Select Board Perspectives: Time to Revamp Appointment Process?
In preparation for the upcoming town election on June 20, 2023, Marblehead Beacon asked the candidates for each contested office a series of questions based on current controversies or areas of interest. The first question addressed to the six candidates for five open seats on the Select Board focuses on issues of transparency and good governance as approved by attendees during the recent Town Meeting.
Question number two revolves around the appointment process. The Select Board, as the central governing authority of Marblehead, is responsible for filling a large number of appointed positions. These range from the well known – such as the Harbors & Waters Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the Finance Committee – to the more obscure – including, for example, the Forest Warden, the Keeper of the Lock Up, and the Measurer of Leather. All told, the Select Board is responsible for approximately 200 appointments each year.
Typically, at the Select Board meeting in June immediately following the annual town election, the newly seated Board reappoints sitting appointees to the positions they had previously filled.
Last year, during the June 22, 2022 meeting, board member Alexa Singer made a motion – seconded by Erin Noonan – to reconsider this process, suggesting “that all the reappointments be made for a 3-month term, to October 1, 2022, during which time the Select Board shall look at developing a policy on all volunteer and not statutory appointments and reappointments and review best practices for Mass Municipal Associations of Select Boards,” as noted in the meeting minutes.
When Select Board Chair Moses Grader stated his belief that “we have a process in place” and that “I personally think that we do execute on best practices,” Singer replied that the appointment process “is one of the most important things we do” and that there is “no set understanding of what turnover looks like.” She expressed her concern that, while the Select Board notes its desire to encourage volunteers and diversification, it is “hard for new people to come along” and serve.
Jackie Belf-Becker disagreed strongly, expressing her belief that it would be “very disrespectful” and “outrageous” to change the appointment process, noting that “we have not had issues” and “I think that everything is running smoothly.” When Singer pushed back, asking when would be an appropriate time to introduce the possibility of considering new volunteers in the place of long-serving appointees, or changing the timing of the appointment process, Belf-Becker replied, “In my opinion, it doesn’t need to happen.”
There was significant back and forth, with Grader noting his perception that “it’s a beautiful system frankly” and “Marblehead is a model for other communities,” and Noonan replying to Belf-Becker’s concern, stating, “I disagree with the notion that it is disrespectful to ask to have a conversation about this.” The ultimate vote on Singer’s motion was three to two against, with Select Board member Jim Nye joining Belf-Becker and Grader in voting it down.
In light of these disagreements about the need to modify or reconsider the appointment process, Marblehead Beacon asked the Select Board candidates:
What is your perception of how the Select Board has performed in terms of appointing members to the Finance Committee, Harbor and Waters Board, and others? For some appointed roles, the Board has chosen not to consider new members in favor of what are sometimes years-long re-appointments of incumbents. How do you reconcile this failure to consider new appointees with a commitment to selecting the best qualified applicants? Are there steps you plan to take to avoid the perception that there might be conflicts of interest in appointments or policies advocated by the Select Board?
The replies we received are provided below, in alphabetical order, similar to our first Select Board article, but this time starting with the second candidate in the rotation.
Did not respond to Marblehead Beacon's request to participate in our questionnaire.
“No one should have a lifetime appointment to any board or committee. Regular turnover is important for many reasons. It allows new individuals to step up, share their ideas and serve the town they love. Should I be elected to the Select Board, anyone who has served on a committee or board for ten or more years will likely not get my vote for reappointment. I commend and thank everyone who has volunteered their time, but it is in the town’s best interest to have regular turnover on all our boards.”
Did not respond to Marblehead Beacon's request to participate in our questionnaire.
“We have an incredible pool of talent and volunteers in Marblehead, and I’m so grateful for the time so many individuals have given on our appointed boards. However, we are missing an opportunity to balance institutional knowledge and healthy board turnover so that new voices, ideas, and expertise can be capitalized on. In our first meeting, Alexa Singer and I were shocked by the lack of process regarding board appointments. Currently, all members are automatically re-appointed unless they choose to step down. There is no evaluation process in place to determine effectiveness, and we do not actively recruit new individuals who may bring specific subject area expertise or alternative perspectives.
The Board’s appointment process must ensure town boards are evolving and not stagnating, as well as fostering a healthy diversity of backgrounds, ages, genders and professional skillsets. For these reasons, Alexa Singer and I have repeatedly advocated at the Board for a clear and thoughtful policy to accomplish these aims. The other three Select Board members have dismissed this request and believe the existing process is working perfectly well. I hope the voters will consider this issue in particular in the June election.
I do not have a monopoly on ideas for what should be included in a sound Select Board policy and process on appointments, but would propose at least the following concepts:
- Board appointments not required by state law should be taken up by the Board on a more deliberative cycle not aligned with town elections so that any new member(s) has adequate opportunity to review said appointments and understand board needs;
- Existing appointees should reapply on a periodic basis, in conjunction with solicitation of new volunteers for the position, and one-year volunteer terms should be eliminated in favor of multi-year appointments;
- The paramount qualification for the Select Board’s consideration of an appointee should be how the individual’s background, experience and skillset align to the board’s mission and duties;
- In its review of reappointments, the Select Board should consider the individual’s tenure on their board, including accomplishments, public engagement and attendance at board meetings;
- On occasion, the Select Board may choose a new volunteer over an incumbent who has ably performed their duties, in order to accomplish the aims stated above;
- Among equally qualified candidates, the Select Board should affirmatively ensure diverse representation, as the status quo allows far too many boards that are comprised overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, of men over the age of 60; and
- Per Massachusetts Conflict of Interest Law, Board members should support and enforce the public disclosure of any familial, business, employment and monetary connection to potential appointees and recuse themselves as appropriate when such ethical conflict or even the appearance of conflict exists."
"There are so many qualified, amazing volunteers in Marblehead. I am blown away by the talent and compassion of our town. Appointing new members to any of our boards and committees can be one of the most challenging things we face. These decisions have kept me awake at night. We often must select between several qualified applicants. This is an important process and one we should not take lightly. Last June I advocated for the Board to take three months to reevaluate our appointment process. I asked to discuss options to address the need to allow for new volunteers to participate while still respecting our current ones. The Board did not support this request. There is specific guidance available from the Office of the Inspector General regarding “How to be an Effective Member of a Public Board or Commission” to serve as a template and address board expectations. It is a document highlighting many areas of concern. We must continue to address this challenge."
I do my homework and due diligence when appointing any position when someone is interviewed.