CHATHAM — Expressing concern that important decisions might be made by as few as two members, Selectman Dean Nicastro is asking the conservation commission to change the way it votes.
By unanimous vote, the board of selectmen decided to send a letter to Conservation Commission Chairman Michael Tompsett asking the commission to amend its regulations to require at least four votes to take action under the wetlands protection bylaw.
At the Aug. 15 board meeting, Nicastro said he has observed conservation commission meetings, particularly one on June 7, “where there was some difference of opinion among members of the commission and staff” about what represents a quantum – or the number of votes necessary to pass a motion.
The conservation commission has seven positions for voting members, though two of those positions are currently vacant. Under existing rules, three commissioners would constitute a quorum, or the minimum number present for the meeting to proceed. But in such a meeting, a motion could pass with only two positive votes.
Nicastro said that motion might very well be on a weighty decision, like whether to allow a revetment to be built or whether to allow construction within a no-disturb zone.
“I personally believe that is not good public policy,” he said. Town counsel previously opined that a quorum of four would be needed for a seven-member board, regardless of how many positions were unfilled or vacant at the time of the meeting, but Nicastro said counsel then reversed that opinion, upholding current practice.
“I don't view this as meddling in the conservation commission's area of authority,” he said. “But the board has a responsibility to make sure its boards and commissions are conducting their affairs rationally and in accordance with sound public policy.”
The letter seeks to bring the conservation commission's rules into alignment with the practices of town's four other regulatory boards. The planning board, historical commission and historic business district commission each require a quorum of the majority of the full board. The zoning board of appeals has a higher standard, requiring a super-majority of four members out of five to take substantive action.
Selectman Amanda Love, the board's liaison to the conservation commission, thanked Nicastro for his research. She said she agrees that there should be “more of a majority making these decisions.” Board Chairman Cory Metters, the former planning board chairman, said requiring four positive votes from the seven-person board is a practice that works well.
Board member Jeffrey Dykens also supported the measure, saying regulatory boards should be consistent in the way they conduct business.
“And I would hope that the conservation commission acts accordingly,” he said. If the commission decides to ignore the letter by selectmen, “then the next move for us would be to have a bylaw change?” he asked.
Nicastro said town counsel would need to opine in such a case. The conservation commission gets its authority jointly from the town's wetlands protection bylaw and from state law. It is not clear whether town meeting would be able to approve a superseding bylaw, he said.