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Select Board struggles to fill committee seats, some question process

As terms for many of Harvard’s volunteer board and committee members near their end dates, the Select Board is left with the daunting task of filling the seats of those who do not wish to serve again. On June 30 this year, terms will end for 53 appointed volunteers. Most want to be reappointed, but 14 do not, and the committees that need new members include boards vital to the town’s day-to-day operations as well as its future such as the Planning Board, the Conservation Commission, and the Parks and Recreation Commission.

The Select Board is responsible for appointing a total of 145 people on 30 boards and committees. Staggered terms keep each year’s total to about a third of that. The number used to be smaller, but the adoption of the Harvard Charter in 2018 added 21 positions to the Select Board’s appointee list, and six new committees with 19 appointed positions have been created since then.

The process to find new members is twofold. Residents can submit volunteer applications at any time, specifying which boards they’d like to serve on, and those applications are kept on file for three years. When vacancies exist, those applications are considered. But historically the number of applications has been low, so that means most new members must be recruited.

Select Board Chair Stu Sklar told the Press every board and committee in town is assigned a member of the Select Board as a liaison, and during recruitment time, liaisons are responsible for contacting their assigned committees to ask for possible names. But he thinks that process is “fundamentally flawed.” He said typically board members suggest their friends who’ve expressed an interest in volunteering, and that encourages “groupthink.” He added that it’s easy to live in town and not know anyone in volunteer government, so the current process limits the pool of recruits.

Revert to elected positions?

When the Harvard Charter was adopted, five previously elected boards became appointed—Board of Health, Cemetery Commission, Community Preservation Committee, Parks and Recreation Commission, and the Planning Board. Sklar said one of the purposes of appointing instead of electing those five boards was to help the Select Board “keep everyone rowing in the same direction.” But, he said, “I don’t see it happening.” Fellow Select Board member Kara Minar agrees. She told the Press that while she understands the charter’s desire to streamline a community vision by placing more power in the hands of the Select Board, she’s not convinced it works in practice.

Both Sklar and Minar would like to see the committees that became appointed under the charter go back to being elected. Sklar’s term comes to a close after the May 17 election. He said he and a group of ex-Select Board members plan to lobby to repeal or dramatically amend the charter, and he’d like to see a citizen petition to do that in time for Town Meeting in October.

Minar said having the community choose who will represent them enables voters to hold board members accountable if they’re unhappy with the direction a board takes. She said it’s especially important for those wishing to serve on the Planning Board to “explain their vision for town planning to the community and to outline how they intend to achieve those goals.”

But according to Paul Cohen, Harvard’s former town administrator and Charter Commission chair, that’s not how it should work. He told the Press one of the commission’s main goals was to foster a cohesive town government, with a vision established by the Select Board and communicated to other town boards, which would be held accountable for making that vision a reality. He said this is critical to meet the challenges currently facing the town, such as the disposition of Devens, development of the commercial district, creation of affordable housing, and investment in municipal buildings, infrastructure, and open space. He still believes the charter has it right. “Rather than fracturing the coordination of the direction of the community, it would be preferable for the Select Board to more clearly articulate its vision for the community,” he said. “Then the voters can affirm or alter that vision.”

Select Board member Rich Maiore told the Press finding town government volunteers is a challenge, whether appointed or elected. He thinks the board should use social media, email lists, and community groups to increase volunteer numbers and diversity. “Prior to the charter, positions went unfilled as we consistently heard people did not want to run.” In 2017 when Planning Board positions were still elected, no one had come forward to run for the associate member position. Justin Brown, inspired by what he termed “scary” discourse at Town Meeting regarding the new school, organized a write-in campaign the night before the election and won with only three votes.

Any resident registered to vote in Harvard can apply to serve on one or more appointed boards by submitting a volunteer form, available on the town website at harvard.seamlessdocs.com/f/volunteerform. In addition to the 14 vacant seats mentioned above, the Finance Committee, whose members are appointed by the town moderator, also has three vacant seats.

Why some key members are leaving

This year will be particularly difficult as the Select Board is faced with filling the shoes of a number of key committee members. That includes Bob O’Shea of the Parks and Recreation Commission and Justin Brown, chair of the Planning Board, who both told the Press it was a matter of other commitments. Brown said he didn’t expect the Planning Board to be as time-consuming as it was, and when he became chair two years ago, things got even harder. “I decided if I wasn’t able to put in the time, I would make space for someone who could,” he said.

In addition to attending regular meetings and staying on top of the issues that come before the committee, some committees must appoint their members to seats on other boards. Parks and Recreation has seats to fill on three other boards, as does the Conservation Commission, and the Planning Board has six seats to fill. That means members must attend additional meetings and take on even more work. Select Board Chair Stu Sklar summed up his board experience by saying, “It’s not fun. It’s work.”

Other volunteers who are leaving because of time commitments include Energy Advisory Committee member Paul Green, Bare Hill Pond Watershed Management Committee member Brian McClain, and Planning Board member Jefferson Burson. Green added that he’s served for six years, and it was “time for someone else to step up and help out.”

O’Shea told the Press he is stepping down from Parks and Rec because he has accomplished what he set out to do. As harbormaster sitting in on Parks and Rec meetings, he knew that field maintenance was “out of control,” so he volunteered to join the commission. He is now developing a memo of understanding with the town and the Department of Public Works that will put the responsibility for field maintenance work completely with the DPW. “I want to get the MOU done and then be done with my service,” O’Shea said. He will continue in the position of harbormaster.

Parks and Rec commissioner Keith Bilafer is also not seeking another term, partly because of time constraints, but also because of what he called a lack of support from the Select Board and town administration. Bilafer is the field liaison for the commission, and field maintenance has been a contentious issue in town for years. Bilafer told the Press, “Their continued blind eye to the situation that is part DPW, part funding, and part overuse cemented my decision not to seek another term.” O’Shea said other members of Parks and Rec are also upset with town bureaucracy, and commissioner Marisa Steele has come “dangerously close to quitting” because of it. Steele confirmed that she has considered resigning. “I signed up to help the town, not fight against it,” she said.

Select Board member Kara Minar told the Press she is concerned about volunteers feeling unappreciated, disheartened, and disrespected, and she knows some of those people personally. “We need to take more concrete steps to ensure volunteers are supported and appreciated for their work—especially by creating a welcoming, respectful environment—because their work actually benefits all of us and keeps the town running on a tight budget—a budget that would be astronomical without the work of volunteers.”

Conservation Commission member Wendy Sisson, who has served for more than 20 years, is also stepping down this year. She told the Press the recently adopted charter emphasizes relying less on volunteer board members and more on professional staff. In Sisson’s case, she took on administrative tasks that the town’s conservation agent didn’t have time to do. But that will change if the town votes to approve a new administrative assistant for the land use boards, so Sisson feels the time is right for her to leave.

Bill Calderwood has been on the Elm Commission (whose charge now includes protecting all the shade trees in town) for over two decades. While he will serve another term, he pointed out the need for young people to get more involved on the town’s boards and committees. “We are always looking for the next generation to step up as we are all getting on in age with arthritis and distant children and grandchildren,” he said.

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