Though the idea of limiting the terms of service for members of Bedford’s town board and its advisory committees, commissions and panels has been floated before, the board has only recently moved to officially consider such changes.
The board recently agreed to look at both the process by which residents are appointed—including how the vacancies are publicized—and how long a member may serve, which could include an evaluation of their service.
Town board members Francis Corcoran and David Gabrielson, who both say they discussed the issue a few times over the last three years, agreed to study it after Peter Michaelis, a long-time volunteer with the town, raised the idea at the Feb. 8 town meeting.
“I personally support the idea of term limits but also think for elected positions if the public isn’t satisfied with the job an official is doing they are voted out,” said Corcoran. “That said, we are trying to make sure the public is best served—we’ll take the temperature on term limits from an elected standpoint and look at whether it is practical for our boards.”
Both cited the same pluses—“bringing in new perspectives,” said Gabrielson—and the minuses. “You can lose out on institutional knowledge,” he added. “The challenge is coming up with a process so we have rules and be fair and bring in new blood but not lose people whom we are lucky to have.”
Nearby municipalities are examining such measures—the Clarkstown Taxpayers group in Rockland County boasts 1,000 members for a referendum on term limits for elected officials. The Village of Mamaroneck signed a local law Monday night applying term limits to anyone named to one of the village’s volunteer panels; an appointee can serve a maximum of two consecutive terms before having to sit out for either one year or the time between annual organizational meetings, whichever is less.
And term limits were also signed into Westchester County law in December, limiting the executive’s terms to three, four-year terms and legislators to six, two-year terms.
The Bedford committee will solicit information from other towns as part of their study, said Supervisor Lee V.A. Roberts, who hasn’t yet formed an opinion on whether she favors limiting terms. “I see benefits both ways,” she said. “We have many opportunities for people to serve but we might do a better job of publicizing vacancies.”
The town lists 16 boards, commissions and committees on its website, most of which involve voluntary service. Three boards offer stipends: planning board members receive $8,400 annually and its chair receives $10,000; zoning board members receive $2,160 and the chair gets $4,000 and the wetlands control commission members receive $4456 each, and the chair receives $5570, according to Lisbeth Fumagalli, town clerk.
In addition, a few committees not listed on the website—such as the town’s communications and film advisory committees—that offer involvement opportunities.
The town collects resumes on an ongoing basis for the positions and candidates are vetted for relevant knowledge and experience, said Fumagalli. “We might promote the ways to serve once a year. If someone’s term is up, generally they are re-appointed if no one else is interested.”
Michaelis, who said he’s been watching the process the last 15 years, said there should be more to the re-appointment process. He currently serves on the zoning board, tree advisory board and communications committee.
“In many cases, people are just re-upped. I’d like to see those openings promoted, and see people come to the town board meeting instead of just writing a letter,” he said. A few years ago, Michaelis said, he was actively involved in recruiting a new member of the planning board two years ago. "I don't remember the town advertising the position, but just by word of mouth, we found five or six qualified people to interview."
The argument for preserving institutional knowledge on the planning and zoning boards is less important now, given state training requirements, Michaelis said. And rules could be written so that a term could be extended if there was no interest, or limits could be staggered so that some depth of experience was preserved, he added.
“I’m in favor of involving more people. And if residents knew their position had an end date, they might be more inclined to serve. If you’ve served the town for 25 years—and received $250,000—you may be denying someone else the opportunity.”
Both Gabrielson and Corcoran said they were not critical of the stipends, citing the many hours and late-night meetings involved. “I don’t think however, anyone who receives an appointment to a commission should view it as a lifetime appointment,” said Gabrielson. “I think we need to give others in the community an opportunity to serve.”
Editor's note: This article originally stated that the wetlands control board members recieved $500; the amount is received by members of that board is $4456 each, and the chair receives $5570. We received updated information from the town clerk and have fixed the copy.