The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 13, 2002

Features

Town boards, then and now ­ part I

As part of the Carlisle Oral History Project, Ellen Miller met with representatives of various town boards on June 12, 2002, for a discussion of town boards and how they have changed over the last 20 or 30 years. Participants were Vivian Chaput, Midge Eliassen, Beth Hambleton and Terry Herndon. The panel began with introductions.
Long-time board members sit down to talk about their experiences serving Carlisle. Left to right are Vivian Chaput, Terry Herndon, Ellen Miller, Midge Eliassen and Beth Hambleton. (Photo by Rik Pierce)

Hambleton: I spent most of my time on the finance committee, that was nine years, and as part of that I also went to all the meetings of the school building committee ­ the earlier renovation, not the most recent one ­ and the regional high school building committee, and then I went on this most recent committee to put the second story on the Grant Building. I also served on a number of projects. One was the Carlisle 2000 Study Committee which I did with Vivian, and the Growing Pains Study which we did. I also served on a regional committee to look at whether Concord and Carlisle should regionalize together, K through eight.

Eliassen: The boards I've been on officially were the school committee, was on it for six years starting in '78, and then I spent a year on some committee whose name I can't remember that Vivian and I were on that was a master planning of some kind where we did a town-wide survey in '83-'84, sometime around there. Then I went on the board of appeals, and I haven't gotten off yet! I started on that in '85. I was on various subcommittees and stuff like that, but also, before I went on the school committee, I was a reporter for the Mosquito. I spent a lot of time in committee meetings, particularly the planning board, which I covered more than anything else.

Herndon: I came here in 1962. I started out on the pond committee, then got involved in putting tennis courts in, which led to the recreation committee, then became a member of the planning board, which led to house numbers, aerial photos, Towle purchase and wetland mapping. Then, in amongst all these things, I became a member of the conservation foundation, sanitary landfill committee, Old Home Day, ran for selectman and was defeated, school site committee, school site study committee ­ Concord and Carlisle were looking at total regionalization in the late '60s, early '70s, and the question of having a regional school up toward Carlisle, longterm capital outlay committee, board of assessors, and then board of appeals.

Chaput: I moved into town in 1975. Shortly thereafter Kay Kulmala approached me and said that, as a fellow woman planner, it would be very interesting if I wanted to get involved in planning issues in town. And she said that the planning board didn't meet all that often and they always took the summers off, so why didn't I come and find out what was going on! So I think I started my public career around 1977, after I sort of got settled in. But I was primed for it because I had been a member of the League of Women Voters where I lived, in Nashua, New Hampshire, and I started out in town with the League doing housing studies, because that happened to be my vocation and my avocation. So I got involved with the housing groups early on and that evolved into not only the League studies but the Village Court studies which had been prompted by the League originally when I was involved in the housing survey that Edna Sleeper had started, and so I served on the board of the Carlisle Elderly Housing as we were struggling for years on how to meet the needs of seniors in town.

After I did get nominated by Kay Kulmala to be on the planning board, I ended up serving on that board for 17 years and at the same time did a lot of master planning stuff, including the surveys that Midge was talking about and writing the preliminary plans that the town did, and then we ended up with a master plan which we needed to have for the town, and that's got lots of familiar names on it, I'm sure. In the meantime, after I decided not to be on the planning board anymore (I figured it was time, definitely!), someone volunteered me for selectman, and I've been on that board now for six years, and have just been re-elected, so that will be the end of that, I think.

Miller: With all your perspectives on town boards, how has town government changed over the last 20 or 30 years?

Eliassen: The biggest one I see is structurally. When I moved to town, there was no support. We had a town clerk, some boards might have had secretaries, most didn't. I think the members carried all the work, all the history, worked out of their houses, and produced their own minutes, etc.

Hambleton: FinCom still does.

Chaput: But all the other boards have changed substantially. On the planning board, we did it all ourselves and I think the files were in Kay's house. So it was just as you say, much more low-key and certainly didn't have the professionalism that it does now.

Miller: When do you think changes started happening?

Hambleton: I think probably as the town grew there was more work to be done, but also one of the big changes we saw on the FinCom was more requirements by the state ­ more reporting for rules and regs, and that, I think, led us to the kind of government we've got now. It's kind of beyond the role of the average citizen to put in that kind of time, and even on FinCom, when I was chairing it, it was 40 hours a week during January through April-May. It's an awful lot of work; most people can't put that kind of time in.

