TRURO — Voters at Saturday’s town meeting will take on practical matters from child-care vouchers to a Proposition 2½ override. They’ll also be asked to consider at least one seemingly technical matter — a change in the town charter — that has nonetheless inspired passionate debate.
Backers of Article 50 seek to change the Truro Planning Board from an elected body to one appointed by the select board.
The proposed change appears as a citizen-petitioned article on the warrant, put forward by businessman Raphael Richter for the second year in a row. For Richter and other proponents of an appointed board, the housing crisis is the reason for the change. The elected planning board, in their view, has undermined the town’s efforts to create more affordable housing.
Those opposing Article 50 argue that a town’s planning board should serve as a “check and balance” to the select board. That won’t happen, they say, if the planning board is appointed rather than elected.
The select board voted 3-1 to recommend Article 50. The charter review committee (CRC) voted 4-3 not to recommend it.
Last Oct. 21, the CRC interviewed Barbara Carboni, the town’s planner and land-use counsel, who has served as a town counsel for 18 years at the law firms Huggins & Witten and KP Law and describes herself as an expert on housing, the environment, and municipal planning. The interview was part of the CRC’s research on the question of whether elected or appointed boards are more effective.
“I’m not sure it’s correct to put a planning board in the position of serving as a check or balance against whatever the select board are pursuing,” Carboni told the committee. “I just don’t think it really fits what their role is under the statute.”
The planning board’s authority, she said, is based in two specific roles: first, applying the state’s subdivision control law by reviewing and approving subdivision plans or certifying “approval-not-required” plans; and second, proposing possible zoning bylaw changes to town meeting.
“I don’t see either of those functions as really needing to, or appropriately framed as balancing another center of authority,” Carboni said.
At a meeting of the CRC on April 21, member Cheryl Best, who voted not to recommend Article 50, disagreed with Carboni’s opinion on checks and balances.
“Perhaps, on a technical level, the planning board is not a check and balance,” Best said. “But in a nuanced way, I would say that any regulatory board is a check and balance on an executive board if an executive board decides they don’t like regulations.”
CRC member Bob Panessiti, who voted to recommend Article 50, said that checks and balances are built into the structure of municipal government. “At the end of the day, the business gets done at town meeting,” he said. “We may have three people making recommendations, but it’s 200-plus people at town meeting making the decision.”
Several Truro residents attended last week’s CRC meeting to voice concerns that an appointed planning board would shift more power into the hands of the select board.
“We can’t allow the appointment of town regulators to be based on their alignment with the vision of three people on the select board,” said Debra Best-Parker of North Truro. Allowing voters to decide who enforces town regulations, she continued, serves as a “protection”; doing away with it amounts to “an example of how governments can move toward autocracy and away from democracy.”
Bob Weinstein, chair of the select board, argued that the CRC should be guided by three metrics to determine the best way to choose planning board members.
“The first one,” he said, “is to study the goals and objectives of the policy-setting board in this community, which is the select board.” He then urged the committee to review Chapter 41, Section 81 of the Mass. General Laws, which outlines the role of the planning board. The committee should consider the state’s statutory language, he said.
He concluded his remarks by questioning the productivity of the current planning board. “What have they done for the community over a five-year period?” he asked.
Jeffrey Ribeiro, Truro’s previous town planner, conducted a survey for the CRC in 2019, looking at how other Cape Cod towns choose their planning board members. Six towns, including Truro, have elected planning boards: the others are Bourne, Brewster, Falmouth, Mashpee, and Sandwich. The other nine towns have appointed boards: Barnstable, Chatham, Dennis, Eastham, Harwich, Orleans, Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Yarmouth.
(In the CRC’s draft research report, only eight towns are said to have appointed boards; the town of Barnstable was left out of the tally.)
Summing up her views on the question, Carboni said that in her experience in working with municipalities she has seen both good and bad elected planning boards and good and bad appointed ones.
“I don’t think it’s a function of whether it’s elected or appointed,” she said. “It’s always going to be dependent on the people.”