CHATHAM — Saying the “stingy” stipend they receive hasn’t been increased in years, selectmen this week proposed doubling their pay and that of the town moderator.
Board members currently receive an annual stipend of $2,000, with an extra $500 for the chairman. At the board’s direction, staff surveyed the stipends paid to other boards of selectmen on the Cape, and found that they ranged from a low of $1,500 in Brewster to a high of $5,000 in Falmouth. On average, other Cape Cod selectmen make $2,819, with chairmen earning $3,249.
Chatham pays its town moderator $600, higher than the $494 average of other Cape towns.
Selectman Cory Metters said he appreciates the check from the town, “but I don’t do this for the money.” His fellow board members agreed, saying the stipend isn’t designed to fully compensate them for the many hours they spend.
“It’s a substantial amount of time,” particularly for the chairman and vice chairman, selectmen Chairman Dean Nicastro said. Nicastro proposed raising the selectmen’s stipend to $4,000, and $5,000 for the chairman.
He also proposed raising the moderator’s honorarium to $1,200. Aside from his primary duty of running the annual town meeting, the moderator interviews and appoints finance committee members, moderates at any special town meetings, and also leads the annual summer town meeting.
Board member Peter Cocolis said selectmen don’t seek office for the financial rewards.
“It’s an honor to be on this board,” he said. Cocolis and Metters suggested considering a more modest pay increase, but the board ultimately decided to seek to double the stipend, knowing that the figure might be reduced on the floor of town meeting or rejected altogether.
Nicastro said the increase should be reasonably generous to encourage working people to consider becoming candidates for office.
“I would like to see more…young people running for selectmen,” he said. Two former board members, David Whitcomb and Andrew Young, spoke in support of the proposed pay increase. Young said the increased stipend might help future board members offset the cost of child care.
The process of proposing their own pay raise posed a procedural challenge for the board. Under the state’s conflict of interest law, board members are typically prohibited from participating in discussions that might ultimately lead to their own financial gain. When at least three members of the board are unable to vote, the selectmen lack a quorum and cannot act on a matter, yet the board of selectmen is the only body in town with the authority to add an article to the town meeting warrant, with the exception of a petition article.
“This is a delicate matter, in terms of procedure,” Nicastro said. On the advice of town counsel, each board member stated out loud his or her potential conflict, and the chairman officially invoked the “rule of necessity,” allowing the vote as a last resort. The board then voted unanimously to include the article with the new stipends, which are referred to in Chatham as “salaries.”
Board also considered a proposal this week to change the name of their body from the Chatham Board of Selectmen to the “Chatham Select Board.”
“I think it’s time to consider a name change because we have women, and so do other towns,” proponent George Olmsted said.
Olmsted made his request to selectmen on Nov. 26, and the board advised him to make his proposal to the charter review committee. That group, in turn, asked selectmen to provide their opinion.
Around 50 Massachusetts communities have select boards, including Brewster, which adopted the gender-neutral name in 2017.
Board members mostly expressed indifference at the proposal, with Nicastro saying he didn’t believe the change was necessary.
“It’s not really about the title they give us,” but the actions that board members take while they are in office, Metters said.
Selectman Shareen Davis described herself as a longtime fisherman, and said that occupation is not gender-specific.
“It has historic connotations around it,” she said. And while she initially referred to herself as a selectwoman, “in all honestly, it really didn’t matter to me,” Davis said. “We have a lot of things to debate in this town” that are more important, she noted.
Chatham has had a board of selectmen since before the Revolutionary War. The first woman to seek a seat on the board was Virginia Harding, who ran for the office in 1951 and received 88 votes. The first female to win election was Josephine Ives, who took office in 1988. Since that time, around a half-dozen women have served on the board.
Chatham now has a female town manager, but women have held key positions in town government since 1892, when Ellen Perry was named a library trustee, according to research done by Ives several years ago.
Finance committee member Norma Avellar called the proposed name change silly. “I hope we don’t waste any more time on it,” she said.
Whitcomb noted that the board of selectmen has had the same name for centuries. “It’s gender-neutral, and we all have equal access to becoming a member,” he said.
On a motion by Jeffrey Dykens, the board voted unanimously to remain the Chatham Board of Selectmen.
“I’m sure the charter review committee is watching,” Nicastro added.