March 8, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald
The questions posed by an assessment of the proper size of Belmont’s Board of Selectmen, as recently considered by a Town Meeting study committee, predate the very founding of our community. “No political problem,” James Madison said in The Federalist (No. 54), “is less susceptible to a precise solution than that which relates to the number convenient for a representative legislature. . .” While the Board of Selectmen is obviously not Belmont’s “legislature,” that function being assigned to Town Meeting, the difficult questions identified by James Madison 230 years ago are those which Belmont now faces as well.
There is no standard size for a municipal governing board. Nor are there any definitive guidelines on how such a size might be determined. Perhaps the closest that exists is the Model City Charter (Eighth Edition), last published in 2011 by the National Civic League. In its commentary on council size, the Model Charter recommends that “the council be small – ranging from five to nine members. . .[S]maller city councils are more effective instruments for the development of programs and conduct of municipal business than large local legislative bodies.”
Even the “small” council endorsed by the National Civic League, however, has a minimum of five members. A three member municipal governing board has never been recommended by the League. The smallest municipal council size ever recommended by the League has been four members.
The Model City Charter’s discussion tempers its recommendation of a “small” council with the following observation: “in determining the size of the council, drafters should consider the diversity of population elements to be represented and the size of the city.” This advice seems particularly applicable to Belmont. While obviously Belmont is not a “large” community (as communities go), there is no question but that, financially, even Belmont operates a “large” budget. With a town budget well in excess of $100 million in Fiscal Year 2018, there can be little question that Belmont’s municipal government is a large and complex organization.
In addition, Belmont’s frequent portrayal as a homogenously white, upper-middle class community is a gross over-generalization. While, clearly, there are homogeneously white, upper-middle areas within Belmont, the diversity of Belmont is actually quite stark. Belmont residents exhibit diversity in attributes such as age, economic status, race, homeowner vs. renter status, and length of time people have lived in the town, amongst others. It seems, in other words, that Belmont’s diversity counsels for a larger rather than a smaller Board of Selectmen.
A 2009 study by the University of Buffalo’s Regional Institute examined the size of municipal government boards. The Regional Institute concluded that “size choices have tradeoffs” and there is no optimal size “to maximize performance on all municipal goals.” The Institute stated: “virtually all design decisions entail tradeoffs to balance multiple competing goals and values.” The Institute’s study found that larger councils are generally better able to represent diverse public opinion, respond to demands for constituent service, deliberate reflectively, and tackle complex or controversial issues. In contrast, the Institute continued, smaller councils are better able to operate cheaply, respond to community consensus, and handle a light workload of routine and uncontroversial decisions.
It would appear that Belmont falls on the side of those factors counseling for a larger council. And Belmont would not be unique in reaching this conclusion. The Institute’s study examined the size of municipal governing boards in five counties in New York, including communities ranging in size from villages, to towns, to cities. The final study reported that of the 156 communities in these five counties, only one had a local municipal board of three persons. By far, the most common size of a local municipal board was five persons. At the least, while it would not be legitimate to decide that Belmont should have five members on its Board of Selectmen because “everyone else does,” it is appropriate to find that the relatively small size of Belmont does not make our community “too small” to support a five-person governing board.
The Town Meeting study committee’s recommendation to expand the size of Belmont’s Board of Selectmen has merit for our community. Town Meeting should act favorably on that recommendation.