Two members of the Bedford Finance Committee on Tuesday were replaced rather than reappointed, an unprecedented rearrangement of the independent panel.
The three-member appointing authority for the Finance Committee Tuesday named George Lee and Philip Prince to replace Erica Liu and Steve Steele, whose three-year terms expired on June 30.
As required under the town charter, members of the Finance Committee are appointed by the Town Moderator, the Select Board chair, and the Finance Committee chair. The charter also requires that their decisions be unanimous.
According to the town bylaws, the Finance Committee’s primary responsibility is preparation of the budget. To help ensure independence, the bylaws state, “No member of the Finance Committee shall be a member of any other Town board or hold any elected or appointed positions as an official or employee of the Town.”
Liu and Steele were ideological fiscal conservatives on the committee, advocates of minimizing the budget’s impact on taxes. Both voted against the most recent municipal spending plan, although they supported the education budget.
Reappointments to the Finance Committee, as has been the case with other appointed town boards, historically have been automatic. One recent change is that volunteers are required to explain on a written form why they want to continue to serve.
There were five candidates for the two seats, and they were interviewed by the appointing authority beginning on June 14.
The most recent interviews took place on July 13, almost an hour-long meeting, first with Steele and then with Liu. Then one of the members said he needed to depart in 10 minutes, and the appointing authority decided to reconvene on July 25 so there would be no time pressure.
But on Tuesday, the process took only six minutes, including the time it took to adjust the panel’s microphones.
Select Board Chair Bopha Malone was the only one of the three to speak on the appointments. “I have been putting a lot of thought and consideration into this,” she said, thanking the five candidates and specifying Steele and Liu “for their contributions.”
“My feeling is that as the Finance Committee continues to evolve and adapt, it is essential for us to get new perspectives,” she continued, before moving to appoint Lee and Prince. Finance Committee Chair Ben Thomas asked Malone a brief question that was inaudible beyond the table, then seconded the motion.
Moderator Mark Siegenthaler, chairing the appointing authority, asked if there were any comments from the members. Hearing none, he said, “I am relying on the Select Board and the Finance Committee to lead this in many ways, to be an important factor in how we proceed.”
Then the committee approved Malone’s motion.
There were about 30 spectators, including family members of some of the candidates, and a few seemed surprised by the speed of the proceedings. “Don’t you want feedback?” a woman asked. Siegenthaler said the session was public, but not a forum for comments. He reminded those present that there was an interview process.
The committee voted to adjourn. As spectators departed, one woman announced, “This is Communism here in the United States.”
During the interviews earlier this month, Steele and Liu answered questions about the fiscal 2024 budget guidelines, the relations between the committee and Finance Director, the role of the Finance Committee, and the community preservation surcharge.
Siegenthaler at one point contended that he saw examples of Steele speaking rudely to town professional staff members and elected officials during meetings. Steele said those were taken out of context; some were in response to a denial of requested information.
Prince is an executive in the pharmaceutical industry. Lee is in product development. According to the 2023 list of town residents, he lives next door to Paul Mortenson, who left the Finance Committee in March after he was elected to the Select Board.
Steele, a 13-year veteran of the Finance Committee, later in the evening issued a statement:
“I feel sad for the way Erica and I were treated after both of us have dedicated much time to this town,” it read in part. “I was really disturbed by references to the fact that the finance committee and the select board should share the same views. In all my years on finance committee we were always a neutral board that had great discussions and came to conclusions that worked best for the town. I am sorry to see this town heading in a different direction.”
He thanked supporters as well as finance committee members with whom he served.