Select Board meetings regularly require the Town’s five-person volunteer leadership body to tackle multiple big-ticket items in a single evening.
But it’s less common for a large audience to attend these hours-long meetings. That’s what made Monday’s meeting unusual. About 80 people stuck around or joined the Zoom webinar well past the two-hour mark, shortly after 9 p.m., for an agenda item with a downright bland title: “Discuss Committee Appointments.” That number, which was triple or quadruple the Select Board’s usual meeting attendance, does not include additional people tuned in on LexMedia.
In a memo included in the meeting packet, Town Manager Jim Malloy raised the possibility of taking over the appointing authorities of almost two dozen Town boards and committees from the Select Board, as well as dissolving several committees that he said had completed their work or become redundant with new Town staff positions. By reckoning frankly with the number of volunteer boards and committees in Lexington, Malloy touched a lightning rod in a community that prides itself on exceptional volunteerism and civic participation.
“This memo is meant to be provocative in the sense that its goal is to initiate the discussion amongst the Board members on potential changes to Committees,” Malloy wrote in its introduction. In an interview with LexObserver, he added that this was because he understands “it’s a hard conversation to have.” He was looking to galvanize discussion about an intractable set of challenges that have remained unsolved despite many Select Board conversations and attempts long predating his memo.
“For several years, this board has looked at the number, the missions of our committees, the structure of appointments and reappointments, the process for review of charges, for election and rotation of chairs, for general committee operations,” Select Board Chair Jill Hai said during the meeting. “We have been concerned for years about how we can equitably recruit and select applicants.”
She also stressed that this memo “was never meant to be a final proposal; this is meant to be a discussion jumping-off point.”
Malloy wrote this memo in July in part because former Management Analyst Kat Labrecque, who had spent several months examining Lexington’s committee challenges, was transitioning to her new budget officer position.
“I saw it, like, falling back down into a black hole, because nobody was going to do it,” Malloy said.
Malloy’s memo raised the possibility of moving 19 of the 43 current Select Board-appointed committees under the Town Manager’s appointing authority and dissolving 14 others. In most cases, Malloy pointed to committee inactivity as grounds for dissolution. But the memo also stated that the Select Board should consider “whether to retain” a few very active committees such as Sustainable Lexington and the Bicycle Advisory Committee now that the Town has created full-time staff positions for their work.
To some extent, Malloy’s suggestions about committee appointing authority changes stemmed from bigger-picture Select Board conversations about whether and how to establish a more robust committee applicant interview process. Transferring appointing authority to the Town Manager’s office could create options for a more involved, standardized interviewing process for many committees, Malloy explained. That’s because the Select Board cannot conduct interviews as a full board outside of public meetings without violating the Open Meeting Law, whereas the Town Manager’s office, as Town staff, are not subject to this requirement. Interviewing prospective committee members in public meetings, on top of potentially intimidating applicants, could demand significant time on already packed Select Board agendas.
Currently, some Select Board members individually interview applicants for committees with significant, direct community influence, such as the Historic Districts Commission; such one-on-one interviews are essentially the only way for Select Board members to conduct these interviews outside public meetings without violating the Open Meeting Law. But for any Select-Board-appointed committee, time constraints and the Open Meeting Law create challenges for developing a more formal process than that.
While the memo included additional suggestions previously developed by Labrecque, such as onboarding for new members and term limits for chairs, the potential changes in committee appointing authority and dissolution of certain committees generated emphatic public opposition. As a result, during their meeting, every Select Board member sought to reassure community members that they appreciated the value of Lexington’s volunteers.
Dan Miller became aware of the Town Manager’s memo about 9 p.m. Friday night, when someone who had seen the memo in the Select Board meeting packet emailed him.
