Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby MattPublicover » Sun Apr 10, 2011 8:17 am

Hi, Andy;

In reply to your comment:

Looking ahead to next year, we'll be having an organizational meeting in May after the new members are elected next week, and we'll once again ask how we want to do business next year. It will be up to the committee to decide how to proceed, and the majority of the committee will decide the direction.


It would seem to me that the committee should have an inherent role, not one that changes year by year based on the changing make-up of the committee following each election cycle. Last year, several of us proposed the idea of sending an advisory letter, not because it felt like something we wanted to do this year only. We proposed it because it seemed to be a fundamental weakness for the committee not to have a voice until the tail end of the process. We thought the idea of sending a BC advisory letter was something the committee should be doing every year.

The vote on this proposal was clear -- a large majority originally voted in favor of coming up with a letter, but one month later I believe I was the lone vote who still supported the idea of sending the letter. The rest of the committee voted to rescind the first vote. I think that was the worst decision the committee made all year ... but being a proponent of democracy, I cannot argue with the results. I do not think it would be helpful to the administration, the SB or the voters to change methodologies back and forth year by year.
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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby MattPublicover » Sun Apr 10, 2011 8:29 am

Norm Phillips said:

I therefore view the BC as an important link in the chain from department supervisor to voter. I am sure that many voters view it this way, since the voters approved the formation of the School BC by a larger majority than approved the change from Selectmen to the Town Council.


True, Norm, the voters did approve your warrant article to create a school-only budget committee following the elimination of the municipal budget committee. But Merrimack had never had a school-only budget committee. It does not seem unreasonable to ask voters to evaluate the School Budget Committee now that we have had a statistically reasonable number of years to see it in action. Is it doing what people expected (whatever that may have been)? Is it capable of doing what people would like to see it do (whatever that may be)? If they knew then what they know now after 5 years of the committee's existence, would they still vote in favor of creating this body?

Personally, the fact that the BC has not moved the budget needle much is not my reason for proposing the town reconsider the purpose, the authority, or the existence of the budget committee. I don't think it adds value. I think the School Board members are perfectly capable to studying the budget line by line. After all, they, too, are just voters who were elected by the town to supervise the school district operations, including but not limited to the budget.
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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby andysinnh » Sun Apr 10, 2011 11:57 am

Hi, Matt - some responses to your thoughts:
Andy wrote:Looking ahead to next year, we'll be having an organizational meeting in May after the new members are elected next week, and we'll once again ask how we want to do business next year. It will be up to the committee to decide how to proceed, and the majority of the committee will decide the direction.

Matt wrote:It would seem to me that the committee should have an inherent role, not one that changes year by year based on the changing make-up of the committee following each election cycle. Last year, several of us proposed the idea of sending an advisory letter, not because it felt like something we wanted to do this year only. We proposed it because it seemed to be a fundamental weakness for the committee not to have a voice until the tail end of the process. We thought the idea of sending a BC advisory letter was something the committee should be doing every year.

The vote on this proposal was clear -- a large majority originally voted in favor of coming up with a letter, but one month later I believe I was the lone vote who still supported the idea of sending the letter. The rest of the committee voted to rescind the first vote. I think that was the worst decision the committee made all year ... but being a proponent of democracy, I cannot argue with the results. I do not think it would be helpful to the administration, the SB or the voters to change methodologies back and forth year by year.

I think in principle you're correct - and I think that if the committee were to decide to do things differently, it should remain in place for multiple years to see whether or not it was more effective or less effective. The advisory letter is still (I believe) something we should do each year - but the mistake was something I'll take respnosibility for as chairman - and that's coming up with a clear methodology of how to craft the letter. I let the committee members direct the contents, and that wasn't the right way. This coming year, my single vote as a BC member will be to do the letter again, except this time with clear content direction and guidance for creation this year, and beyond. If I'm chair again, I'll commit to driving in this direction.
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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby punto » Tue Apr 12, 2011 4:26 pm

