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Small Changes, Big Impact?

March 23, 2023
• The League of Women Voters of Needham held a forum to discuss what a “YES” or “NO” vote will mean for the two ballot questions.

reported by Yuxiao Yuan

Residents of Needham will be facing two important ballot questions, in addition to electing officials this year. To help voters make informed decisions, the League of Women Voters of Needham hosted a forum on Monday, March 20th, where Select Board chair Marianne Cooley and Police Chief John Schlittler provided answers to questions from the audience.

If a majority of voters select “Yes” on the ballot for Question 1, the police department would end its participation in the state’s civil service system, which has been used to hire, discipline and promote local police officers for almost one hundred years, since 1926. While civil service was established in the 1880s to protect hiring and discipline decisions from patronage, the fact sheet on the town website indicates the system has become outdated and inefficient for Needham.

Under civil service, departments must hire from a top-down list of qualified candidates in the order of their scores on a written examination. The state system also requires all police candidates to have resided in Needham for at least one year prior to taking the exam, further narrowing the candidate pool for Needham.

During the League of Women Voters of Needham forum, Police Chief John Schlittler explained, “We put in probably about a month ago for one officer through civil service. We only had two people sign the list, so it’s not giving us a real broad candidate pool.”

Chief Schlittler emphasized that ending civil service would allow the department to consider attributes beyond test scores when selecting candidates. “The town and the department can determine what hiring preference that they want to acknowledge; residency, military, language proficiency, prior academy experience…”

He also stated department would be able to develop its own test. “We now have the ability to tell the person who’s designing the test, these are the issues that we’re seeing in Needham. These are the main things that we’re seeing, whether it be an issue with police procedure, you know, search and seizure, incidents like that, which is going to give us a better understanding of what the candidates know and their ability to act and understand the laws and apply them on the street.”

Similar criteria could also apply to officer promotions, according to Chief Schlittler,”… such as work production interaction and contribution to the community. Performance evaluations would all factor into the promotion scores.”

There are 38 Massachusetts towns that no longer participate in civil service. Last May, Town Meeting approved a home rule petition asking the state legislature to exempt the Needham Police Department from civil service provisions. However, the legislature has not yet acted on this petition, which Select Board chair Marianne Cooley described as unusual.

“This was the first year that we saw sort of this significant inaction on these questions. Prior to this, people had been being released from civil service. So there was a change that occurred.”

But because Needham originally entered civil service by ballot vote, the state law allows the town to revoke that acceptance through a ballot vote now. In addition, the Needham Personnel Board has approved a set of policies regarding the appointment of entry level police officers.

Question 2, asks to expand the number of liquor licenses in the town to meet the state quota system. The proposed change, which is proportional to the town’s population, would increase the total number of licenses by six, bring medium’s total licenses to fourteen; seven for All-Alcohol licenses and seven for Wine and Malt Beverage licenses. Currently, the town is allowed eight licenses under a special act, and all have been issued. According to Cooley, the new proposal is motivated by potential business growth.

“As Needham Crossing continues to develop, that might be a location where they might be a desire for something like this. The other piece that we’ve seen happen is that there has been expansion in the number of licenses that say a grocery store could hold. So in Needham, it could be that one of the grocery stores in doing a remodel may choose to incorporate a section that would have beer and wine.”

The Board of Health sent a letter to the League prior to the meeting opposing the passage of question two. The letter states:

There is a very large body of public health research shows increased access to alcohol is associated with increased consumption and can result in negative consequences such as incidents of violence and alcohol impaired driving.

Members from the Board of Health also spoke out against the change at the Select Board meeting on March 14th. Dr. Stephen Epstein, a member of the Board of Health, testified, “There is a problem in Needham. First off, in Massachusetts we have more drunk drivers than on average in the country, and we have those stats in the letter for you. We also know that Needham youth binge drink more often than their peers in the surrounding towns, according to…the Metro West Adolescent Health Survey.”

Epstein also highlighted the potential of violation of selling alcohol to minors, citing numbers collected between 2018 to 2022. “On average, we’re hitting, you know, 7, 8, 9, 10 sales to minor out of our under 30 different retailers. So about a third of retailers are consistently selling to minors.”

Town Meeting had previously unanimously voted in favor of the change in 2021. The proposal still requires the vote of Needham residents to become enacted.

This story ran as part of the Needham Channel News, a weekly newscast airing on The Needham Channel every Thursday at 7:30pm. The Needham Channel News can be found on the Community Channel: Comcast 9, Astound 15 and Verizon 29. Most Thursdays it also can be viewed on our HD Channel on Verizon 2129, Astound 613 and streaming on this site.