Eliassen: When did we get our first town administrator? I think that's a really significant change in how the town functioned. Teno West, was he the first?

Hambleton: No, there was a woman. The circuit rider . . .

Eliassen: Yes, the circuit rider lady. Whenever that was, that was a major shift in the way the town worked.

Chaput: The other issue is the fact that all the town boards and committees had to face legal issues that they didn't have before. I think if anyone were to say "what has been the major driving force behind all the changes?" it's been the fact that we had to keep our files in order, we had to make certain that we met all the state and federal criteria, time frames all had to be met properly, there are filings that have to be made, there are any number of legal requirements that if they didn't exist before, you didn't have to do it.

Hambleton: You didn't have to do it, whether it existed or not!

Eliassen: At the same time frame as that, just having been on the school committee, we lost fiscal autonomy, and that made for a major change for the schools. First you lost the ability ­ and I had no problem with that ­ the ability to bring a school budget that had to be voted to one that the town could weigh in on, say yes or no to parts of it, and then it wasn't very long after that that you had [Proposition] 2-1/2, and I think that the combination of the fiscal restraints from 2-1/2 and the legal restraints came together to make everything bigger business.

Chaput: It has had to become very much more business-like.

Herndon: It's become more driven by the state. We are dictated to, the board of assessors was very accurate in the time it was doing it in a low-key way, and the state came in and put in regulations that we paid attention to. And it became much more difficult, much more filled with data. And the accuracy didn't change. But it becomes more corporate.

Hambleton: It may have declined! I think the FinCom saw less of that. We didn't have as many rules because we weren't a governing body in the same way . . . we couldn't . . . we didn't have oversight over people in the same way you did. We could just say "your budget is too high, you've got to make some cuts" and that kind of thing. It was more advisory. And then we could just put our positions in front of Town Meeting, and we lost or we gained, you know, in that one. So I don't think we saw the regulation, but we certainly saw the growth in budgets . . .

Herndon: Which came from the regulations.

Hambleton: Yes, a lot of it did.

Herndon: When I was first on the [board of] assessors, Larry Sorli who had been on it for 35 years, he assessed. One of his parameters was how many boys are there in the family. Because if you have a house with a lot of boys in it, it gets torn apart more rapidly. [Laughter] It's an accurate perception. And it was part of that formula.

Eliassen: I'm interested in this as a little side thing, but in your citing Larry Sorli with his years of experience. When you came on your board, when I came on the board of appeals, Donald Cochran and Frank Wahlen had been there since God! So there was built-in fabulous history and common sense and seat-of-the-pants . . .

Herndon: Board personnel stayed for years. This was in 1962. It was true of planning board, it was true of assessors, and so forth.

Hambleton: So there was just an incredible amount of local knowledge and local history.

Herndon: And good judgment and common sense. On the board of assessors we had a guy who . . . the state started sending out a monitor to check us, because you had to come closer and closer to reality, whatever that reality was. He was an interesting man who had gone through World War II. He'd had a leg shot off, part of his arm and part of his face. He wasn't very attractive but he was good. He had done assessing throughout the Commonwealth, for the state, from 1944 on, and he would come in and you'd talk about things and you'd look at some numbers, you'd look at sales and you'd look at assessments. It was this "That's pretty close. You might look at this one a bit more; you might look at that category a little more, and let's see what we can do in the next six months." And that was very personal.

Hambleton: Yes, it's a far cry from regulation.

Miller: Based on what you're saying, I think the next question has already been answered. Is it harder now to get up to speed on a board than in years past?

Chaput: If you could see the rules and regulations of the planning board relative to subdivisions . . . the way it is now, it's about a 1/3 of an inch thick versus the dozen pages we had initially. And anything that's new that comes along

... we did the accessory apartments, just a little add-on to a bylaw. Well, now the rules and regs for accessory apartments are page after page. The senior residential open space thing has got its own stack of rules, and it goes on and on. Every time you try to create something new it just generates mounds of new requirements that you have to figure out. And of course, there have been advantages that the boards have had, that there have been some attorneys on them. Those are also disadvantages! They have made up more rules and interpreted them differently . . .Yes, it's much harder.