Matt Publicover wrote:
QUOTE
True, Norm, the voters did approve your warrant article to create a school-only budget committee following the elimination of the municipal budget committee. But Merrimack had never had a school-only budget committee. It does not seem unreasonable to ask voters to evaluate the School Budget Committee now that we have had a statistically reasonable number of years to see it in action. Is it doing what people expected (whatever that may have been)? Is it capable of doing what people would like to see it do (whatever that may be)? If they knew then what they know now after 5 years of the committee's existence, would they still vote in favor of creating this body?
END OF QUOTE

Matt---I do not think a simple yes/no vote would
provide enough useful information. In fact, your two parenthetic comments confirm in my mind that a much more detailed question and answer is called for, if at all.
Secondly, the previous existence of the Municipal BC should have provided all the needed experience to enable a voter to judge what the School BC could do. The school BC can do everything with the school budget that the previous Municipal BC could do with the school budget.
You certainly have the right to submit a petition asking for an expression of opinion, but if you so decide, please design it so you get useful answers.

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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby ggkrupp » Wed Feb 15, 2012 3:29 pm

Given the new warrant article that will essentially ask voters the question of this thread, I thought I would post the latest news concerning that warrant article here to throw it back to the top of the forum. Maybe it will allow interested parties to reengage in the debate or at least read some of the various points already made on the issue.

http://merrimack.patch.com/articles/article-seeks-removal-of-budget-committee
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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby TonyRichardson » Thu Feb 16, 2012 6:59 am

The flaw is within the entire organization under the charter.

Prior to the charter the school and its budget had oversight from the town, now it is an independent entity with no oversight of any consequence.

There is no significant impetus on the school organizations, either from the SB or BC, to rein in costs, and so they don't make any particular effort to do so.

Whether it is their intent or not to do so, the BC is effectively a rubber stamp for whatever the SB proposes.


Example...when the state reduced the funding coming back to the town they had no problem finding reductions of 500k to meet the lower number.

To me as a taxpayer, that means there is excess in the budget that will never be touched unless they are forced to.


I have seen the cost of schools in this town go up every year and not by minor amounts.

The per child spend in this town is now higher than sending a child to UNH, which in my opinion is absolutely ridiculous.

(Driven in large part by special ed granted, but the driver doesnt matter to me, the fact that you are reaching so deep into my pockets does)
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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby andysinnh » Thu Feb 16, 2012 9:30 am

TonyRichardson wrote:The flaw is within the entire organization under the charter.

Prior to the charter the school and its budget had oversight from the town, now it is an independent entity with no oversight of any consequence.

There is no significant impetus on the school organizations, either from the SB or BC, to rein in costs, and so they don't make any particular effort to do so.

Whether it is their intent or not to do so, the BC is effectively a rubber stamp for whatever the SB proposes.


Example...when the state reduced the funding coming back to the town they had no problem finding reductions of 500k to meet the lower number.

To me as a taxpayer, that means there is excess in the budget that will never be touched unless they are forced to.


I have seen the cost of schools in this town go up every year and not by minor amounts.

The per child spend in this town is now higher than sending a child to UNH, which in my opinion is absolutely ridiculous.

(Driven in large part by special ed granted, but the driver doesnt matter to me, the fact that you are reaching so deep into my pockets does)


Tony - a couple of comments. First, the $500k cut that was proposed to address the possible shortfall for the state funding problem was NOT done with "no problems". Those proposed cuts would have had impacts that raised a lot of concern with those on the SB, those on the BC, many parents, and (as you could tell) those who were at the Deliberative Session. But it was proposed such that we'd not run into a budget problem should our funding be reduced, because it was the fiscally-appropriate thing to do. Without those potential funding shortfalls, I don't think you'd see any one of those groups I've listed above in support of such reductions.

