Wrentham Town Charter Amendments Proposed
Submitted by Jerry McGovern
Wrentham’s Town Meeting on November 13 will ask residents to vote on several proposed amendments to the Wrentham Home Rule Charter. The Charter, first enacted on January 1, 2015, codified the Town’s structure, authorities, and processes to help ensure operational consistency.
The Charter requires that a special committee be established at least once every 10 years for the purpose of reviewing the charter and to make a report to the Town Meeting concerning any proposed amendments.
The Charter Review Committee (CRC) met from May – October to develop proposed amendments and receive public feedback. Based on the reviews and feedback, a draft amended charter was finalized and provided for public review on October 12.
The Substantive Proposed Amendments
The most substantive proposals are to change several elected boards and officials to appointed boards and officials. The affected boards and officials are:
• Board of Assessors
• Board of Health
• Library Board of Trustees
• Town Constables
• Town Clerk
The Election Trend
Over the last six years (2018-2023) there have been 24 races for these positions (not including Town Clerk). Twelve of the 24 races did not have a candidate and required a write-in vote to fill the office. The winning candidates averaged 20 votes (eight received less than 20 votes). This is less than half of the required number of signatures to get on the ballot.
These are positions that have important regulatory and statutory requirements. The impact is an ever-increasing complexity and an associated need to have requisite competencies and qualifications for the positions. This is exacerbated by unchallenged elections and a reliance on write-in candidates. There is significantly less scrutiny and an increased risk to effective town operations and compliance with regulatory and statutory requirements.
The Working Solution
Currently, when a mid-term vacancy for an elected position occurs (which is common), the procedure to fill the vacancy involves a joint meeting between the affected board and the Select Board. This involves interviews with interested individuals in open meeting. It has the effect of providing more rigorous scrutiny on experience and qualifications than occurs with write-in votes.
Under the proposed amendments, this appointment procedure would expand to all the above positions except for the Town Clerk. This is already the procedure for the Appeals Board, Conservation Commission, Council on Aging, and Recreation Commission. They are all highly effective and maintain the necessary independence of action even though appointed. This appointment practice provides increased scrutiny and is beneficial to the affected board as it allows them to recruit highly qualified volunteers and provide their recommendation to the Select Board.
The Biggest Challenge
Changing the Town Clerk’s position from elected to appointed is significant. This is a position steeped in history and tradition. But the job is much more demanding in 2023 than it ever was before. As an elected position, the only requirement is for the individual to be a registered town voter. No background or experience is required.
Our current Town Clerk has done an absolutely terrific job, and even more so when considering all that has changed in the last four years. But the next Town Clerk will not be entering a “clerks” job. The position has grown such that it would more appropriately be titled “Director of Elections and Public Records.” This is not an entry level position. The need to direct and manage all the changes to election procedures (early voting, mail in voting, etc.) as well as increased provisions for properly maintaining and providing public records alone presents a risk to the Town unless properly done. This is not a job that allows a learning curve.
For full disclosure, the CRC is not unanimous on this proposal. But the majority of the CRC believe that by making the position appointed, it not only opens the field of applicants beyond Wrentham residents, more importantly it enables the town to hire someone with experience and a proven record. It is meant to safeguard our election procedures and your public records.
The proposals to change elected boards and officials are meant to be thought provoking. In discussions thus far, the primary argument against the proposals is that they reduce the opportunity for residents to vote on important positions. There is merit to this argument.
But the trends show that there are fewer people that want to run for an elected office at the same time as these positions are becoming increasingly complex. With so many elected positions requiring write-in votes, and with the elected member so often being chosen by a number that is less than the required number of signatures to get on the ballot, this opens the Town to a risk, especially when considering the knowledge and experience needed to adhere to statutory and regulatory requirements. Quite frankly, the CRC would be extremely remiss to not offer an alternative, especially since the alternative is already in practice and proven to be effective.
Appointments for these offices are becoming increasingly common for towns in our Commonwealth. Every new or amended town charter that we have researched for the past five years has included these changes. At least 130 towns have transitioned from an elected town clerk to an appointed position, and the numbers are also in line with the other boards included in the proposals. The CRC has received strong feedback that the transitions have been highly effective and have become widely accepted once implemented.
The proposals are intended to provide and safeguard what is best for effective, professional, and compliant town management going forward. The proposed amendments are not a reflection on past or current performance but are to address current trends and increasing complexities going forward. It is not about the last 10 years, it is about the next 10 years.
This does not sacrifice tradition or the right to vote. Our town government is based on Town Meeting as our legislative body. Nothing in these proposals changes that.
The proposed amendments will be decided by the voters at Town Meeting.
More information is at: https://www.wrentham.gov/government/boards_committees/charter_review_committee/ .
The CRC consists of Kevin Sweet, Town Administrator; Cindy Thompson, Town Clerk; Jim Anderson, Select Board; Mike King, Town Finance Director; and Jerry McGovern, Chairman and Citizen-at-Large.