Cumberland voters will decide this fall whether elected leaders should all get four-year terms

Cumberland voters will decide this fall whether elected leaders should all get four-year terms

CUMBERLAND – If town residents want to switch from two-year to four-year terms for their elected leaders, they’ll have to do it in a package deal on this fall’s ballot.

The Town Council, in its most significant vote last Wednesday on a list of proposed charter changes to send to voters, decided against separating out the questions on four-year terms for mayor, council and school board individually.

Instead, residents will vote yes or no on allowing four-year terms for all three branches of government and limiting terms to eight years total.

Though combining the three offices in a four-year-term question on the November ballot might lessen its chances of passing, officials said it’s the fairest route forward.

Among the reasons councilors cited for moving to four-year terms were the idea that more people might be interested in the job, that leaders would become more seasoned the longer they’re in office, and that everyone would be treated equally.

The council’s 7-0 vote went against the recommendation of the Charter Review Commission. Commission Chairman Dave Chenevert said he felt voters should ultimately decide on each seat. Previously, voters statewide had the chance to vote separately and decided to go to four-year terms for office holders such as governor and lieutenant governor, but keep General Assembly members at two years, he said.

The commission didn’t take its work lightly, said Chenevert, and unanimously decided that votes on four-year terms should be separate, for the “simple reason that we felt that they (the voters) should have that choice.”

“We didn’t want anyone to think they were there forever,” he said.

Chenevert said the commission’s thinking was that the mayor is the only full-time paid elected position in town, and the council and school board members are part-time officials. Moving to four-year terms for mayor might attract more qualified candidates, he said.

Council President Peter Bradley cautioned that term limits could bring about a situation where an entire new council elected in 2020 could be “wiped out” all at once, leaving the board with no experience remaining. Chenevert responded that if a new person isn’t qualified for the office, they probably shouldn’t be running. It may not be a bad thing to have an entirely new council, he said.

Bradley said four-year terms for some elected leaders and two-year terms for others creates “an unfair balance,” because anyone who’s guaranteed for four years, if they don’t like the person who has only two years, “that’s who they’re going to go after.”

Councilor Tom Kane agreed, saying he felt dividing the votes would create “too many possible issues.”

“I can just predict a lot of imbalance in power with something like that,” he said.

It’s important to have those checks and balances, said Kane, and if you only have four-year terms for some, “you lose some of that.”

Councilor Scott Schmitt agreed that the mayor and council should have the same terms, but initially said he was on the fence about the school board.

Councilor Bob Shaw said he never felt there was an issue with the way school board elections are currently run. He said he wonders if simply allowing the question on the ballot would lead to residents thinking there is a problem with the current two-year terms for school board members and as a result vote to change the process.

Shaw said he thinks the mayor and council should be “joined at the hip, wholeheartedly,” preventing a potential advantage of power, and allowing the “change of power to happen all at once.”

School Committee member Paul DiModica told the council he’d like to see committee members have four-year terms. A four-year term would allow people to know they have “serious input” and “make a real difference in schools.” Currently members are spending their first year getting acclimated and they known they have to start campaigning again the next year, said DiModica. A four-year term concurrent with the mayor and council “sets a tone that you know you’re going to be around and you’re going to make a difference.”

Councilor Lisa Beaulieu, a former member of the school board, added that her prior experience was that the committee did its best work when members knew that they had continuity through an election. When the school board knew they were going to continue on, they were able to better make “constructive moves that benefit the schools,” she said.

Schmitt put forward the idea to combine all three offices into one question, giving voters the chance to say yes or no to four-year terms and two-term limits for all elected leaders.

Mayor Bill Murray, in a follow-up to last week’s meeting, declined to offer his opinion on the vote to combine the term limit questions. He said he feels badly for Charter Review Commission members, “who worked for a long time for these questions to go forward” only to see them rewritten.

Jeff Mutter, who is challenging Murray for mayor, said he is in favor of term limits.

“As far as four-year terms, my feeling is if you want it, you should have it for all,” he said.

Chenevert, in a letter to the editor in this week’s Breeze, said he was disappointed that the commission’s recommendations were “totally ignored.”

“We wanted to give the electorate the option to choose. Instead, the Town Council disregarded our recommendation and combined all three elected positions as one question,” he said. “Maybe they felt the electorate would be confused. Maybe they felt the voters would give the mayor a four-year term and not the council or School Committee.”

Another of the seven questions the council approved for the November ballot was a one-sentence question on whether the requirement in the charter that circumstances must be “extraordinary and limited” when hiring legal counsel for the town be eliminated.

The council’s current attorney, Kelley Morris, whose hiring caused significant controversy due to statements that it wasn’t for “extraordinary and limited” circumstances, said this change “is just to clarify,” eliminating any subjectivity. Leaving the charter wording as is wouldn’t change the council’s ability to hire its own attorney, she said, as she previously rendered an opinion that her hiring was done under extraordinary and limited circumstances. At the suggestion of Morris, the council changed the “extraordinary and limited” wording to apply to all legal counsel, because that particular section of the charter deals with all attorneys hired by the town. (Chenevert’s take on the attorney question can be read in his letter to the editor.)

Comments

This is a poor idea. What happens if you get someone for Mayor or Council or whatever that cannot do the job. You are stuck with him/her for 4 years as opposed to two. Most of the current council hopes their people will be elected and then they can control everything for 4 years. Bad idea folks. Vote No