Filling vacancies on municipal boards and committees is a challenge in all four towns on the Outer Cape. Part of the problem, most leaders agree, may be the sheer number of panels that have been established over the years.
Eastham has 30 vacancies on 42 committees; Wellfleet has 46 openings on its 47 committees; Truro has 33 vacancies on its 37 committees; and Provincetown has 16 vacancies with no applicants for its 45 committees (another nine vacancies have candidates awaiting appointment).
Some of the vacancies are for alternates, but most are for full members.
In Eastham, seven vacancies are on regulatory boards, whose charge includes project review and permitting.
And in Wellfleet, the seven-member historical commission, whose role is to decide whether demolition of historic buildings should be delayed under the town’s bylaw, is down three members.
Darrin Tangeman, who was a top municipal official in Colorado before starting his job as Truro’s town manager in January, described the huge number of committees in his tiny town as “an artifact” of an old form of government that hasn’t evolved in New England as communities have changed how they operate.
Towns now have staff to handle many of the tasks that committees of the past took on, he said. In fact, he said, those staff members are being required to spend a huge amount of their time doing support work for the volunteer committees, which, in many cases, have become simply advisory.
“It isn’t concurrent with what you see across the country, and it’s not sustainable,” said Tangeman. Cities and towns where he worked before coming to New England had far fewer committees than Truro.
Truro is looking to address the situation. Select board vice chair Kristen Reed and member Susan Areson are currently scrutinizing the charges of various committees to look for overlap. Ad hoc committees will also have a time limit, after which they will be dissolved unless an extension is needed.
“This effort will take many months, as we need to consult with the committee members involved before making decisions,” said Areson. “The practice of appointing citizen volunteers to advise the select board is still an important part of our local governance.”
A few weeks ago, the select board dissolved three committees that hadn’t met in years, said the town manager. “There will be hard leadership decisions to make,” Tangeman said. He does expect pushback. “There’s a lot of history to the boards, and change is not easy to accept.”
Truro’s regulatory boards and select board have a year-round residency requirement. Vacancies can be challenging to fill, because only “20-something percent of the population is year-round,” according to the town manager.
Wellfleet doesn’t have a full-time residency requirement for any of its boards, yet still has nearly four dozen vacancies. “We do require that people are committed,” said select board member Helen Miranda Wilson. “You can’t miss four meetings in a row unless they are all within a 30-day period or you’re automatically off.”
Chair Michael DeVasto said he believes his board works hard to make committee appointments, but it’s not easy when many have seven seats to fill. “In Wellfleet, we’ve been lucky to have enough people to get a quorum,” DeVasto said. “Does that mean committees are always full? No.”
Both Wilson and DeVasto defended the need for the town’s many boards and committees. “It’s important for civic engagement,” DeVasto said.
Unlike Tangeman, DeVasto said he sees the boards as supportive of, rather than a drain on, town staff. “They provide valuable support to our departments,” he said, citing the help the recycling committee gives to the public works department. “I don’t think our town is staffed enough to do the work that committees do.”
Wilson said staff don’t necessarily live in town, and, in any case, she didn’t want decisions being made by just a handful of staff, “whose livelihoods depend on their boss.”
In Eastham, select board vice chair Aimee Eckman said local officials are constantly looking at combining and paring down boards. “We just disbanded the charter committee and cable committee,” she said. But she, too, sees the boards as accomplishing needed tasks for the town. “I think what we have is what we need,” Eckman said. “They do a lot of research and heavy lifting. That only helps the town.”
Linda Sassi, Eastham’s assistant town clerk, said the vacancy list is always changing. The town has a search committee whose charge is to recruit candidates and vet them. Openings are easy to find on the town’s website under “hot topics,” and advertised at the Eastham Superette, the council on aging, and the post office. The search committee sets up a table at most town events, including the recent town meeting, Sassi said.
Eckman agreed the town is proactive when it comes to finding volunteers. “Our search committee does a great job at outreach,” Eckman said. The town also allows part-time residents and students to serve on nonregulatory boards. “We’ve had students on the FinCom and bikeways committee,” she said. “We’re trying to get them more engaged.”
Like Eastham, Provincetown lets residents know regularly which committees need volunteers, producing press releases and regular reports to the select board.
Alex Morse, who became town manager in Provincetown in April, said he is watching Truro and will likely suggest to the select board a similar analysis of committees within the next year. From there, he would expect next steps would include decisions on consolidating committees with related charges, eliminating those that are no longer active, and setting dates for boards with specific charges to be dissolved.
He agreed with Tangeman that staff “could spend their entire day” addressing the needs of their related boards.
“It’s important we streamline,” Morse said. “Obviously the regulatory boards and commissions aren’t going anywhere. They are required by law. I think everything else needs to be on the table.”