It took longer than expected, but the Andover Town Governance Study Committee delivered its recommendations at the select board meeting Monday.
The committee was originally expected to work for a year when it was formed in September 2019. But the coronavirus pandemic extended the committee’s work — including seven public forums, 32 committee meetings, 34 subcommittee meetings, collecting online written feedback, conducting stakeholder interviews and meetings with officials from other towns — to more than two years.
Monday’s presentation follows a written report the study committee submitted in December. That report recommended the town retain its current open town meeting format.
“That was not a foregone conclusion. Many of us, myself included, came to this process skeptical” open town meeting was the best form of government for Andover, committee Vice Chair Dara Obbard (photo, above) said. The committee recommendation to retain open town meeting was unanimous, Obbard said.
The committee considered representative town meeting, council-manage and council-mayor as other potential forms of government that may work in Andover. The committee’s research showed that communities that changed their form of government are more likely to be hit with a series of consequences, including political infighting, lawsuits, uneven representations and bad decisions.
“One of the things we recognized at the outset…is changing your government is a big step. That is a really big thing to do. It affects not only the government of the town, but the culture of the town,” Obbard said. “So we determined early on we would most likely not recommend doing it unless we could definitely say other forms of government were going to be better.”
Among the committee’s nine recommendations for reforming Andover Town Meeting:
- Adopt in-person electronic voting to shorten meeting and allow confidential voting.
- Consolidate discussion of related articles to shorten meeting and make articles easier to understand.
- Endorse “civil, honest, respectful” conduct at town meeting.
- Prohibit events on town and school property on Town Meeting nights.
- Encourage submission of amendments for public review before Town Meeting to shorten meeting, eliminate voter confusion and enable legal review and public vetting.
- Host virtual and in-person article discussions before town meeting to ease remote participation, increase participation and enhance article vetting.
- Provide online Town Meeting training videos and a “welcome packet” to help new residents better understand Town Meeting and increase participation.
- Explore adding remote electronic voting and the technological and legal aspects of making such a change.
The report also included recommendations for other areas of Andover government, ranging from improved communication to making it easier to obtain various permits from the town to removing the residency requirement for the town manager.
The committee also said the town should look into adopting laws allowing the recall of elected officials. The town currently has no way for residents to recall elected officials. “At the local level, one person has enormous power; we should prepare remedy before we need it,” the committee wrote.
“It’s never good policy to craft a policy when you have a crisis on hand,”committee member Richard Fox said. “We had reservations — there can be abuse for political purposes.”
The select board will discuss a potential framework for prioritizing and implementing the committee’s recommendation at its next meeting on Sept. 26.”I suspect this will be a phased rollout,” Select Board Chair Alex Vispoli said.