TRURO — Three articles on the June 26 annual town meeting warrant, all submitted by citizens’ petition, call for changing the ways certain town board members are chosen. Each one involves a change in the town charter.
But such changes should be made only after careful study, according to charter review committee chair Robert Panessiti.
“I say this because nowhere in our decision-making process is ‘We don’t like the people on the board or committee,’ ” Panessiti said during a joint meeting of a handful of town boards on June 3. “That’s the furthest thing from our discussion.”
The three petitions call for the zoning board of appeals and board of health to be elected rather than appointed, and for the planning board to be appointed rather than elected.
Town charter changes require a two-thirds majority vote at town meeting, followed by a simple majority vote at the following year’s town election.
Currently, all of the zoning boards of appeals in Barnstable County are appointed, along with the majority of the county’s planning boards and boards of health. On the Outer Cape, all three of those boards are appointed in Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Eastham. Truro is the one exception, with an elected planning board.
Cheryl Best, a Truro charter review committee member, said her group will be “neutral” on the questions at town meeting, “because we haven’t finished our process.”
The first step for the review committee is a survey it plans to send to elected and appointed boards in the next month or two, “that will address all aspects of whether a board or committee should be elected or appointed,” Panessiti said. The charter review committee will focus on the planning board, zoning board of appeals, and cemetery commission for starters.
The petition to change the planning board from elected to appointed was promoted by Raphael Richter in advance of last year’s annual town meeting, but action on it was postponed until this year in an effort to keep the 2020 annual town meeting short in the pandemic.
In a phone interview, Richter said he was acting as a citizen, not in his capacity as a member of the Truro Finance Committee. For the last several years, planning board candidates have run unopposed, he noted.
“When you don’t have contested races, people who know each other recruit each other,” he said. Having the select board appoint members would give the public a better idea of the candidates’ positions, he argued. “The select board would at least interview them, and they would explain their views,” Richter said.
What the town has now is a “broken system,” according to Richter. One of the main functions of the select board is goal setting for the community, he said, and regulatory boards generally then work to attain the community’s vision. That’s not happening, in his opinion.
“As to the planning board and the select board, there is a misalignment of goals,” he said.
The heart of the disconnect is a controversial affordable housing proposal.
“The tension between the planning board and the select board is directly related to the planning board slowing the Cloverleaf down,” Richter said, referring to 39-unit North Truro project. “They enabled a neighborhood to feel more empowered.”
While the zoning board of appeals approved a comprehensive permit for the project, the Cloverleaf is now stalled in court, thanks to an appeal from those neighbors. Truro’s affordable housing numbers remain at just over 2 percent of its housing stock.
State Sen. Julian Cyr supported Richter’s initiative to shift the planning board from elected to appointed. “It is increasingly clear the planning board is out of step with what the voters of town meeting are going for,” Cyr said. “The planning board is so disconnected from the town’s voters that it is holding the town back.”
Cyr supports the building of more affordable housing so Truro doesn’t become “a shell of a community only for the affluent.”
The senator said he has tried to recruit friends to serve on the planning board. “Many people would be willing to serve,” he said, “but feel the composition of the board is too toxic.”
Former zoning board of appeals chair Buddy Perkel, who now lives in Provincetown, said he also supports Richter’s proposal. “The planning board for years has been a place of terror for the townspeople,” Perkel said. “In my judgment, they were abused by the board. That’s what happens when you have people elected for long terms.”
Perkel also strongly opposes changing the zoning board and the board of health from appointed to elected. Elections can be skewed by special interest groups that candidates are then beholden to, he said.
Regarding regulatory boards like the zoning board and board of health, Perkel said, “They should reflect the goals and objectives of the selectmen. The shaping of the town is in the hands of the selectmen. Their job is not to stop the future but to manage it carefully.”
At last week’s meeting, Town Manager Darrin Tangeman said no one has come forward as the lead petitioner for the changes to the zoning board and board of health. Resident Joan Holt has been the only one talking to officials about those two petitions, but she does not wish to be identified as lead petitioner. Holt says the articles were written by a group of people, with a lot of back-and-forth discussion. But it is not clear who will stand and introduce them at town meeting.
Efforts by the Independent to contact signers of the petitions about the zoning and health boards were largely unsuccessful. Shore Road resident Jon Seager did respond to a phone call. He and his wife, Denise, signed the petitions to make the board of health and zoning board elected. “That’s what we have been used to in the past,” Seager said. The couple is from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He called the appointment of boards by the selectmen “too much power in too few hands.”
In written comments submitted to the zoning board and board of health, the petitioners wrote that the changes were “intended to enhance the democratic principles of representation by making [them] directly accountable to Truro voters.”
If the charter changes are approved at the June 26 town meeting and the 2022 general election, a gradual conversion would take place over several years. Elected members of the planning board would serve until their five-year terms expire. The select board would appoint members to those seats as they expire. For the zoning board and board of health, appointed members would serve until their appointments expire. The seats would then be filled at the next town election.