In terms of your thoughts about "rubber stamp" and the level of effectiveness (which was also brought out by Tim Tehnave in our session and also by a few other supporters of this article) - I think that this has recently been due in large part to the foresight of the SB and administration to anticipate the level of spending that they'd be expected to hit, and also being proactive about staff adjustments as our enrollments have dropped. And in many of these cases, policy drives the spending, which means for the BC that it's hard to really make any changes. But as we move forward - and our enrollements continue to drop - I think we're going to start having some tough infrastructure spending decisions to make, and it's here that I think a BC can really come more into play in terms of looking at the costs, location of services, etc.

To me (and I've stated this in other places) - the removal of the BC WITHOUT any investigation as to the bigger picture is not a responsible action. I could certainly entertain and help drive the discussion about whether an RSA-enabled BC vs an advisory-focused BC makes sense, or whether the BC concept isn't applicable but requires a larger SB body, which is in the case of other towns/municipalities that have no BC. I personally don't know what the right answer would be, but I'd love to be involved in a process that looks at the options. But what I DO know is that I don't support removing the BC until we've done that due-dilligence. Period.

andy
(yea - the chair of the BC - but speaking here more as a parent/taxpayer/44-yr resident of Merrimack who's seen the ups and downs of spending/budgets that scares the begeezers out of me)
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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby ggkrupp » Thu Feb 16, 2012 11:55 am

andysinnh wrote:scares the begeezers out of me


I don't think fear is an appropriate motivation to keep the BC. It is this kind of thinking that gets us bureaucracies like the TSA ... it make us "feel" better but is it really keeping us safer? and is it worth the cost?

I think the important question on this issue is whether voters think that the deliberative session and school board elections offer enough checks & balances in the budgeting process. I believe they do. When I weigh the positives and negatives, I think that the taxpayers would be better served with no BC.

As was pointed out by Mr. Tenhave at our BC meeting, the BC lengthens the budget process by 4-6 weeks and keeps our administrators and department heads engaged in defending budgets for that additional 4-6 weeks with little-to-no change in the budget (and I don't think it is because the SB has been "trained" because the BC exists). It also places the important budget work by the SB into holiday season when we are all more likely to take time with our families versus discussing budget line items at the SB budget review. I would rather see these administrators and dept heads defend their budgets once before the SB and the public and then go back to their primary duty: educating our kids. I think the fears of a rogue school board are unfounded but even if that would occur, this community has demonstrated the resolve to come out in numbers at the various Deliberative Sessions when the governing body gets too far out of step with the taxpayers. Plus, there is always the option to vote for the default budget.

I also disagree with the notion that the number of people sitting on the SB is too few to adequately deal with a $65M budget. I have had several classes which detail the pitfalls of decision-by-committee. A larger committee does not necessarily make better decisions and in fact many times, it makes worse ones than an average individual would make. I did a quick google search to see if I could find some of the references from my classes but found the following article that made all of the same points I remember from my leadership courses. http://practice.findlaw.com/practice-guide/pros-and-cons-of-decision-making-by-committee.html

Also, the vast majority of that budget is directly related to staff salary & benefits of which the BC has zero impact. The SB and Administration do all the hiring/firing so despite what people think, other than making a bottom line cut that is so draconian that the SB & Administration HAS to cut staff, the BC cannot make decisions which affect staffing. Even if the BC were able to come to a consensus on those draconian cuts (or adds for that matter), I think the work would likely be undone at the DS or at the ballot box.

In short, if the BC ceased to exist tomorrow, I doubt the average voter would even notice and I don't think that there would be any less opportunity to check the SB on their proposed budget. Right-to-know laws being what they are, I think Andy and any other concerned citizens who disagree with me could set up a private "advisory BC" where they meet and review details of the budget along with the rest of the public and present advice to the SB as citizens.
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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby andysinnh » Thu Feb 16, 2012 12:57 pm

Gary - couple of points based on your post.

