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HAMPDEN — Marking the completion of their report to the town, the Government Study Committee presented a summary of its year-long review along with their findings and recommendations ahead of the May 13 Town Meeting.

At the April 4 public forum, members of the committee worked from a six-page synopsis of their 34-page report to offer articles to be submitted for the Town Meeting warrant. The articles recommend changes to the Board of Selectmen, revisions to how some town positions are filled as well as modifications to the current voting protocols at Town Meetings.

As indicated in their report, the committee had met with representatives from the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association’s Form of Government Committee, eliciting the perspective of current and former town administrators and members of town government from across the commonwealth.

The committee’s research looked at towns of equivalent size, area and demographics throughout the state and across Western Massachusetts.

The forum followed an April 1 meeting the committee had with members of the Board of Selectmen and outlined other recommendations the committee compiled in their report.

Leading the public discussion, committee member Keith Pixley presented the articles identified as recommended additions for the Town Meeting Warrant.

An article proposing an increase in the current number of members on the Board of Selectmen from 3 to 5, beginning with the 2025 town election, the town would elect three new selectmen to serve with the two members of the old board who are not up for election.

Pixley addressed questions from community members regarding the proposal stating that among their reasonings was the adherence to the public meeting laws.

“We arrived at that recommendation based upon a variety of different factors,” Pixley said. “Some of them were concerns that we had with the open meeting law with a board of three.”

He also pointed to the potential for a more even division of the workload among a five-member board as opposed to the responsibilities shouldered by three people and the reduced likelihood of an Open Meeting Law violation if a member were to miss a meeting for any reason.

Pixley said there were concerns raised that finding additional people to serve on the board may be a challenge as well as possible slowdowns to the governing process.

Committee member Eric Brewer said increasing the size of the board was a major topic of discussion.

“This was the single most debated suggestion in our entire deliberations, we went back and forth on this,” he said. “Personally, my biggest concern is that if we can’t get enough people to serve on boards and committees now, why we think we’re going to get enough to serve as selectmen?”

Brewer said he ultimately agreed with Pixley that lightening the load of responsibilities would help encourage others to get involved and perhaps bring younger to local government.

A second proposed warrant article would seek to change the long-used name of the Board of Selectmen to Select Board or Selectboard, also altering the titles currently used from “Selectmen” to “Selectboard member.”

The specific proposal would require two articles in the Town Meeting warrant to address general town bylaws as well as zoning bylaws. In discussion, committee members said the reasoning involves issues of inclusivity, attracting the interest of younger members into town government and also acknowledging that many towns across the commonwealth have effected similar changes.

Committee findings also strongly recommended that no matter its size, “the Board of Selectmen extricate itself from the day-to-day administration of the town,” stating in their report, we heard repeatedly that the board ‘needs to stay in their lane,’” involving itself only in administrative and personnel issues when necessary.

“Day-to-day management should be delegated to the town administrator,” the report recommends.
In reference to the roles of the town administrator and the Board of Selectmen, the committee findings indicate the roles of both should be more clearly defined.

A third and fourth proposal would suggest articles bringing change to current town offices, suggesting a vote to alter the selection process for the Office of the Town Clerk from an elected to an appointed post.

A subsequent proposed article would merge the present treasurer and tax collector roles, be combining them into one position and also making that position an appointed post as opposed to choosing the position through Town election.

Pixley said the reasoning behind that is not offered as a criticism of those currently in those roles but as those positions become vacant, how best are they filled with the most qualified people?

Election requirements, he said, limit the field of possible candidates to those who reside in the town while not necessarily ensuring someone qualified would be installed in the office.

“If the position is appointed, what it would do is allow the town to create a job description, to post a job, to interview candidates that could come from outside the borders of Hampden and make sure that we have someone qualified and able to do those jobs.”

Appointees or hires would become town employees and a town administrator would potentially have the ability to remove a person from a position if deemed necessary. Members of the committee noted however, that the role and authority of the town administrator is still currently being defined.

The final proposal brought forth by the committee would replace or expand the methods of voting at Town Meetings.

“When a question is determined by a ballot vote,” the proposal reads, “every person voting shall have his or her name checked by the check list of the Registrars of Voters before depositing the ballot in the receptacle provided. Subject to the availability of a system to enable electronic voting, nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent the Moderator, at his/her discretion, from counting the vote on any matter before the Town Meeting by the use of such system.”

The bylaw change would not be a mandate or requirement but instead an alternative to the present show of hands process.

Pixley referred to “a common theme” regarding public participation in town government where publicly offering a vote in the company of others who may feel differently create hesitation or apprehension.

“We think if we had a method of voting that wasn’t necessarily, you’re wearing your vote on your sleeve or holding it up in the air, that you may get more people who’d be apt to come to a Town Meeting if they didn’t think that they may feel pressure to vote publicly one way or another.” He said. “An electronic voting system may help with that issue.”

Discussions among the committee raised concerns in electronic or remote voting and whether current state laws would be adhered to by a change in the process.

The report itself addresses and identifies several other issues not proposed as articles for the Town Meeting warrant including the move to a “strong” town administrator, a system for maintaining citizen engagement, including volunteers to serve on town boards and committees.

The Committee findings also recommend avenues of improvement in town communications, including the appointment of information technology and facilities managers.

Summarizing the conclusions and findings contained in the report, Brewer said that town governments exist at the pleasure of the state government and while acknowledging that this Government Study Committee is Hampden’s first, he said it should by no means be the town’s last.

“We need another one soon,” he said.” And we need it to be a reoccurring thing because the world is changing, a state is very unlikely to return money or power to towns, so we need to be able to change with the times and figure out how to work within the constraints that the state gives us.”
Committee Chair Donna Hatch agreed.

“There’s more work to be done,” she said. “This is just a start.”

The full report is available online at hampdenma.gov

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