up for reelection each year, with a total of 81 seats open this spring. After the deadline passes for incumbent members to file, prospective candidates will be able to ascertain which seats in which precincts will be vacant.

The town election is Tuesday, April 9. Until then, “it’s going to be a busy office,” Eaton said.

Here is a list of the additional open seats:

  • Assessor (one three-year term)
  • Board of Health (two three-year terms)
  • Commissioner of trust funds (one three-year term)
  • Trustees of Memorial Park, one veteran and one non-veteran (two three-year terms)
  • Trustees of the Needham Free Public Library (two three-year terms)
  • Needham Housing Authority (one five-year term)
  • Parks and Recreation Commission (two three-year terms)
  • School Committee (two three-year terms)
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