1. The TSA analogy, and it's positioning as not really providing any value, is an interesting one. But the human brain isn't always as logic-based as some of us would like it to be. Take the example of the latest TSA proposal to fast-track airport security for frequent, pre-approved travelers. They're starting a program so people who get fingerprinted and go through other verification hoops can, at the airport security lines, bypass the removal of shoes, belts, laptops, etc. For me, who travels a lot, I like it. But look at the casual traveler and get into their head. Various news agencies (including FoxNews, CNN, etc) interviewed passengers about it, and the number of passengers who FEARED the new system (and the potential for someone leveraging that new system to turn around and jeopardize the safety of the plane flight) was not a unique viewpoint. Is it rational? Partly. Is it real? Absolutely. A logic-oriented person would state the benefits - but to people that are leary of flying in the first place (safety-wise), the removal of a level of security isn't necessarily comforting or something they'd like.

Swinging this back to the BC discussion, I don't think everyone agrees that the removal of the BC would make things be the same. Many feel that extra set of eyes and extra step in review adds value. Even if the logical mind doesn't dictate it.

2. The "cost" of this review is also something to talk about. The only real dollar cost to the taxpayers is that of tear-down and setup of the environments, the cost of taping/recording, and some support staff costs. You can measure this, likely, in the hundreds over the life of a budget. The dollars-and-cents cost of administration isn't a calculatable one, since they're not getting OT to do what they do, and many of the individual reviews are done during a school day. So let's be clear the district isn't saving big bucks without the BC.

But let's look at the non-calculatable costs - the one about taking their time away from other duties ("educating our kids") - and the timing of the budget. Yes, the budget committee does extend the process by 4-6 weeks. And yes administrators are asked to do a second level of discussion with BC members. And, yes, the start of the budget cycle by the SB does happen during December (which is done, btw, during working time, not during school break, so it's not as though they're being called out of vacation or anything). But does this time add value? The concensus by the supporters of this article claim "NO", that it's a rubber stamp for what the SB does, and there's no accountability for what the BC does. I look at this in another way, and that's in the added value to the PROCESS that this provides (and here's where the concept of a formal, elected, advisory BC comes into play).

The SB meets year-round, and discusses policy and budget issues throughout the year. During the budget cycle, they get reviews/budget info from each department, and the SB members have the context of their year-round discussions during the budget process, and ask "value-add" type of questions during their reviews. So, if you attend the SB meetings all year, and are really up to date on what's happening, you get the full-transparency view of the budget and know where things stand. But I wager that less than 5 percent of the voters pay that level of attention to the ongoing SB process, and when they do tune into the SB budget meetings, many times there are questions that the viewers at home (watching the recording) have that don't get answered. Yes, they could come to the next SB meeting to ask - or email/phone a SB member for the info - but how many do that?

The BC members are a much closer match to the average voter. They don't all go to every SB meeting, and don't have the full context of what's happened throughout the year. As such, the types of questons the BC has tend to be more rudamentary, and more "what's the rationale behind that". In years past, I completely agree there was way too much "double-asking" of questions to administration by the BC (that were publically asked/answered at the SB review sessions). And over the past 2 years, I've encouraged every BC member to attend or watch the SB discussions so they have all of the context that the SB and public has from those budget review forums. As such, when we come into the BC sessions, the questions asked are much more of a "fill in the gaps" sort of questions. Typically, things that a passive viewer of the SB meetings would have. They know part of the topic, but they may not know ALL of the context of the topic. As such (and I've confirmed this through various conversation w/residents I've had), the BC adds a level of info that's not always obtained from the SB reviews, since the BC tends to ask more fundamental/"lack of context" questions, and people get more comfortable with the information that they use to form their budgetary opinions.

Now, to get that data it does mean an extra pass thru administration - but I don't see it as a worthless activity - it provides a service, and many residents rely upon that to help better understand the budget. It's here where I could enter a discussion about whether an RSA-enabled BC has more/less value than an Advisory-based BC. But regardless, a larger group of "Joe-average citizens" that are voted in, who are enabled to ask questions and get answers, adds value. Period. And I am not the only one who holds that viewpoint.

