While I can’t speak for all of the 26 individuals who signed the recent citizens’ petition to make the Finance Committee an elected board, I believe that many who signed the petition wanted to spark an overdue debate on the current system the town now uses to appoint FinCom members. FinCom members, under current statute, are appointed to three-year terms by one elected official, the town moderator. By convention, Harvard moderators have automatically reappointed FinCom members indefinitely. The citizen’s petition was certainly not meant as an insult to any current FinCom members. The FinCom is comprised of capable individuals who have worked very hard for this town and deserve our gratitude. It’s not a people issue — it’s the process issue.
Towns across Massachusetts, including Harvard, are experiencing serious financial problems. This problem hasn’t just popped up; it has been brewing for years. It is a systemic problem. Massachusetts ranks 44th out of 50 states in the country in terms of state aid to localities. This translates into an unhealthy reliance on regressive property taxes that extract an unfair toll on working families, farmers and (most egregiously) senior citizens.
A new approach to FinCom selection would help stimulate a fresh debate on solutions to our current fiscal crisis. Today’s appointment system lacks the appearance of transparency; townspeople are by and large unaware of how FinCom members are selected. Unlimited terms mean that fresh perspectives, so vital to healthy organizations, do not surface. Whether the board accurately reflects the town’s population and diversity on an ongoing basis is therefore very questionable.
As noted in last week’s Harvard Press editorial, “some middle way could be found to safeguard the balance of the Finance Committee.” Included amongst other possible solutions is an interesting town of Sterling approach, referenced by Randy Dean, in which three votes are cast: By the current FinCom (one collective vote as a group), the selectmen (one collective vote as a group), and the town moderator (one vote individually).
The citizens’ petition puts forward another reasonable solution, that of a duly elected FinCom.
However the town decides to move, I think the “indefinite incumbency” issue the petition helps us to address is a very important matter to be solved ASAP.