Town boards: special tokes for “special” folks

Members of town boards, commissions, committees and councils may become “special municipal employees” when they are not performing paid duties as regular municipal employees. Such a classification is not automatic in most cases but must be established by a vote of a board of selectmen in a Massachusetts town. Such a vote will apply to all who hold a specified type of position and not to particular individuals.

The “special” people: A “special” designation allows lawyers on a regulatory board to hear and decide cases that are presented by other lawyers in the firm where they work, as long as they did not participate in those particular cases. The “special” people can work and be paid in arrangements for town business as long as their duties for town boards or agencies do not involve the particular arrangements. Those remain dubious practices–more understandable in a small rural town with few lawyers, professionals and businesses than in an large urban town with many of each.

Members of a board of selectmen in a large town are not eligible for “special” designation, whether or not they are paid for serving. Others who receive pay for municipal work are generally not eligible unless they perform 800 or fewer hours of paid municipal work a year.

The Brookline Board of Selectmen is known to have awarded the “special” designation to members of the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Housing Advisory Board. Participation in various matters that could be viewed as conflicts of interest suggest that Planning Board, Transportation Board and Building Commission members might also enjoy “special” status.

A list of organizations with “special” status is supposed to be “on file” in the town clerk’s office. During former years that some have come to regard as flirting with corruption, members of many town boards, commissions, committees and councils are said to have been designated as “special.” However, no list of Brookline’s “special” designations could be found on the municipal Web site.

Training on the laws: At this year’s fall town meeting, scheduled for November 17, Article 8 seeks to require training about laws on conflicts of interest for town meeting members. Some will have already received training because they are also members of town boards, commissions, committees and councils or because they volunteered for it.

Section 3.20.1 of Brookline’s general bylaws–enacted under Article 18 at the May 23, 2006, annual town meeting–applies to members of town boards, commissions, committees and councils. It requires attending training sessions about laws on conflicts of interest and open meeting requirements, organized by the Office of Town Counsel in Brookline.

Article 8 at this fall’s town meeting would allow watching an online lecture about laws on conflicts of interest and requires no training on open meeting requirements. Practical experience has shown that training sessions organized by the Office of Town Counsel proved more effective than lectures, because of questions and answers reflecting specific, local situations.

A list of members of town boards, commissions, committees and councils who have received required training is supposed to be “on file” in the town clerk’s office. However, no such list could be found on the municipal Web site.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, September 10, 2015


Warrant for November 17, 2015, special town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, September 8, 2015

Article explanations for November 17, 2015, special town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, September 8, 2015

Special town employees, in Minutes, Brookline, MA, Board of Selectmen, June 2, 2009, see pp. 6-7

Special municipal employees, Massachusetts State Ethics Commission, 1992

General bylaws, Town of Brookline, MA, November 18, 2014 (3 MB)

Special municipal employee, defined in Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 268A, Section 1, paragraph (n)

Craig Bolon, Open meetings in government: groping toward transparency, Brookline Beacon, August 10, 2014

Craig Bolon, Override Study Committee: Open Meeting Law problems, Brookline Beacon, August 7, 2014

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