Herndon: But one thing is, when I went on to the planning board in 1964, or sometime, Henry Hosmer was a great attorney, a senior partner at Goodwin, Procter. There were four or five pages of rules, and that was it. When I came on, "what about the culverts, what about this, what about that?" And he said, "Look, kid. Wake up. We want to have as few regulations as possible. That allows you to treat every case in its own way, and you can deal with it as such. And you can make the regulations for that situation, for that case, instance by instance." He was very much against any expansion. You came on perhaps after another page or two had been added, but then the flood-gates opened.

Eliassen: Well, I think the other aspect of why it's harder now is that you're responsible for knowing much more, and I don't think there's the depth of history on the individual boards. Serving has become difficult enough that the turnover is much higher. A classic example was the recent question about building a guest house as a second house on a piece of property, and this whole question came up, and it wasn't until someone who had been on the board of health in 1984 read it in the paper and produced a piece of paper that no one on the board of health who asked the question and no-one on the board of appeals who answered it knew existed.

Hambleton: So that there isn't the depth sitting next to you to help you learn the ropes that there once was.

Herndon: One of the outcomes of this is that fewer residents in town want to be on town boards, and this is very serious with regard to the idea of democracy. What do we do?

Hambleton: Well, those who serve I don't think are willing to put in the kind of time that needs to be put in. I've seen that . . . I probably shouldn't name committees . . . the work isn't being done, and the town pays the price.

Herndon: And when on January 1 the assessors would go out and we would start in on all the houses, all the new construction, and it got to the point where we would be out every Saturday and Sunday, for eight hours, and at the end it would be through January and February. There were three of us, and two would go and then alternate back and forth, and we'd fill out our cards and so forth. But an immense amount of time because that's what you were supposed to do, isn't it? And there was no hired help at that time, there were no paid staff, and so this starts to happen and we move into the business of experts and paid consultants and such.

Chaput: One of the reasons for that is not only is there more responsibility but there's a broader responsibility, what you're responsible for. I mean, all these boards now have so many more items and issues that they legally have to deal with than they had to before to get by state dictate, or federal.

[To Herndon] I remember seeing you on New Year's Day in 1976!

Herndon: You do? I don't remember seeing you, but I'm sure it was quite a shock seeing one of these guys come slogging in!

Hambleton: All we ever see on New Year's Day is Ken Harte counting birds on our property!

Miller: What about the audience, the townspeople who come to your meetings? What differences do you note, then and now?

Eliassen: I personally don't think there's much of a then-and-now difference. I think that you have nobody there if it's not happening in his or her backyard, and the minute it is an issue of interest to an individual, I don't care which board it is, if you're worried about what's happening to my status or my yard or my neighborhood, then people are there.

Hambleton: Exactly. I remember the year I ran for selectman I was told that I should go and visit all the boards and committees to get a better understanding of it, and I showed up and everyone asked me, "What the heck are you doing here? Are you supposed to be here?" "Well, no, I'm just learning about your committee . . ." So even then it was not common. Over and over and over again, and today too, you'll have a meeting and the Mosquito reporter will be the only attendant. If you want to talk about cell towers, which might happen in my neighborhood, or you want to talk about where to locate a dump, which was happening before I moved to town, those meetings were well attended. People protect their own interests.

And you look at Town Meeting, certainly from my perspective as a FinCom member, you're always looking out at people and you'd see the same faces there every time, usually in the same seats, and it's really interestingit's the same people I saw 20 years ago still showing up. And if you've got a school issue, then they show up but if there isn't then they don't, and you get the vested interests coming in, but the same group is really die-hard.

Eliassen: I chaired a school committee meeting in whenever Proposition 2-1/2 came in that 110 people showed up for, and we weren't ready. We had never had more than four. [Laughter]. From going to various hot-issue meetings as a Mosquito photographer, I haven't seen a meeting that drew more people than that one. But that was one meeting ­ the meeting before and the meeting after, nobody came!

Miller: What about communicating among town boards? Has the new Town Hall changed anything in terms of boards interfacing with each other?

Herndon: I think one of the things that has changed in this regard is as the town grows, there are newer people coming on the boards. People who have been on boards don't know them and in the old days, if the town was 1500 people, and if you were on a board for a few years, you knew everybody. And people would talk to each other, and they would call up. I was thinking about the fact that board chairmen always made sure that the boards spent time on who might replace someone who's leaving. In my experience, believe it or not, this was not self-serving. It was who would be good? Who represents the young people? That doesn't happen so much anymore, and a position will come open and an advertisement will be made and you ask for volunteers.

Eliassen: You don't get them out the way you used to.

Hambleton: I think you do, but there isn't the automatic sense of who's out there and who's interested.

Herndon: There are just so many people in town who don't have time, aren't interested, they may come out and scream and yell for a bit, but those aren't quite the ones you'd like. They have a vested interest. So, there are those kinds of changes.

Hambleton: Actually, FinCom had to interact with all those boards and committees because we had to see their budgets and that was the way you got to learn who did what in town and where they spent their money because they had to come and tell you about it, and that was fascinating, really interesting.

Eliassen: Well, the open-meeting law inhibits, unfortunately . . . I believe in the purpose of it, I think it's right, but it makes it difficult for the sort of jawboning that helps people think. And I think that's hard. I think that structurally the selectmen have tried to deal with this a little bit, and I know that Vivian has been the selectmen's liaison with the board of appeals and Vivian has come to a few of our meetings just to keep up to speed. When I was chair, there were more than just a few times when I would call Vivian in and give her a heads-up that this was going to be an interesting case that might set a precedent, or whatever. I think that's a formal connection and you're talking about the power of the informal connections, which I agree with you, are not there.

Herndon: It was a form of thinking that was possible when we were a small town. Right now we're a town of 5,000 people. We were 1500 then.

Chaput: Well, as Midge has mentioned, the selectmen have set up a system where every member of the Board of Selectmen ­ and now there are five of us so we're not all getting ten different committees ­ but, each member has several committee assignments to keep in touch with and find out what the issues are or what's going on. But those are formal things, not the kind of informal session that Terry is talking about. I think with the new Town Hall, staff people at least have an opportunity to communicate better. Whether the board members do or not I'm not surewhether the Planning Board and the Conservation Commission are on the same wavelength or some of the other boards. But at least the staff people are there at the same time, they can get a chance to interact.

Eliassen: And as a board member ­ we have no secretary on the Board of Appeals and I was the clerk ­ I spent over this last spring a lot of time in the town offices, and I found that just what I would pick up or questions that I would be asked by Board of Health, by ConsCom, by Planning Board all made me much more aware of what some of their issues are and how they interfaced with ours and it's sort of too bad that every board member can't hang out in town offices for an hour a week.

Herndon: This great, vast amount of "stuff," this data that's being dealt with, stops thought. What Midge is talking about is thought. You hardly get out of the meeting and you go, "Ah," and you go home and dump it in a pile and try to forget about it . . .

Eliassen: Exactly, you are right.

Herndon: And you don't go and call up so-and-so and say, "What do you think about that last night, Mary or Fred or George?" It's expanded human mind and it's destroying that. You can't mull things over among yourselves, because it's like getting a drink out of the fire hose.

Eliassen: And it's unfortunate ­ but if you and I happen to be standing in front of Daisy's saying, "How's the weather today?" and Hal walks up to us and says, "Are you guys figuring out what to do about that cell tower?", I think there's a mind-set that is suspicious of our machinations. As a board member, I don't believe that I have ever been a

in and give her a heads-up that this was going to be an interesting case that might set a precedent, or whatever. I think that's a formal connection and you're talking about the power of the informal connections, which I agree with you, are not there.

Herndon: It was a form of thinking that was possible when we were a small town. Right now we're a town of 5,000 people. We were 1500 then.

Chaput: Well, as Midge has mentioned, the selectmen have set up a system where every member of the Board of Selectmen ­ and now there are five of us so we're not all getting ten different committees ­ but, each member has several committee assignments to keep in touch with and find out what the issues are or what's going on. But those are formal things, not the kind of informal session that Terry is talking about. I think with the new Town Hall, staff people at least have an opportunity to communicate better. Whether the board members do or not I'm not surewhether the Planning Board and the Conservation Commission are on the same wavelength or some of the other boards. But at least the staff people are there at the same time, they can get a chance to interact.