A day later, he circulated a petition opposing two parts of the memo: its suggestion of transferring the Select Board’s appointing authority for the Tree Committee, Sustainable Lexington and the Bicycle Advisory Committee to the Town Manager, and the possible dissolution of Sustainable Lexington and the Bicycle Advisory Committee. The petition also critiqued the general concept of transferring committee appointing authority from the Select Board to the Town Manager as antidemocratic.
Between sending the petition out about 8 p.m. on Saturday and sending a version to the Select Board at 2 p.m. Monday, it gained 502 signatures. It now has more than 600.
“In the 15 short months I’ve lived in Lexington, I’ve met a lot of talented people who love this town and work hard for its future,” Miller wrote in an email. “Dissolving committees which are in the vanguard of our town’s advancement would diminish that participation.” Though he is not a current or former member of any Town board or committee, Miller has attended many public meetings “to get a sense of what issues face our town,” he added. Regarding the appointing authority, “the consolidation of appointment authority would be corrosive to the openness and accountability in our town affairs of which we need more, not less.”
In the memo, Malloy primarily proposed changing appointing authorities to his office for committees and boards that he classified as “administrative” rather than “policy setting or adjudicatory.” But not everyone agreed on which committees should fall into which category. For instance, during Monday’s Select Board meeting, member Mark Sandeen said he viewed Sustainable Lexington as more of a policy committee than an administrative one, giving examples of policies they proposed that went on to have statewide and national influence. Malloy defined “policy setting” committees differently; per his approach, because Sustainable Lexington advises the Select Board on policy rather than setting policy themselves, he classified them as an administrative committee, he explained.
The petition singled out Sustainable Lexington and the Bicycle Advisory Committee by noting “such a recommendation seems particularly tone deaf to the importance of these issues to our residents and disregards the resource limitations of our public employees.”
But Malloy said that the current operations of some Town committees can be a burden on the time and resources of Town staff.
In July, Raftelis, a management consulting firm for local government, completed a report “reviewing staffing and assessing the organizational structure” for Lexington. Annual Town Meeting approved funding for this report in 2021; the Raftelis team presented their findings to the Select Board last month. The report’s 20+ recommendations included suggestions for streamlining boards and committees.
“The Town of Lexington…has a very high degree of resident volunteerism and engagement, likely a reflection of the high educational and professional attainment of Town residents,” the report states. In addition to the hundreds of dedicated volunteers, “each board or committee is typically staffed by Town employees who attend meetings, prepare agendas and minutes, provide research and information to members, and assist in moving forward action items.”
The report noted that staff “spoke positively” about the work of these boards and committees, and expressed respect for the Town’s many volunteers and their expertise. That said, Raftelis identified the time commitment of working with these boards and committees as “a considerable source of stress” for Town staff members – especially since some work with more than one board or committee, and have to attend multiple evening meetings each week on top of their day-to-day workload. Staff estimated spending between 10% and 33% of their work hours supporting boards and committees, according to the report.
Malloy said that he has observed an especially heavy burden on the Land Use, Health and Development Department, which works with several different boards and committees. Additionally, committees with different priorities, such as sustainability and historic preservation, sometimes want Town staff to move in different directions on a single project, he added.
Compared to about 15 other nearby Massachusetts cities and towns, Lexington has the highest number of boards and committees at 70, according to Raftelis. That’s more than Boston (63), Cambridge (47), Arlington (61) or Somerville (33). Per capita, Lexington has the 5th-highest number of boards and committees (2.03 boards and committees per 1,000 people), while Lexington’s ratio of full-time staff per board or committee is on the lower side – 10th out of 16 communities, or 6.41 employees per board/committee.
With these challenges in mind, the Raftelis report recommended having each board and committee’s role “be carefully evaluated and a cost/benefit analysis done to determine if the Town can afford the staff resources necessary to support each.” The report also recommended formal onboarding for new board and committee members.
When the Raftelis team presented this report in August, Select Board members critiqued some of its recommendations, including its framing of the challenges that face Lexington boards and committees.