3.) The size of the SB is one that is a problem when votes on budget (and even policy) occurs when members are gone traveling or out for other reasons. Yes, the $65M is largely driven by salaries and benefits. But the annual infrastructure costs are pretty darned close to the total town-side budget, and when a potential 2-person majority can swing the bat on a spending or budget change - without the perceived safety-net of budget-committee review - it concerns some voters. It may sound small, but even increasing the SB by 2 members adds to the level of committment by the members for a majority for a particular stance on spending/policy. And the larger the SB size, the more representative to the viewpoint of the voters. I'm not saying that a 13-person SB is appropriate - but I think that 5 is too low if the BC is gone. And face it, the town has 7 now - so there must be some merit to that decision by the charter commission. I'm still not 100 percent sold on this model - but if a majority of the voters want the BC gone, I content a majority would like the SB size increased as well. And I'd prefer that be a combo-proposal, driven by a logical review of what the town wants.

I know, that for the supporters of the removal of the BC, none of this has any merit. But I think that one needs to step back from the pure logic-based "heres' why we don't need the BC" to look back at the rational as to why it was created in the first place. Yes, there's comfort to voters when more folks look at the budget - whether they recommend changes or not. The real interesting times are when one body says yes, and the other body says no. And Gary, you're right - the DS is the vehicle people can use to make changes if they don't agree. But should we let it get to that point? And would the removal of the BC make people more reliant on the DS to get their viewpoints into the budget? Based on my multiple-decade experience with town meetings and DS's under SB2, I can safely say the more smoothly you can make a DS/town meeting to, the more comfortable the average voter is. If you're having DS-based changes more regularly, it's a much more "chaotic" environment to get business done, and frankly one of the reasons we went to SB2 in the first place....

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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby Jeannine Stergios » Thu Feb 16, 2012 2:22 pm

Gary/Andy et al

I am seeing good points on both sides, but I think the best solution would be to dissolve the BC and add two more seats on the School Board. I have seen several SB meetings when only 3 members attended for whatever reason. I don't believe that 2 people should determine the course of our schools.

I watched the meeting this morning and wonder about Tim Tenhave's reasons for pushing this idea on one hand, but yet on the other hand I applaud him for taking the initiative to speak up. Andy and Gary both know I have voiced similar concerns for several years now.

Yesterday I was opposed to it but after listening to Tim Tenhave's reason and the reaction of the BC members (which was practically nil other than Stan) I will vote in favor of dissolution.
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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby andysinnh » Thu Feb 16, 2012 3:22 pm

Jeannine Stergios wrote:Gary/Andy et al

I am seeing good points on both sides, but I think the best solution would be to dissolve the BC and add two more seats on the School Board. I have seen several SB meetings when only 3 members attended for whatever reason. I don't believe that 2 people should determine the course of our schools.

I watched the meeting this morning and wonder about Tim Tenhave's reasons for pushing this idea on one hand, but yet on the other hand I applaud him for taking the initiative to speak up. Andy and Gary both know I have voiced similar concerns for several years now.

Yesterday I was opposed to it but after listening to Tim Tenhave's reason and the reaction of the BC members (which was practically nil other than Stan) I will vote in favor of dissolution.

Jeannine - couple of quick points. I think the "neutral" reaction you got from the other BC members was because they may be waiting until the DS to talk to the article. The only reason I spoke up is that I won't have a voice on the subject, since I'll be away in Houston on business I can't move around (fyi - this'll be the first meeting of any kind I've missed in 5 years because of business - and this (unfortunately) was a pretty important one - but what can you do..)

