Three-year terms for Marblehead Select Board? Proposal headed back to Town Meeting

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The proposal pops up periodically — including as recently as the 2020 Town Meeting. But is this the year that voters decide to extend the terms of members of the Select Board from one to three years?

Article sponsor Jim Zisson certainly hopes so.

His research has shown that Marblehead is an outlier among towns with select boards in electing their members annually.

A common misconception is that the Select Board is like a city council, Zisson said. The two bodies may have a similar number of members, but the similarities end there, he explained.

“The Select Board is an executive function,” more like a mayor, Zisson said.

Mayors almost always serve multi-year terms, which makes sense, Zisson argued.

“The reason is there are a lot of long-term strategies and objectives that need to be addressed,” he said.

With nomination papers now available at the Town Clerk’s Office, another Marblehead election cycle is underway. While most voters might mark the beginning of the season by the signs they see sprouting on lawns, for the candidates, the quiet part of the campaign began months ago for many, Zisson suggested.

That constant need to campaign is hardly conducive to long-term planning, Zisson believes.

Having brought a similar proposal to Town Meeting two years ago, Zisson said he can already anticipate some of the objections.

He stressed that his proposal is in no way a referendum on the current Select Board.

“It’s really about doing a better job [in general],” he said.

The other issue many have with three-year terms is tradition.

“Marblehead has been electing selectmen to one-year terms for 374 years,” he expects to hear.

But when that first Select Board was elected in 1649, the life expectancy was about 38 years old, and “committing one year of one’s life was a big deal,” he said.

Moreover, the town has eschewed tradition when circumstances have demanded it or society has evolved, Zisson added. The number of Select Board members was once seven, for example. In addition, women had not been allowed to attend the first Town Meeting, he noted.

Zisson said he has also heard the argument that one-year terms are good because they force the Select Board members to be out talking with their constituents. But he views this suggestion as something of a red herring. Even Select Board members elected to three-year terms would be well-advised to keep abreast of the townspeople’s concerns, Zisson said.

He suggested that having three-year terms would also be healthier for the Select Board members themselves, as it would allow them to grow into their roles without feeling a sense of urgency to make things happen in a 12-month span. 

While the Marblehead Select Board has been stable in recent years, it is a “real possibility” with one-year terms that, at some point, the town’s voters could wipe out an entire incumbent board and elect five new members. 

“I’m not sure that would be the best thing for the town,” he said.

Incumbent board split

Among current members of the Select Board, views are divided on the issue of term length. The newer board members support the concept of three-year terms, while the longer-tenured members prefer to retain the one-year terms.

Member Erin Noonan said in an email reply to the Current’s inquiry that she is “very much in favor” of three-year staggered terms.

“Aside from Lowell, which has two-year terms that are all up at the same time, there appears to be no other town in the Commonwealth with this model,” she noted.

Even within Marblehead, only the town moderator and members of the Recreation and Parks Commission are elected annually, she added.

Noonan said she can personally attest to the burden of needing to be in campaign mode constantly, with only brief respites.

“In that respect, it stifles participation in the process, which is not good for democracy,” she wrote. “It’s a significant undertaking for people to be successful, and we need more talented residents to volunteer to participate, not less, in order for our town government to function at an optimal level.”

Not only do new members need to get up to speed, but it is also hard to judge anyone’s performance after only eight or nine months on the job, she suggested.

One-year terms inhibit a healthy turnover of leadership because a candidate needs only to land in the top five, rather than win a particular seat, to remain in office.

“Finally, the change would reduce what I jokingly refer to as ‘sign pollution’ every 12 months in this town, which is something I think most people can get behind,” she wrote.

Member Alexa Singer agreed with Zisson that a three-year term would foster the development of long-term strategies and the execution of thoughtful planning.

“Under the current structure, a Select Board member could serve on a committee and be in the middle of a planning phase of a project during an election,” she wrote in an email. “If the member is not re-elected, the entire committee would lose valuable time bringing on a new member.”

She added, “The Select Board should be focusing primarily on the execution of their roles and responsibilities rather than losing momentum with yearly elections. A three-year term allows for a member of the Select Board to participate in a way that still holds them accountable to the voter, while providing the least disruption to the goals of the town.”

On the other hand, Chair Moses Grader said that, while he does not “come down hard on any one side or the other,” keeping one-year terms comes out ahead when he lines up the pros and cons of each approach.

“The pros are that one-year terms gives voters the opportunity to grade all the Select Board members every year and the opportunity to quickly correct boards that are dysfunctional or are not working well together,” he wrote in an email.

He noted that, despite the short term length, Marblehead Select Boards have counterintuitively been quite stable over time.

“It also keeps members on their toes since they have to run and get a reality check every year,” he wrote.

Grader acknowledged the “cons” of one-year terms — not only the need to campaign constantly but the more difficult task they pose for challengers, at least when there are no open seats to pursue.

“I suppose, too, that a con for some is that the incumbent’s advantage can keep members on the board for too long,” he said.

But at the end of the day, Grader said he believes that there is a reason the town has not abandoned its centuries-old practice of electing Select Board members for one year.

“I think folks generally see the value of being able to change out a board quickly if the board dynamic is not working, while also preserving the option of maintaining continuity of experience by voting for members that they like and think are doing a good job,” he wrote, adding that he believes the annual vote “tends to create consistent incentives for board members to cooperate together and focus on the work of the town.”

Member Jackie Belf-Becker said she has “mixed emotions” about the renewed proposal to extend the Select Board’s terms to three years, noting that she has been open to the idea in the past.

However, given the challenges the town is currently facing, she believes that it would be detrimental not to let the town’s voters decide on the composition of the board every year, at least for the time being.

Member Jim Nye could not be reached before the Current’s deadline.

Effect of ‘yes’ vote

If voters at Town Meeting approve Zisson’s proposal, it would take effect for the 2024 election and make the stakes in that election higher than usual. The top two vote-getters in the race for Select Board would receive the initial three-year terms; the next two finishers would get two-year terms at the outset; and the fifth-place finisher would have to run for re-election to a full three-year term in 2025.

If nothing else, Zisson said he is looking forward to the proposal getting a full airing in a more traditional Town Meeting setting. Two years ago, his article was narrowly defeated at the end of a long meeting held outdoors due to the pandemic, after at least some voters had left — not that he is making excuses.

This year, as long as the articles are taken in order, there will be 10 articles behind his, at least some of which should be compelling enough to keep people in their seats.

Zisson said he has also been asked why he did not incorporate the Recreation and Parks Commission in his proposal. He tends to agree that Rec and Parks “would be a good candidate” to shift to three-year terms, too.

But ultimately, he decided it was wiser to take things one step at a time.

“My answer to that is that change happens very slowly in Marblehead,” he said.

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