Who may serve on boards?
CORNWALL — The selectmen are chipping away at a list of vacancies on town boards and commissions. An appeal for volunteers interested in a dozen available spots went out earlier this month. Nearly that many letters of interest were received. But it’s not that easy to fill them. The Inland Wetlands and Water Courses Agency was popular. Three people volunteered to fill two alternate seats. At the Jan. 17 Board of Selectmen’s meeting, there were discussions about qualifications, and even the mix of individuals on a particular agency. Some back and forth will be required to find out if people would serve on commisions or boards other than those they volunteered for.After considerable discussion, and not wanting to put off making headway on filling vacancies, the board approved the appointments of Deborah Bennett and Jeffrey Lynch as wetlands agency alternates. The third candidate will be asked to consider instead an appointment as the Cornwall representative to the Housatonic River Commission.There were no more decisions that evening, and what is usually a straightforward process got a little weird.A potential appointee for one of two vacant alternate seats on the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) is the mother of an already-seated alternate. There were no initial concerns about conflicts, but it was a situation worth discussing. There are no legal restrictions. Instances, including a current one, of family members serving on the same agency were noted and deemed not to be a problem. (Board of Education members Becky Hurlburt and Irene Hurlburt are sisters-in-law.)Selectman Richard Bramley said that in a town such as Cornwall, it is more likely any P&Z or wetlands agency member will have a conflict of interest due to being a contractor on a project, rather than being related to an applicant.It is also a major reason why it is so important to keep boards and commissions at maximum membership. The high potential for members to need to recuse themselves puts a voting quorum at risk.The selectmen decided their next step is to speak with potential volunteers about the options open to them.They were very surprised to receive a letter from a Sharon resident seeking a seat on the Sydney M. Kaye Fund Advisory Committee. They were not entirely sure that the committee is limited to Cornwall residents, and will check.But they quickly dismissed a letter from a Kent resident wishing to serve on the P&Z here. It seemed obvious that only residents can be appointed. But is that really the case?Most commission and board members are elected, by people who are registered to vote in Cornwall. They may list a home elsewhere as a primary residence but can register in either place. Spending and other matters are considered at town meetings by not only residents, but also by anyone who owns at least $1,000 of property in town.These questions have raised some interesting challenges for Town Clerk Vera Dinneen. It is rare here for a candidate or appointee to not be at least a familiar name or face.“The one requirement to be a candidate is to be a registered voter in that town,” she said.When recording the ballot for municipal elections, she double checks to make sure all are registered as voters. She recalled one instance where a potential candidate was denied because he refused to register here.At the secretary of the state’s office, Elections Officer Arthur Champagne said not all town agencies have elected members. Those that are appointed are done in accordance with a town’s individual charter or other local law. But for elected agencies, state law is dominant and clear: Candidates need to be registered to vote in the town where they are running for office, just as Dinneen advised.So how does that apply to this particular case?“It could be argued that appointments would follow a town’s specific law,” Champagne said. “But it is clear that in any case, if the appointment is to fill a vacancy of an elected position, the appointee must meet the same candidate guidelines and be an elector of the town, an elector being a registered voter in the town.”So, the answer is, if the Kent resident also maintains a residence and is registered to vote in Cornwall, he or she is in fact eligible to serve on P&Z.The explanation provided by Champagne also appears to answer the question regarding the Kaye Fund committee. Dinneen said the requirements state it should be comprised of three electors. As discussed by the selectmen, the interested Sharon resident may have known Kaye, and may have a West Cornwall post office box for an address, but would have to be registered to vote in Cornwall.