The Town’s most underrated committee

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on March 10, 2016.

Our Town Government is a government of boards and committees. It’s citizen-led and therefore dependent on the strong volunteerism of many residents. With the start of Annual Town Meeting only several weeks away — another example of the value Wellesley places on citizen involvement — it might then make sense to profile the history of one of the critically important yet highly undervalued volunteer committees in Town Government: the Advisory Committee.

This committee consists of 15 members appointed by the Town Moderator for three-year terms, five members turning over each year. No member can serve on another board or committee, thereby maintaining a sense of objectiveness. Its primary mission: to review all operating and capital appropriation requests in advance of Town Meeting and produce written recommendations for the Town Meeting Members. In essence, the Advisory Committee is what other municipalities call their finance committee.

In addition, however, our Advisory Committee also examines every non-financial related article proposed for Town Meeting, from naming a school building after a prominent town resident to adopting new zoning bylaws. So the committee very much acts as the gatekeeper for all Annual and Special Town Meetings. If what you’re proposing doesn’t survive vetting by the Advisory Committee, good luck getting a majority of Town Meeting Members to vote in favor of it.

The purpose of this, of course, is to facilitate the decision-making process at Town Meeting. If a proposed article isn’t baked yet or is detrimental to the town for whatever reason, it is Advisory’s responsibility to make this known and recommend unfavorable action. Often times, such experiences at Advisory result in the article’s sponsor pulling the motion in advance of Town Meeting.

This may sound rather dull, but it can’t be emphasized enough how important this review process is to the fiscal responsibility and functionality of our town. Given the complex and various issues that Wellesley faces, you absolutely need a dedicated group of individuals willing to delve into the finer points of each and every proposed appropriation and modification of our bylaws.

Historically — meaning prior to the increased role that government played within communities through greater regulation and oversight in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries — the sole purpose of town meetings, besides the obligatory election of officials, was to vote on how to raise taxes and appropriate money to boards and departments. If a municipality was small, such as Wellesley was up until the early 1900s, town meeting voters could manage without an advisory committee’s recommendations.

The Wellesley Advisory Committee was created in 1912 for the very reason that the issues the town faced — specifically those relating to its finances — reached a level of complexity that required significant time and a certain level of expertise to fully understand them. It was not, however, the first committee charged with examining our annual appropriations.

No, that honor would go to the Appropriation Committee, a short-lived committee comprised of representatives from each Town Department who met in February prior to Annual Town Meeting in order to put together a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. However, there was little or no vetting to determine how the request from each department compared to the sum of money necessary for that department to fulfill its mission. Few requests were therefore made that didn’t receive favorable support by the Appropriation Committee.

It was apparent to most that this form of review was not adequate — especially because the town’s population was beginning to expand rapidly and the associated investments needed in our schools, utilities, and infrastructure required more careful study to facilitate informed decision-making at Town Meeting. (Mind you, some of the difficulty that arose because of these complexities was reduced when we switched to a representational form of Town Meeting in 1937, thereby limiting the voter pool to 240 of the town’s more engaged residents.)

How the Advisory Committee functioned during its early years is remarkably similar to how it functions today. Regular meetings were held throughout the year to discuss issues that were thought to arise at a Town Meeting in the near future. And then during the few months before Annual Town Meeting began in the early spring, Advisory’s schedule ramped up as budgetary requests for the upcoming fiscal year came in and other proposed articles were finalized. Presentations were given, questions were asked, and recommendations were made. A written report was then produced by the Advisory members and handed out to the voters in advance of Town Meeting.

This isn’t to say that the Advisory Committee hasn’t changed at all over the years. Two significant differences stand out. The first concerns its membership. No way is this a knock on the intelligence and capabilities of Advisory members of recent years, but early on in its history, the committee was composed primarily of seasoned veterans of Town Government. Just consider the following members of the first Advisory Committee: Isaac Sprague, Albion R. Clapp, John D. Hardy, Walter Hunnewell Jr., and Charles N. Taylor, not to mention the committee’s ten other heavyweights.

Nowadays the Advisory Committee is more often than not viewed as an entry point for those who want to be more involved in Town Government. For example, 4 of the 5 current Selectmen served on Advisory — 3 of them acting as chair during their final year — before their election to the Board of Selectmen. Of course, there have been recent exceptions to this trend. (The current Advisory chairman is a notable one that comes to mind.)

The second difference involves the role that Advisory plays in the budgetary process. Ever since the early 1980s, following the passage of Proposition 2 ½ that capped non-override spending, the Town has had to be vigilant about controlling its budget. One of the key mechanisms used are budgetary guidelines that (theoretically) limit the increases in each board or department’s appropriation requests for the upcoming fiscal year. Traditionally, these guidelines were developed jointly by the Selectmen, Advisory Committee, and Executive Director.

The Advisory Committee, however, voluntarily gave up this responsibility several years ago. Furthermore, it is somewhat unclear whether Advisory’s budgetary role will change if we adopt a Town Manager form of government. The new bylaws that would go into effect are silent on how much control the Town Manager has in modifying a proposed budget after the committee has already deliberated. Could this then undermine the purpose of Advisory? It’s hard to tell at this time.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t forget the critical importance of the Advisory Committee. Its work may go largely unnoticed by the public, but few boards or committees are as instrumental in making sure the decisions we make are the right ones for the Town of Wellesley.