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Northfield explores 3- vs. 5-member board

NORTHFIELD — While an unofficial committee of citizens has been examining a possible move to a five-member Selectboard or town manager form of government, so has the board’s chairwoman.

“A five-member board has its pluses and minuses,” said Kathy Wright, chairwoman of the Selectboard.

The citizens’ group has said that a three-member board can prove to be problematic. It’s all too easy for two members to team up against one, rendering a third member’s votes ineffectual. With a five-member board, they said, that might be less likely to happen. They also believe adding two more members would dilute personality conflicts, and bring more viewpoints to the board.

Wright’s not so sure.

“I spoke to two town managers with five-person boards, and they feel they are more political and difficult to deal with,” said Wright.

Northfield’s Selectboard meetings are, at times, plagued by dysfunction, raised voices and drawn-out arguments over divisive issues.

The group also said that Selectboard members could more easily split the work with five members, lessening the burden on each.

“The sharing of duties might be an advantage,” said Wright. “This has occurred to a very limited extent here, in that Jack (Spanbauer), as a former engineer, has always handled road projects. Otherwise, duties have never really been assigned to board members.”

Though a five-member board may have its strengths and weaknesses, Wright feels the change from three to five wouldn’t be easy.

“I feel getting five people to run and be on the board is the biggest obstacle,” said Wright. “It is generally difficult to get one person to run each year.”

Even if the town could fill a five-person Selectboard, an elected body is only as good as its membership, whatever their number.

“What I believe is urgently needed are good people who have the interests of the town at the forefront, who are willing to make informed decisions that serve the town as a whole,” said Wright. “We need races with two or more candidates, who are willing to debate, so people have choices. To me, this is most important now.”

The move to a town manager could also be difficult, but for different reasons.

When the citizens’ group formed, the town thought it would soon be home to Grand Canyon University, a for-profit school that would’ve had to pay property taxes on the 217-acre former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus. The property is now in the hands of Hobby Lobby Stores, which has paid the town more than $400,000 in annual taxes since buying the campus in 2009.

GCU had planned to expand the former 500-student school into a 5,000-student Christian university with several sports teams. The development necessary for that growth would’ve increased the property’s value, and with it, the town’s tax base.

However, the college pulled out of the deal in October, leaving the town to wonder who Hobby Lobby will give the campus to.

“Since GCU isn’t coming and right now the town is not changing, upping to a town manager would be difficult,” said Wright.

Since Hobby Lobby has stated it wants to give the property to a religious group, it’s likely that it will end up in nonprofit, tax-exempt hands. That would reduce the town’s tax base, causing that yearly $400,000 to disappear.

“We do not have the tax base to support a town manager and his staff,” said Wright. “A town manager minimally would need an administrative assistant. You’re talking $125,000 for both (salaries), plus benefits.”

Although it would be a hard sell in these cash-strapped times, Wright feels the change may be unavoidable if the population of the town grows beyond 5,000. The current population is around 3,000, but could grow when Hobby Lobby gives the campus away.

Wright said she doesn’t think a town manager will be needed unless the town sees significant growth.

“I personally think a town manager and assistant could become a necessity, maybe not tomorrow, but in the not-too-distant future, because of the increase in regulations and requirements, and general increase in the volume of what needs to be done,” she said. If a large institution does come to town, “it could become too much for volunteer, short-term elected officials.”

A Selectboard could operate more efficiently by delegating some duties to a town manager, town administrator, or other town employees, so board members can focus on what they were elected to do — make decisions.

“The Selectboard should be policy makers, relying on competent staff people (to inform its decisions),” said Wright.

She said a town manager would have more authority than a town administrator (which Northfield has now), and would be able to handle day-to-day operations of the town, like signing contracts, hiring people, and representing the town.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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