Governance at the center of Town Meeting Article 44

Jim Zisson is one of the lead sponsors of Article 44 on the Annual Town Meeting warrant. Photo by Libby O'Neill

This isn’t Jim Zisson’s first attempt to amend the term length for Select Board members.

In fact, Zisson and Megan Sweeney, a co-sponsor of Article 44, the first of 11 citizens’ petitions appearing on the Annual Town Meeting warrant, each submitted an article to amend term lengths for the 2021 warrant. Both articles were defeated.

Select Board members are elected for just one year each time they win election, a departure from other town boards and committees where members typically serve staggered multi-year terms. Zisson’s proposal would bring the Select Board — the town’s chief board — in line with the School Committee by amending term lengths to three years.

Should the proposal from Zisson and Sweeney win approval at Town Meeting, the election a year following its passage would award the top two candidates with a three-year term, the third and fourth-highest vote-getters with two-year terms, and the fifth-highest vote-getter a one-year term. All future terms would be three years.

To get a citizen’s petition on the ballot, Zisson and Sweeney needed to gather 10 signatures from Marblehead residents and submit the petition to the town clerk’s office. The signature gathering process was relatively simple, Zisson said, adding that he and Sweeney collected 50 to 100 in an effort to get out and talk to voters. Drafting the article took longer, as he spent months working on it on and off.

In an interview Sunday evening, Zisson explained that the one-year term for Select Board members dates back to 1649, when the town was founded. He said he approached the article from the standpoint of governance, noting the Select Board’s role as the town’s executive function.

“When you run every twelve months, you’re in office for a very short period of time before you’re already running for re-election,” Zisson said. It’s his belief that stretching the term length would allow members more time to dig into thorny issues facing the town, rather than having to divert their attention to campaigning roughly three-quarters of the way through their term.

He argued that longer terms would allow for “an experience base to remain” on the board.

Zisson is himself a former candidate for Select Board, running for a seat during the 2022 election and coming up short. He said that experience played a role in his decision to draft Article 44.

“It’s a lot of work to run for office and … I would rather have the members of the Select Board working on the finances of the town [than] holding signs on street corners every year,” he said.

One of the key points of opposition to Zisson’s previous attempt was a belief that keeping terms to one year allows voters to, as he dubbed it, “throw the bums out” and remove board members they felt were not delivering on the mandate they were elected on.

But, Zisson said, with the proliferation of social media throughout the campaign process voters now know more about candidates than ever.

“The Marblehead voters are a pretty sophisticated bunch and the likelihood of getting someone in that you really wanted to throw out immediately is pretty low,” he said, pointing to neighboring towns where he said “very rarely” does a situation arise where a Select Board member is unfit for office.

Zisson also pointed to Swampscott, which has implemented the structure he seeks to, in arguing that three-year terms could enforce a sort of pseudo-term limit on members, who might opt not to seek reelection after committing three years of their life to municipal governance. To that point, Swampscott Select Board Chair Neal Duffy is not running for reelection after just one term.

The article is not a referendum on the current members of the board or previous boards, Zisson said. Instead, he emphasized that the article seeks to improve the governance of the town by giving board members more time to “grow and work through some really complex problems that we’ve got coming up.”

In a town heavy on history and tradition, change can sometimes be slow to come to fruition. But, Zisson noted that change has occurred, with the shrinking of the board from seven members to five, its renaming from Board of Selectmen to Select Board, and women being permitted to attend Town Meeting after being barred from doing so for centuries. For Zisson, now is the time for change to reach the Select Board once again.

“We’re trying to respect tradition and frankly, we are,” he said. “I’d venture to say if we had any member of the Select Board that was here from 374 years ago, I don’t think they would really be upset that we’d be going to a three-year term. I don’t think that was anything magical about that back in the day.”