EASTHAM — Selectmen enacted a policy in December that would allow residents as young as 14 to be voting members on town advisory boards and committees.
“I like the idea of young people becoming involved because we are creating their town,” said Selectman John Knight at a December meeting. “Some of us are not going to be around in 2025, 2030.”
Although it hasn’t drawn a lot of interest from young people — only two have signed on to committees — the change drew fire from Finance Committee Chairman Michael Hackworth, who cited the new policy as one of his reasons for leaving the board in a Jan. 12 resignation letter to Town Clerk Susanne Fischer.
“I do not believe that such inexperienced members can reasonably be expected to further the committee’s consideration of important fiscal matters, provide oversight of capital projects, or engage on many other elements of the committee’s charge,” Hackworth wrote.
The new policy rules out regulatory boards like the Planning Board, Board of Selectmen, Zoning Board of Appeals and Conservation Commission for full voting participation by the young cohort, because those boards make decisions that can be subject to litigation and to state and federal laws. Proponents also argued that committee membership is screened by a search committee. Beebe is bringing a revised policy back to selectmen that restricts the younger voting members to one per board or committee.
On the Finance Committee, a young voting member can sign transfers of funds, but their signature does not count toward the legal minimum of five committee signatories, said Beebe.
"It's good to try and get young people involved," said James Lampke, executive director of the Massachusetts City Solicitors Association.
He said there is no additional liability to a committee having a member younger than voting age.
"It depends upon the conduct of the person and there's nothing to say this age category will act inappropriately," he said.
The Finance Committee has a 16-year-old as an ad hoc, nonvoting member, and Hackworth told the committee in a meeting last month that he supported that. But what happens, he said, when a 14-year-old with an eighth-grade education becomes the minimum standard for a voting member of the committee?
Hackworth got pushback from his own committee. While some questioned whether a high school junior or senior would be able to finish a three-year term with college a likely roadblock, when Hackworth called for a vote last month, a 5-4 majority voted in favor of having a full voting member of between 14 and 17 as long as membership was limited to one per committee.
“How much risk is it having one adolescent on the committee learning to be a good citizen when there are eight other adults?” Beebe said. “I didn’t see it as much of a risk and much more of a benefit in engaging young citizens.”
It was the sight of Nauset Regional High School junior Benten Niggel, 16, sitting at a Cape Cod Commission hearing last summer on a proposed District of Critical Planning Concern for North Eastham that got the attention of William O’Shea, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, sparking his idea of involving youth in town government.
“When I heard about (discount merchandise store) Dollar General trying to open a store (on Route 6 in North Eastham) I didn’t know what to think of it,” said Niggel, whose mother owns Willy’s World Wellness and Conference Center, which is located close to the Dollar General’s proposed location.
He said he didn’t understand the protections offered by a DCPC and wanted to learn more.
O’Shea drafted him for the newly formed Strategic Planning Committee, which advises selectmen investigating an overall master plan for the town, including land use planning, economic development, and the internal structuring of town government.
Niggel, who has been active in politics, has been on the committee as a full voting member for almost six months.
“Definitely my opinion is appreciated,” he said.
Initially, there was some resistance, possibly in part due to how young he looks, but that passed, he said.
Niggel said he would like to see more students take an interest in town government, but felt the only way they’d buy in would be as a voting member.
“When I look at town committees, it’s older people (as members),” he said.
There is no one in their 20s or 30s because they are busy with work and family, he said. High school students may be the only way to get input from the younger generations.
“If you want Eastham to be (somewhere) students can stay, grow up and live here, and have a family here, we need their vision on what they want Eastham to be,” Niggel said.
— Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct.