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Editorial: Five Select Board members better than just three in Hadley

When Town Meeting rolls around next month, Hadley voters will answer governance and public safety questions posed by town leaders. One issue involves decreasing the number of Select Board members from five to three. Another addresses funding for a new full-time fire chief.

This is the not the first time the Select Board has sought to tinker with the number of elected officials it feels it needs to do its job effectively. In 2000, the board called for a ballot question to expand the size of its board from three to five members, which voters approved at a special Town Meeting.

The initiative raises two important questions. The first is whether having five members instead of three improved the Select Board’s service these past 13 years. The second is determining what is not working for the board to consider shrinking itself.

In our opinion, these questions haven’t been discussed or answered to the extent they should for voters to make an informed decision in May. Fortunately, there is still time for Select Board members to make their cases and be more specific.

Select Board member Daniel Dudkiewicz has proposed the warrant article in part because some residents have suggested it to him and because he says the town doesn’t seem to be moving ahead. “If there’s three members on the board, you have no place to hide,” he recently said.

What does that really mean?

Hadley is the smallest town in Hampshire County with a five-member Select Board, but it is not your typical small town. It is home to a major commercial thoroughfare that continues to grow. Though home to 5,000, on any given day, four to five times that number can be in town, depending on events at the University of Massachusetts and surrounding college campuses.

The town must continuously balance protection of its rich agricultural and conservation lands with increasing residential growth. What’s more, there’s plenty of work to go around for town leaders to improve and professionalize its police and fire departments and work with the town administrator to balance budgets.

For these and many other reasons, five Select Board minds and perspectives are better than three and we agree with Select Board member David Moskin, who said reducing the size of the board would be a step backward.

Back in 2000, six former Select Board members made this case for expanding the board to five members:

• In a three-member board, two people can dominate the agenda, creating an “odd man out” situation.

• With a five-member board, a two-member subcommittee can function without violating the state’s Open Meeting Law by creating a quorum of the top panel.

• A five-member board is more representative of the town and includes wider perspectives.

• Other town boards at the time had more than three members and worked effectively.

If the town isn’t moving forward, it may have more to do with an inability of its leaders to work together effectively.

Meantime, paid consultants have recommended the town hire a full-time fire chief — and the Select Board has, too. In May, voters will have the final say on whether to fund this newly created position.

A full-time fire chief post would add to the full-time fire captain the town already employs in addition to its volunteer call force. As a study recently pointed out, the number of people this 110-year-old fire department must protect swells during days and weekends. Expecting one full-time employee to be responsible for all fire prevention and inspection work, emergency planning, record-keeping, training, budget development and day-to-day operations seems almost impossible — and even a little unfair, especially should something go wrong.

Consultants recommended a department with four paid firefighters: a chief, a captain and two firefighters, along with its call force. If done right, hiring a full-time fire chief while maintaining the fire captain position would be a significant step forward in professionalizing the town’s fire department.

Adding resources to this department would enhance public safety and help with long-range planning, including budgeting to replace outdated equipment. The time for a newly funded, full-time fire chief has arrived in Hadley.

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