Though the idea didn’t generate much enthusiasm from selectmen at their meeting last week, Dedham residents this fall will consider adopting the rarely imposed policy of term limits for local elected officials.
Selectmen voted, 3-2, last Thursday to place the proposal on the Special Town Meeting warrant in November, advancing the recommendation of a committee established last year to review the town charter.
“Someone has to start it somewhere,” Thomas Polito, chairman of the Charter Advisory Committee, told the Board of Selectmen, adding that having long-serving elected officials can lead to stagnation. “Some people don’t like change, and this charter is a change.”
According to Polito, residents attending the charter committee’s hearings said that the difficulty of unseating an incumbent discourages new people from running for office.
The view was disputed by some selectmen, including the board’s chairman, Michael Butler, who said there’s no undue concentration of power in Dedham, where five selectmen and dozens of committee members handle the town’s business.
Still, Butler voted to put the measure before Town Meeting members, out of respect for the work of the Charter Advisory Committee.
“Given the process, I felt it was important to let the voters weigh in,” Butler said.
The issue is part of a package of changes recommended by the Charter Advisory Committee and added to the Town Meeting warrant by selectmen. The other proposals include increasing the town clerk’s term from three years to five years, having the Board of Assessors appointed rather than elected, and altering the town administrator’s duties.
Under the term-limits proposal, officials elected for three-year positions, including selectmen and School Committee members, would be allowed four terms for a total of 12 consecutive years. Those with five-year positions, including Planning Board members, would be allowed three consecutive terms, for a total of 15 years.
An official who takes a year off after reaching the maximum would be allowed to run again in a subsequent election, Polito said.
The town clerk, town moderator, and Town Meeting members would be exempt from the limits.
Neither the secretary of state’s office nor the Massachusetts Municipal Association keeps records of which towns have term limits, but spokesmen from both said the practice is rare.
Emalie Gainey, with the attorney general’s office, which investigates the legality of charter changes, said she could find only two Massachusetts communities — Methuen and Southbridge — that had imposed term limits.
Methuen allows a maximum of three consecutive two-year terms for mayor, city councilors, and School Committee members. The limits were imposed when Methuen switched to a mayoral form of government in the early 1990s, according to City Clerk Christine Touma-Conway.
At first, no one could serve in those positions for more than six years total, but in 1999 the city changed the law to allow officials who reach the six-year maximum to run again after waiting out an election.
City Council vice chairman Michael E. Condo said he has never believed in term limits but has worked within the system. Condon served the maximum, took a term off, then ran again and was elected, he said.
New mayors or city councilors are just learning how to perform the job when they have to run for reelection after a two-year term, Condon said, and term limits exacerbate the problem.
However, City Councilor Lisa Yarid Ferry, who represents Methuen’s Central District, said she appreciates term limits. When she ran for office, there were two vacant seats in her district.
“It was easier to get into the race,” she said.
Fellow Central District Councilor Jamie Atkinson said he lost when he ran against an incumbent in 2007, but prevailed when there was an open seat two years ago.
“I think the system we have right now is working well,” Atkinson said, though he agreed with Condon that each term should be longer than two years.
Dedham’s term-limit proposal came out of the committee’s public hearings on updating the municipal charter, which was last revised in 1974, according to Polito.
During the hearings, one person who spoke in favor of the idea was Dimitria Sullivan, who had served two consecutive terms on the School Committee in the early 2000s, took some years off, then returned for another term in 2010.
Sullivan said taking time off helped give her perspective on how decisions she made affected other people. “I don’t believe you should be removed from office permanently, but the opportunity should be there for others to get on,” she said.
Committee member Brian Keaney said he wants to get as many new people involved with government as possible, and imposing term limits is a way to do that.
“If your name is in the newspaper all the time and you’re out and around town as an incumbent, it’s very difficult to knock that person out of office,” Keaney said. “Even if they are not doing a good job.”
At the end, the charter commitee voted, 4-3, to recommend term limits, Polito said.
At last Thursday’s meeting, long-serving board members Carmen Dello Iacono and James MacDonald voted against the recommendation. During the board’s discussion, McDonald had countered the contention that there is little turnover in town government by noting that in his 20 years as a selectman, he had served with 13 different people.
While Butler and selectmen Paul Reynolds and Sarah MacDonald voted to move the proposal to Town Meeting, Sarah MacDonald was the only one who spoke favorably of the underlying concept. She said term limits would create better opportunities for people to compete for town positions.
If term limits and the other proposed charter changes are approved at the Nov. 18 Town Meeting, they would go to a townwide vote in April for enactment.