AYER - "This isn't a power grab by the Board of Selectmen," said Ayer selectman Gary Luca.
On Tuesday, Luca defended his suggestion that three government-altering warrant articles, which all failed at Annual Town Meeting, be resubmitted for voter consideration at one of three Special Town Meetings scheduled for Oct. 22,.
The selectmen voted 4-1 to send to the printers their 13-article Fall "business" Town Meeting warrant. The fall warrant includes language directly copied and pasted from the May 14 warrant. At Annual Town Meeting, voters rejected: (1) a switch from an elected to a selectmen-appointed Treasurer, (2) a switch from an elected Tax Collector to a selectmen-appointed Town Collector, and (3) the creation of a Finance Department led by a selectmen-appointed Finance Director who would oversee both the Treasurer and Town Collector.
If successful, the articles will ask the legislature to enact law changing Ayer's government structure and setting the stage for appointed finance officials. Stephanie Gintner was elected Treasurer in 2010 and holds the office through April 2013. John Canney was elected Tax Collector in 2011 and holds the office through April 2014. The selectmen have butt heads with both Gintner and Canney over various issues.
During a prior term on the board, Luca instigated an audit of town financial affairs. The DOR Division of Local Services recommended in 2007 that Ayer shift to appointed financial professionals. After a year of study, the selectmen-appointed Town Government Study Committee (TGSC) sponsored the Annual Town Meeting articles to that end. But voters rejected the articles on May 14. On the same night, voters made several decisions that contradicted selectmen recommendations. Voters reduced the selectmen's stipend, voted to recommend the Board of Selectmen shrink from 5- to 3-members, and switched the power to appoint the Finance Committee from the selectmen to the Town Moderator. Luca said talk that the Fall Town Meeting warrant articles are "taking away someone's right to vote" is "totally ludicrous You still have the right to vote at Fall Town Meeting."
Selectman Frank Maxant opposed putting the articles on the warrant again. "When we don't get what we want, we try jamming it down the public's throat."
Selectman Christopher Hillman disagreed. "I thought it was a very close vote" in the spring. By a vote of 85-103, Annual Town Meeting voters rejected the creation of a Finance Department.
Selectmen Chair Jim Fay said a consolidated finance department is "just good sense to me."
"Unless they're all control-mongers," Hillman said selectmen in other towns across the state are moving toward appointed financial officials. "I mean no disrespect to those holding the offices now."
Selectman Pauline Conley did speak in favor of the creation of a Town Collector post, but advised against the selectmen-led push for an appointed Treasurer. Gintner has filed suit against the board, the latest chapter in a contentious struggle with the selectmen. "I think we're causing ourselves some serious issues," warned Conley.
"We have an ongoing dispute in the Treasurer's Office which this board has interfered with," said Conley. "In my opinion, if I wasn't intimately involved in the process and was viewing it from the outside, the board is asking the town to retaliate against an elected official."
Town Accountant Lisa Gabree is often named as a likely Finance Director for the town. She asked to be heard.
"Maybe some feel I am the power hungry person. That is not the case," said Gabree. "All I've ever wanted is qualified persons to fill those posts."
Like the police and fire chiefs who lead their departments, Gabree said accounting is "a skill set you need to have when you walk in the door." Gabree said former Treasurer Denis Callahan "was solicited by us" to run for office because "he had a basic understanding" of financial principals.
"I went to Bentley for four years and graduated at the top of my class," said Gabree. "Why don't you elect me?"
"You don't live here," answered Conley.
An elected official is less accountable, said Hillman. "They can come in for an hour a day. They don't have to be here. They have no one to answer to. I don't think that's right. Everyone should have some guidelines to follow."
Luca asked Conley if she was alleging he was acting in "retribution against" the treasurer. Conley at first answered "that's my opinion."
"How's it retribution?" said Luca. "This is an efficiency and internal control issue for me."
"Retaliation and retribution mean two different things," said Conley. "I said retaliation."
"I apologize," said Luca, though he stood by his warrant article requests. "This is for sound government- that's what this is - to run the operation like a business. It's not too much to ask."
"Look at every community in this state that's gone into receivership," said Maxant. "All have had appointed officials. None were elected."
"I'm a professional appointed by you," said Gabree. "Is that a slam against me?"
Ultimately, the selectmen approved the three warrant articles, which voters will consider after the first warrant article on the "business" warrant, set to commence on Oct. 22 at 7:30 p.m. The first article mirrors language approved by Shirley Town Meeting on Sept. 24, amending the regional Ayer-Shirley Regional School District agreement.
If also approved at Ayer's Fall Town Meeting, a Nov. 17 debt exclusion vote will follow to seek voter approval for a high school renovation project that incorporates a mechanism for Ayer to share in the repayment burden borne solely by Shirley on its middle school.
Earlier in the evening, there will be two other single-article Special Town Meetings. The first is scheduled for 7 p.m., the second is scheduled for 7:15 p.m.
Both Special Town Meetings are the result of near-identical citizen petitions sponsored by Maxant. Maxant seeks "yes" votes for each special town meeting article.
The first town meeting asks voters to petition the legislature to restore Ayer's governmental jurisdiction over former Fort Devens lands located within Ayer's historical town bounds. The second town meeting asks Ayer voters - in concert with Harvard and Shirley voters - to jointly petition the legislature to seek the return of municipal power of all Devens Regional Enterprise Zone lands to the respective towns based upon their historical jurisdictional boundaries.
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