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Northfield opts to examine its government

  • Recorder/Peter MacDonald<br/>Northfield town hall building has had renovations<br/>

    Recorder/Peter MacDonald
    Northfield town hall building has had renovations

  • Recorder/Peter MacDonald<br/>Northfield town hall building has had renovations<br/>

NORTHFIELD — A study committee will address the optimal size for the town’s Selectboard and the appropriate level of professional support for that board.

The proposal to create a Town Governance Study Committee was on the agenda of Monday’s special town meeting by petition of the ad-hoc Town Government Working Group. Sam Richardson, chairman of the unofficial body, made the motion, which while adopted by a strong majority, was the only item of business not approved unanimously.

Richardson said he has observed the Selectboard for 42 years and concluded that serving on the board is an almost impossible task.

“In today’s world, there is just too much work for three people to do on a rotating volunteer basis, and that’s perhaps why it is so difficult to find people who will take it on,” Richardson said.

Richardson said the new committee formed to look at alternatives in October of last year, when Grand Canyon University’s arrival with a planned eventual student body of 5,000 seemed imminent.

The university pulled out unexpectedly after it was awarded the former Northfield Mount Hermon campus by then-owner Hobby Lobby, which has since passed responsibility for finding a new occupant to the National Christian Foundation.

“It seems to us that Northfield is now at an important crossroads and any day now we will wake up and read that we have a new neighbor on the Northfield campus,” Richardson said.

The unofficial group has since looked at some of the questions the official committee is now charged with pursuing.

Richardson said the group has found many neighboring Vermont and New Hampshire towns have five-member selectboards and almost all Berkshire County towns have five-member boards and a town manager.

Richardson said it is also usual for towns to have a policy handbook containing all bylaws, local statutes, special acts and standard procedures. Richardson said the town has no bylaws beyond the zoning bylaws and a past state audit report recommended beginning the process of creating those.

Discussion focused on who would pick the members of the proposed five-member committee.

As proposed by Richardson, Town Moderator Nathan L’Etoile would have appointed three of five members, with the Selectboard and Richardson each selecting one member. The five selected would then be able to choose up to two more members.

Jed Proujansky of Winchester Road proposed as an amendment that the Selectboard select three and the moderator two. Proujansky said he was concerned that the study committee have a good working relationship with the Selectboard, and as a matter of procedure objected to the selection of a member by the amorphous working group.

That amendment failed, with opponents expressing concern the move would exclude the working group and the work already done by that body.

Lynne Walker of Winchester Road proposed to strengthen inclusion of the working group, with two members to come from that body, two selected by the Selectboard and one by the moderator.

That idea passed.

The Town Governance Study Committee is charged with focusing on, but not limiting itself to, the questions “What is the optimal size for the Northfield Selectboard?” and “What level of professional support will best allow the Selectboard to carry out its duties?”

The committee has 90 days to report to the town with any recommendations, and in the meantime will give a preliminary report at the annual town meeting.

Richardson said any change to the government recommended by the committee would take at least a year to establish after a vote at town meeting.

The two most common routes to charter change are by town election of a home rule charter commission or by a special act submitted to the state Legislature and governor by the Selectboard.

Also approved:

∎ $5,000 to fund the town’s obligations for the current fiscal year under a new three-year contract negotiated with the police union, including cost of living increases and a retroactive raise for an officer hired below the usual pay grade based on his qualifications.

∎ $16,000 of current year Community Preservation Act funds to fix a collapsing floor in the historic First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, contingent upon an agreement to make the building subject to a historic preservation restriction.

∎ An amendment to a 2012 town meeting vote introducing the option of replacing rather than repairing Town Hall windows, doors, a shed and other work within a set budget.

∎ $644.38 for old Planning Board hearing advertisement bills.

∎ $9,000 for unbudgeted work done by the contractor hired to maintain the cemeteries.

∎ $5,100 for Highway Department plow replacement.

∎ $7,500 as a 5 percent match to a grant sought by the Emergency Medical Service for a second ambulance.

∎ Three transfers between overlay accounts, totalling $17,238.

∎ Establishing a procedure for a vote to choose a town flag design at the annual town meeting. L’Etoile said it is still up to the Selectboard to put the article on the agenda unless petitioned.

You can reach Chris Curtis at:
ccurtis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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