Second - and my major concern - is that if the BC gets dissolved, there is ZERO initiatie for anyone to consider changing the structure of the SB, at least from the group making the proposal to dissolve the BC. My hope was that people that are pushing the BC dissolve proposal could take a step back and look at the bigger picture - and tie an article to changes to multiple committees/boards. But I hold no hope out that the petitioners would make that happen...

andy
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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby TonyRichardson » Thu Feb 16, 2012 3:33 pm

andysinnh wrote:
Jeannine Stergios wrote:Gary/Andy et al

I am seeing good points on both sides, but I think the best solution would be to dissolve the BC and add two more seats on the School Board. I have seen several SB meetings when only 3 members attended for whatever reason. I don't believe that 2 people should determine the course of our schools.

I watched the meeting this morning and wonder about Tim Tenhave's reasons for pushing this idea on one hand, but yet on the other hand I applaud him for taking the initiative to speak up. Andy and Gary both know I have voiced similar concerns for several years now.

Yesterday I was opposed to it but after listening to Tim Tenhave's reason and the reaction of the BC members (which was practically nil other than Stan) I will vote in favor of dissolution.

Jeannine - couple of quick points. I think the "neutral" reaction you got from the other BC members was because they may be waiting until the DS to talk to the article. The only reason I spoke up is that I won't have a voice on the subject, since I'll be away in Houston on business I can't move around (fyi - this'll be the first meeting of any kind I've missed in 5 years because of business - and this (unfortunately) was a pretty important one - but what can you do..)

Second - and my major concern - is that if the BC gets dissolved, there is ZERO initiatie for anyone to consider changing the structure of the SB, at least from the group making the proposal to dissolve the BC. My hope was that people that are pushing the BC dissolve proposal could take a step back and look at the bigger picture - and tie an article to changes to multiple committees/boards. But I hold no hope out that the petitioners would make that happen...

andy


We arent seeing any initiative from the BC, so what's the difference?

The SB won't be able to point fingers at the BC any more when people complain but outside of that what is the real change.
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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby ggkrupp » Thu Feb 16, 2012 3:35 pm

I can't speak for the other BC members but as readers of this thread can probably surmise, I am not neutral on this issue. I remained silent at the meeting because I thought it inappropriate to discuss during the BC meeting. My reasons were:

1 - The BC's job is to review appropriations and warrant articles that affect appropriations ... this article does not have an appropriation impact

and

2 - As someone on the committee pointed out, or maybe it was Mr. Tenhave, the BC has an inherent conflict of interest in discussion this issue. Discussing it in a formal meeting is problematic no matter which side of the issue you are on.

As for the Deliberative Session being important for this warrant I would say it is only important if your goal is to alter the wording of the article. Otherwise, the people on each side of the issue will have the opportunity to influence their friends and neighbors before the ballot vote to decide the issue.
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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby RBarnes » Thu Feb 16, 2012 4:13 pm

Jeannine Stergios wrote:Gary/Andy et al

I am seeing good points on both sides, but I think the best solution would be to dissolve the BC and add two more seats on the School Board. I have seen several SB meetings when only 3 members attended for whatever reason. I don't believe that 2 people should determine the course of our schools.

I watched the meeting this morning and wonder about Tim Tenhave's reasons for pushing this idea on one hand, but yet on the other hand I applaud him for taking the initiative to speak up. Andy and Gary both know I have voiced similar concerns for several years now.

Yesterday I was opposed to it but after listening to Tim Tenhave's reason and the reaction of the BC members (which was practically nil other than Stan) I will vote in favor of dissolution.


I think I'm somewhat of the opposite. I've heard whisperings of people wanting to put up an article like this for a couple years now and honestly when I first heard it and I was 100% behind it without any reservations...

However Andy raised a very good point which you bring up here, there are times when 2 of the 5 school board members are absent. That leaves 2 people with the power.

Adding two additional seats to the board I think would solve the problem but this article doesn't do that. I'm not sure if the people can amend this article at the deliberative session to also change the size of the school board but that's a question that needs to be answered prior to the meeting as it could impact how a lot of people vote on the article.
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Re: Is having the Budget Committee a good idea?

Postby Jeannine Stergios » Thu Feb 16, 2012 5:14 pm

Rick I think I'm the one who mentioned the times when only 3 board members have been present
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