AYER -- "This isn't a power grab by the Board of Selectmen," said Ayer Selectman Gary Luca. Luca defended his suggestion that three government-altering warrant articles that failed at annual Town Meeting in May be resubmitted for voters at fall Town Meeting on Oct. 22.
Selectmen voted 4-1 on Tuesday night to set the 13-article fall "business" Town Meeting warrant. In a direct copy-and-paste from the May 14 warrant, Luca suggested voters revisit the notion of switching to an appointed (instead of an elected) treasurer and tax collector.
Taken together, the articles seek legislative approval to create: a Finance Department led by a selectmen-appointed finance director who would oversee a selectmen-appointed treasurer and a selectmen-appointed town collector.
It's a suggested fundamental change to Ayer town government that was rejected by voters this spring. 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. Selectmen have butt heads with both Gintner and Canney over various issues.
Luca instigated the 2007 DOR Division of Local Services audit of town government. The resulting recommendations were later encapsulated in warrant articles.
On May 14, Ayer voters rejected the Finance Department, treasurer and town collector recommendations. Annual Town Meeting also made several decisions that stood in contradiction to selectmen's stance -- the selectmen stipend was reduced, voters voiced a desire to shrink from a 5- to a 3-member board, and opted to have the town moderator (and not the selectmen) appoint the Finance Committee.
Luca said talk that the fall Town Meeting warrant articles are "taking away someone's right to vote" is "totally ludicrous."
"When we don't get what we want, we try jamming it down the public's throat," said Selectman Frank Maxant.
Selectman Christopher Hillman disagreed. "I thought it was a very close vote." The vote to create a Finance Department failed on May 14 on a vote of 85-103.
Selectmen Chairman Jim Fay said a consolidated Finance Department is "just good sense to me."
"Unless they're all control-mongers," Hillman said other towns in the state are moving toward appointed financial officials. "I mean no disrespect to those holding the offices now."
Selectman Pauline Conley said the move to put the articles before Town Meeting flies in the face of persistent charges that the "board of selectmen has too much power."
Conley did speak in favor of the creation of a town collector post, but advised against the selectmen-led push for an appointed treasurer at a time the board is enmeshed in a multi-month battle with Gintner, who has filed suit against the board.
"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."
"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.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."
"Look at every community in this state that's gone into receivership," said Maxant. "All have had appointed officials. None were elected."
Ultimately, selectmen approved the three warrant articles for Oct. 22 at 7:30 p.m. The first article mirrors the language approved by Shirley Town Meeting amending the regional school district agreement. If approved in Ayer, 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.
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.