Monday, March 9, 2015

Tenure For Elected Clerk Not A Good Idea

This column originally appeared In The Sun Chronicle on Monday, March 9, 2015.
By Bill Gouveia

            Bob Cutler is the elected town clerk in Foxboro.  He would like to remain in that elected post for a long time.

But if it’s all the same to Foxboro citizens, he’d like to skip the part that involves actually running for the office.  He finds that uncomfortable, and thinks he shouldn’t have to do it.  But he wants a guarantee of long-term job security, which would make him the only local elected official to have that.

Cutler has gathered enough signatures to place a proposal before the voters at the upcoming town election to grant him tenure.  If it passes, he will be able to remain in office without running again for another 15 or so years.  Should he decide to give up the full-time paid elected position before that, it will revert back to being elected at regular intervals the way it has been for centuries before now.

Cutler is making use of the provisions of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 41, Section 19.  This statute allows such tenure to be granted, and it is not unprecedented.  As of 2014, there were 18 clerks in the state (out of about 351 cities and towns) with such arrangements.  Under that law, he could be removed from office for “just cause” by the selectmen after a public hearing.  He could then appeal their decision to the courts.

Cutler explained his plans to a surprised board of selectmen last week after he had gathered enough signatures.  He said he needs tenure because the position requires job security.  He told board members, “It can become a popularity contest rather than who is qualified to do the job.  You need security. You can't have constant turnover every few years." 

Constant turnover?  Is he serious?  Cutler himself has held the job for seven years.  The only two times he has run for reelection, he was unopposed. 

His predecessor served for more than a quarter of a century, much of that time having to run annually rather than once every three years.  Yet never – not even once - during that long time in office did she ever have anyone run against her on the ballot.

So no incumbent Foxboro town clerk has so much as faced an opponent in 35 years or longer.  Yet Mr. Cutler believes he needs job security?  That seems odd at best, and self-serving at worst.

Cutler also claims giving him tenure would help keep the office of clerk “neutral” when it comes to working on elections where he is on the ballot.  "It is still not a comfortable position," he said concerning such a situation. "That is a great benefit with this (tenure)."

A great benefit for who?  Mr. Cutler?  The town certainly doesn’t gain any major advantage.  This occurs only once every three years.  Every other town clerk in Foxboro’s 237-year history has somehow managed to struggle through this discomfort and retain their neutrality.  Mr. Cutler should be able to do the same.  If not, he should step done and give the job to someone who can.

No one is questioning Cutler’s job performance or his right to pursue this unusual route.  But it is fair to question his motivation and wisdom in doing it.  If he were proposing the post be changed to appointed, that would be a totally different story.  It would be a change to the position itself.

But tenure applies only to the individual, not the job.  As Cutler correctly points out, whoever eventually replaces him would have to be elected.  Only Cutler would be granted the privilege of being an elected official who never has to place his name on a ballot.

If Mr. Cutler wants comfort, he should get a new chair.  If he is seeking unconditional love and support, he should consider getting a dog. 

What he should not do is request preferential treatment.  There is no good reason to grant him tenure.  No elected official should be rewarded with what amounts to a lifetime term.  This move seeks to solve problems that do not exist and are being invented. 

Foxboro citizens will decide this issue by voting.  Ironically, that’s exactly what Mr. Cutter wants to stop them from doing.  Their right to vote should trump his need to feel more secure.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local elected official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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