By BEA LEWIS, for The Laconia Daily Sun
TILTON — Townspeople will be asked to vote on whether the Board of Selectmen should be reduced in size from five members to three.
As a result of a petitioned warrant article signed by more than double the required 25 registered voters, the issue will be on the ballot when local residents go to the polls during the municipal elections on Tuesday, March 14.
As state law mandates that any petition to change the size of the Board of Selectmen must be on the ballot for a yes or no vote, there will be no opportunity for Town Meeting discussion. A public hearing to allow people to become fully informed of the pros and cons of the petition before they head to the voting booth has been scheduled for next week.
That hearing will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m., on the second floor of Town Hall, 275 Main St., immediately following a municipal budget hearing.
Tilton residents supported a petitioned warrant article in 1998, by a vote of 206 to 176, to increase the size of the board from three members to five. The change went into effect in March 1999, when two new members were elected to staggered terms. Town Administrator Joyce Fulweiler said it's not clear what the original impetus was for enlarging the board or who petitioned to get the question on the ballot. The law allowing residents to adjust the size of their board by ballot vote has been on the books since 1967.
If townspeople vote to reduce the size of the board, candidates for all three seats would be elected anew in March 2018, to staggered terms – one for one year, one for two years and one for three years.
Scott Davis, who drafted the petition, said he supports making the switch back to three members. The petition attracted the signatures of some 60 residents, including former selectmen Bob Brown and Joe Plessner, who was among the first to serve on the five-member board.
"My main purpose is to address the micromanaging going on by some members of the board," said Davis.
He believes the selectmen's job is to discuss policy, set it and then vote it in. Town department heads are then tasked with following established policy. Davis claims some members of the current board direct staff in all departments.
"It has to be handcuffing to town employees," Davis said, maintaining it is not uncommon to see at least two selectmen in Town Hall at the same time, on a near daily basis.
"The staff is very capable but you can't do your job when each selectman is telling you something different," Davis said.
Making the switch would halt the micromanagement, according to Davis, as two members of a three-member board in town hall at the same time creates a quorum which constitutes a "meeting" under the Right to Know
He also eyes the switch as improving efficiency. The current board meets weekly, and their sessions are often lengthy, while in past years, selectmen have met bi-monthly. A three-member board with staggered terms, Davis said, might also encourage new candidates to run, because of the shortened commitment.
Patricia Consentino who now chairs the Board of Selectmen opposes the measure.
"I strongly suggest people vote no. I don't think it's in the best interest of the town of Tilton."
When she served on a three-member board in the Town of Atkinson years ago, Consentino said, it proved to be very contentious. Split votes were common and progress was slow. Five members, she said, bring additional perspectives and opinions to issues.
"I can't stress enough we have a phenomenal board that has come to some very difficult decisions. We don't always agree, but we always come to resolve," she said.
The larger board allows the work load to be divided, with various members assigned as the selectmen's representative on various boards and commissions. Because three members of the board are retired, a selectman is also available during the day to meet with a resident if needed, or attend meetings on behalf of the town that occur during business hours.
Reducing the size of the board, Consentino said, will stifle volunteerism and heap even more work on the town administrator, who she said is already overburdened.
Fellow Selectman Jonathan Scanlon supports the status quo and believes a five-member board gives citizens better access to their elected officials.
Many townspeople are unaware of the behind-the-scenes work done by the board that saves taxes dollars, Scanlon said, noting that during the search for a new Public Works director, two selectmen volunteered their time to provide day to day oversight of the highway crew.
To save on staff overtime, Scanlon said, selectmen take turns raising and lowering the flag to half-staff on weekends when the state issues a flag status alert. The board also rotate doing before and after inspections at Island Park and Riverfront Park when the facilities are reserved for private use.
A bigger board also allows for broader participation on the numerous town committees and commissions as well as other regional agencies and organizations that require a selectmen representative.
In the Lakes Region, three-member boards are in the majority. The towns of Alton, Ashland, Bristol, Holderness, Meredith, Moultonborough, Plymouth and Wolfeboro have five-member boards.
Don Jutton of Municipal Resources Inc., said it has been his experience in working with some 600 municipalities throughout New England that the size of the board doesn't matter, but personalities do.
"There really isn't an advantage in either having a three-member board or five. It is personality driven," said Jutton, who served as Meredith town manager before founding MRI.
"Some five member boards do great work and some three-member boards perform horribly, and vice versa," he continued.
Jetton believes three-member boards are more common, but said over the past 15 to 20 years the number of five-member boards is increasing in large part due to what is perceived as an expanded work load.
Municipalities that don't have a town manager and rely on a part-time administrative assistant are most apt to have larger boards, Jutton said.
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