“I don’t want to start from the presumption of how many we should have, or what’s the right number,” Select Board member Joe Pato said during that meeting. “For me, we should be looking to see if we have the right set of committees: Are they addressing the issues that are important to the community, and doing so effectively?”
Staffing is just one of the challenges Lexington’s boards and committees face. Well over 300 people in a roughly 34,000-person town serve on at least one volunteer board or committee. Nonetheless, there are still seats that need filling: There are nearly 40 current vacancies (including associate positions) on current Select Board-appointed boards and committees, as well as four listed among Town-Manager-appointed committees. Turnover is typically high in September – but consistent vacancies appear to be an enduring issue.
In January, Select Board member Suzie Barry presented survey feedback from 142 of about 339 non-elected board/committee members. Asked to identify current challenges of committee service, members especially singled out “too many meetings; in time it wears folks down” and “rigorous time commitment.”
That said, vacancies are not unique to Lexington. In a survey conducted of about 12 other towns around the same time, Barry found that more than half of these towns struggle to fill their vacancies.
During Monday’s Select Board meeting, Barry spoke to the other extreme: individuals who build their identities around membership on a Town board or committee. In support of term limits, Barry said that “being on a committee should be part of who you are. It should not be who you are.”
She also provided reassurance to community members who had reached out to her concerned about their committees being abruptly disbanded in the next week or month: “That is not going to happen,” she said.
In an interview, Hai said that addressing both volunteer and staff burdens of the Town’s current committee process are priorities for the Select Board. “We want to make sure that the committee structure we have is the best it can be for…those engaged on both sides of committee work – those in the committee, and those who staff the committee,” she said.
While the reaction to the memo was not unexpected, “I think the tenor of the reaction was probably unexpected,” she added. But Hai, and other Select Board members, thanked Malloy for getting so many community members to engage.
“What we’re not looking to do is upset people, disenfranchise people, or exclude people – the goal is exactly the opposite of that,” she said. “We want this to be a better experience… because being on a committee is a way of better understanding how Lexington operates, and of contributing, and everyone should have that opportunity.”
Following the meeting, Miller wrote that “What was billed as a “brainstorming” session in the agenda ended up being damage control because the proposed changes were more provocative than they were reasoned.” But, “otherwise, I think the Board handled it well by essentially shooting down the measures we opposed and sending the rest back for another iteration.”
Malloy will be writing a second version of this memo “with the input that we received,” he said. “And I will assume that that one will probably not be as provocative.”
Among Select Board members, Sandeen will spearhead advancing the committee process discussion. He is the only member of the Select Board who has not already tackled committee processes, Hai said – so she hopes he can bring “fresh eyes” to these challenges.
Vice Chair Doug Lucente noted that per the feedback the Select Board received, “I think the headline here for the public was…the Town Manager is taking over the Town.” Instead, “what he was attempting to do…was to give us an opportunity to have open and frank discussions about effectiveness and efficiency of our processes and our committees.” In part, that means grappling with committee charges, purposes and possible redundancies by asking “do we need three committees dealing with the same exact topic on a consistent basis?”
Now, Lucente said, the Town has “an opportunity…to reimagine our committees and our committee structure.”
When Barry reacted to the Raftelis recommendations in August, she acknowledged that as far as substantively addressing Lexington’s challenges with its boards and committees, “we are talking the talk – we are absolutely not walking the walk, and it seems to be the hot potato now.” But she added that “at no point should we ever offend any of our dedicated volunteers in this town.”
“Yes, we make fun of how many boards and committees we have,” she said, “but the number of hours and the commitment that we get from our citizens is far and above anything that we could cover in the tax levy.”
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that “Town Manager Jim Malloy raised the possibility of taking over the appointing authorities of a few dozen Town boards and committees from the Select Board.” Because the exact number is 19, as is specified later in the article, this language was updated to state “almost two dozen Town boards and committees” for clarity.