Eliassen: And as a board member ­ we have no secretary on the Board of Appeals and I was the clerk ­ I spent over this last spring a lot of time in the town offices, and I found that just what I would pick up or questions that I would be asked by Board of Health, by ConsCom, by Planning Board all made me much more aware of what some of their issues are and how they interfaced with ours and it's sort of too bad that every board member can't hang out in town offices for an hour a week.

Herndon: This great, vast amount of "stuff," this data that's being dealt with, stops thought. What Midge is talking about is thought. You hardly get out of the meeting and you go, "Ah," and you go home and dump it in a pile and try to forget about it . . .

Eliassen: Exactly, you are right.

Herndon: And you don't go and call up so-and-so and say, "What do you think about that last night, Mary or Fred or George?" It's expanded human mind and it's destroying that. You can't mull things over among yourselves, because it's like getting a drink out of the fire hose.

Eliassen: And it's unfortunate ­ but if you and I happen to be standing in front of Daisy's saying, "How's the weather today?" and Hal walks up to us and says, "Are you guys figuring out what to do about that cell tower?", I think there's a mind-set that is suspicious of our machinations. As a board member, I don't believe that I have ever been a party to what I would consider an inappropriate move by people outside of a meeting. I have certainly participated in sort of one-on-one broad thinking conversations and I have not felt that I was ethically out of line at all.

Herndon: Well, au contraire, I have been involved in discussions that were totally inappropriate and you have to fight against it. You have to say, "Look, we can't talk about that here. We have to stop this." And that happens in a small town.

Hambleton: FinCom was very different, in that I certainly found myself interacting with a lot of people. Roberta Spang and I, for instance, would sit around the kitchen table with our calculators, because nobody had computers then, and we'd crunch numbers and we'd bring in data about revenue sources and try to get a handle on things. One year we actually just decided, "Gee, this is going to be really tight" and we didn't see how we could give the region more than 3-1/2 percent increase in their budget. So I marched over with my hand-written numbers to the superintendent and business manager, and showed them the numbers and said, "This is really all we feel we can give you" and they looked at me and said, "You really think you can do that?" I said, "Yes, Roberta and I worked out the numbers" and they came in with that number! And we would do this with a lot of departments as guidance. We weren't trying to make a deal. There was one year, in fact, when we knew we were coming up short at the end of the fiscal year, and I remember sitting down with [police chief] Dave Galvin and saying, "This is where it's at. Can you stop buying some bullets or something?" We divided ourselves up and went to the different department heads and said, "What can you do to help us out?" And, by golly, they all chipped in and they did something.

Miller: And that's not possible today?

Hambleton: Well, it just takes time. And we knew everybody then.

Herndon: Now you don't have the time to go around and jawbone.

Hambleton: And you got to know them. After the ninth year of listening to Bob Koning give a spiel about the fire department, you knew about it. Roberta and I used to go and we'd check the tires and say, "Do you really need new tires? Gee, they look awfully good to us." They used to hate to see us coming, but you really get to know people pretty well. You had a major influence on what they did. It was fun. It was really fun.

Actually the Mosquito reporter at the time complained to the selectmen that there were four women on the FinCom and she didn't think that was right. Of course, we could work our tails off because we weren't working outside the home back then, and we had the time to do all this leg-work. Now nobody has time to do anything. (And now there's only one woman on the FinCom).

Herndon: But one thing is interesting, Beth. When it starts to change, the folks on the other side change, too. It becomes more and more a contest. And FinCom comes in and ­ they haven't done the groundwork on this ­ and so they come in and say, "This is what we're going to do" and the other side says, "We can't have that," and they come in with a bigger number than the compromise, and it turns into a used-car sale.

Hambleton: Well, I don't think, certainly on the FinCom, that they're doing the kind of diligence to find out what committees really need.

Herndon: Then that's part of the thing. They'd say, "We can get this" or "We'll go in with this" and FinCom says something but they can't dig into it, so it becomes more combative.

Chaput: That's where we are right now.

Hambleton: Yes, it's painful to watch.

Herndon: The problem is we're looking at numbers rather than people.

Hambleton: Or programs or needs.

Herndon: And that's unfortunate.

Eliassen: Exactly right. We're being driven by something other than values.

Part II of the oral history discussion of town boards will appear in a future issue.


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