CHESHIRE, Mass. — The town will continue the process of increasing the Board of Selectmen from three to five members amid some resistance at town meeting.
Town meeting narrowly approved Article 16 by 53-49 on Monday that will allow the town to solicit the state to approve the change.
Although most of town meeting was focused on the school budget, which was voted down, the select board article was also somewhat controversial, with town officials standing up for and against it.
Paul Astorino, former longtime selectmen, said he was worried about more salaries and possible insurance costs that would come with adding two more members.
"The select board does have the opportunity to no longer offer insurance to elected officials and until something like this happens, I think we are getting ahead of ourselves," he said. "I can see this just costing us more."
Astorino said he anticipated that with added salaries and, if the new members took family plans, the insurance costs for elected officials could be more than $100,000 annually.
He added that only one other community Cheshire's size in the state has five selectmen and it is in eastern Massachusetts near Cape Cod.
Selectwoman Carol Francesconi also came out opposition to the increase, saying only five communities in Berkshire County have a five-member select boards.
However, Selectman Robert Ciskowski, who has been a proponent of the increase, said the town needs more leadership now than ever. He pointed to the vote by the regional school committee to close Cheshire Elementary School, which has angered residents.
"I believe we needed five selectmen before the school crisis. We needed it before and we clearly need it now," he said. "This town has changed so drastically and with the Master Plan, we will need a lot more from the board. ...
"It seems like we are starting way down here without the school. We need to fight and get back up. Vote for five selectmen and I think you will be impressed when you see what happens."
He added that he did not see insurance as a problem because most elected officials do not use town insurance and the Selectmen may decide to no longer offer it.
Having only three members has somewhat hindered the board because of public meeting law, he said. Because there are three, it only takes two to have a quorum and the individual selectmen can't sit in on other town meetings if not posted or have subcommittees.
Francesconi said she simply thought there was no interest in town with such low voter turnout.
"My concern is whether we want to admit it or not there is voter apathy in Cheshire," she said. "I am concerned qualified interested people won't come forward."
Town Clerk Christine Emerson agreed and looked out into the dwindling crowd Monday night that fallen precipitously from more than 200 to less than 50 as the 3 1/2 hour town meeting wore on.
"As we look around this meeting, we started out with 242 that all had a copy of the warrant and knew this article was coming," she said. "They all got up and walked out."
Advisory Committee member E. Richard "Dick" Scholz, who originally put forward the citizen's petition at a past town meeting, disagreed and said he felt there was a new energy in town with the closing of the school.
"These are complex issues we are facing and we need the ability to communicate with more people and have more brain power in the room," he said.
He added that the new town leaders would be unlikely take town insurance and probably would do the job even if the salary was reduced to zero.
Resident Eileen Quinn rose to remind officials that voters had already approved increasing the board once at town meeting and again during an election.
The initial vote on the citizen's petition had followed an incorrect procedure. Town meeting specifically had to vote Monday to send the request to the state for approval.
Even after this vote, the town still has to vote on accepting the increase again at a town election.
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