HARVARD — Two seats on the Finance Committee (FinCom) are up for re-appointment, and Town Moderator David “Doc” Westerling is planning to fill the positions shortly.
Up for re-appointment is longtime FinCom member George McKenna and Terry Mead, who was appointed last year to fill a vacancy.
The incumbents are matched against approximately four challengers for the appointments, said Westerling. Now that fiscal year 2007 is in the books, he said a decision is expected in the next few weeks.
Having been moderator since 2003, it’s a process Westerling is familiar with, but he acknowledged that — after movements to have the FinCom become an elected body and create study group to tackle the question — there seems to be more interest than usual in the issue this summer.
Westerling said he’s not going to get caught up in that debate.
“I think my job is to really look at the longer term and make sure there is good representation across the board,” he said.
The debate was officially kicked off earlier this year with a petition to make the FinCom an elected board. Though that proposal was withdrawn at Town Meeting in favor of a study group to evaluate the question, the issues prompting it remain in place, said study group member Maria Kaufmann, who signed the petition.
Sparking the issue was the school budget and how the FinCom approached it last winter.
The School Committee came into deliberations maintaining that — unlike previous years — cuts into its budget requests couldn’t be borne.
The FinCom, on the other hand, was concerned about how much the budget request would increase taxes by more than 10 percent and pressed the School Committee to lower its numbers.
A number of parents who previously hadn’t been involved became tuned into that debate, said Kaufmann. The result, in many cases, was concern over the FinCom’s “bottom line” approach, she said, along with questions on how its target figures were reached and greater interest in who gets appointed to the FinCom.
“It became clear to people the analysis was like, ‘The school budget is too high and it should be lower ‘” said Kaufmann. “It seemed to a number of us that the number seemed to be picked out of a hat. I think that’s when people started to say, ‘Who are these people, and why is there this layer between us and them?'”
The “layer” referenced by Kaufmann is the group’s appointed status. She said it raises questions about appointment criteria — it’s been frequently noted that only one FinCom member has children in the schools — and the group’s accountability to the public.
Those questions, especially the criteria, are expected to be tackled by the study group, which has yet to meet and is scheduled to give its report in October, said Kaufmann.
Westerling said his criteria is outlined in the Massachusetts Moderator’s Association handbook, which recommends choosing candidates on the basis of interest, demonstrated performance in volunteer work, technical skills and other “appropriate factors,” such as balance between the sexes, age and geographical representation.
Westerling said he takes that balancing seriously and used the recent appointment of Mead as an example. That slot was vacated by Suzanne Powderly, a longtime resident with roots in town who attended The Bromfield School.
Mead has a similar background, which is what he was looking for with the appointment.
“When I was making the appointment, I wasn’t looking for the vice president of a corporation that just moved to town,” said Westerling. “I was looking for someone who had her qualities.”
In general, Westerling eschewed talk of the recent controversy, but he avoided the notion of “sides” on the issues. He said similar discussions are being spurred statewide by tightening municipal budgets.
While Westerling conceded he tends to re-appoint incumbents because of the time investment and learning curve for new FinCom members, he also said the whole community needs to feel represented by the group.
“That’s my goal,” he said. “It’s to make sure that everyone is at the table as much as possible.”
Elsewhere, FinCom Chairman Debbi Ricci termed the appointment process “business as usual,” though she acknowledged things are a little different this time.
“I would say it’s evolving, and there’s more pressure from the outside,” she said.
Ricci termed that pressure good and bad, but declined to elaborate further.