AYER - Jane Morriss, 63, moved to Ayer in August. However, she's had a long history in and around the area, including past employment as a correspondent for Nashoba Publishing newspapers.
A Michigan native, Morriss received her undergraduate degree in journalism from Kent State University before settling in Connecticut. While there, Morriss worked in both the public and private sector, including reporting work for the Middletown Press and New Haven Register newspapers and as editor of the Glastonbury Citizen.
The mother of two migrated to Groton in 1991 and sold real estate for twelve years. Morriss chaired a Groton panel which lobbied against former plans for a regional airport at the former Fort Devens airfield.
A lifelong Democrat, Morriss also worked from 2008 to 2010 as a full time legislative aide to former Republican State Representative Robert Hargraves of Groton. Morriss met the multi-term lawmaker during his prior tenure as a town selectman.
"He needed an aide. He called me up and asked me if I'd like a job. I said yes and I was there the next week," said Morriss. "I loved it. I walked into the statehouse and I felt at home."
Morriss answered constituent calls, mail and attended meetings to brief Hargraves. "I did everything except vote on the floor," said Morriss. Morriss said during her tenure the office supported legislation to indemnify doctors prescribing antibiotics for the treatment of Lyme Disease, "It gave doctors room and protected them from persecution from their own medical boards."
Also the office helped ensure safeguards were in place for Ayer as PanAm Railways broke ground on a new car train-to-truck transfer facility off Willow Road. Concerns were that the facility sits atop the town's Spectacle Pond watershed.
Morriss said she asked the Attorney General's Office to seek court involvement in overseeing the project while the railroad remained on court monitored probation for its 2008 criminal cover-up of a major diesel fuel spill in Ayer.
"That was an epiphany for me at a time when everyone else had signed-off on it," said Morriss. She said many believed the town's hands were tied by a Consent Decree entered into with PanAm following federal suit which cleared the way for the construction of the facility.
Morris said the experience made her realize that the "sanctity" of Ayer's water supply is a "big issue" for the town. "I'd like to see Ayer protect its resources. One of the things that blew me away working on that project was to see that Ayer doesn't have safeguards in place to protect its aquifer like protective covenants or anything."
Morriss later left Hargraves' office to launch a run for the seat when the lawmaker opted against a reelection run. Morriss was defeated in the three-way Democratic primary. Semi-retired and now living in the Pleasant Street School apartments, Morriss said she has the time and energy to devote to the Ayer Board of Selectmen.
One passion is helping the town capitalize on sustainable and "green" energy initiatives, "I'd like to be part of the team that sees this to fruition."
Also Morriss said the arsenic levels in groundwater around the closed Shepley's Hill landfill on Devens bears close watching. "I felt the Army Corp of Engineers was really trying to distance itself from its obligations," said Morriss.
Morriss said the current board "has lost its momentum because there's a lot of distraction." Morriss blames "procedural stuff" which results in unnecessary "high drama."
"I don't get personal but it just seems they don't have a forward momentum or vision," said Morriss. "And so they're devolving into throwing rocks at each other. They're acting like adolescents in the school yard."
"Some respect for each other would help," as would respect for the will of the voters. Morriss questioned why the selectmen would reintroduce Town Meeting articles defeated the meeting prior, "When Town Meeting decides on something, it should be respected."
Incorporated in 1871, Ayer has never enacted a charter which, in conjunction with town bylaws, could dictate town government structure. Morriss said the time has come for a town charter.
"There needs to be some real serious thought into the reporting relationships and how we get it done in Ayer," said Morriss. "I think we've been able to bump along OK but things are getting more and more complicated."
Ayer's "metamorphosis" following the decommissioning of the Fort Devens Army base was "hugely successful," said Morriss. Now the issue for Morriss is watching the further development of the remnant Devens Regional Enterprise Zone. "I think the businesses in Ayer really have to be protected from the predatory aspect of Devens development - from housing, to services and restaurants and facilities."
Morriss said that's the role of the Joint Boards of Selectmen, but said procedural missteps are harming harmonious process there, too. "They don't have a real vision as to where they're going or what they're doing," said Morriss. "Their response to this impasse is the same- they start hitting each other over the head."
"When things start falling apart and people start arguing about procedural stuff it's because they lack vision and they lack leadership. I think it's important for there to be clear lines of assignment of tasks," said Morriss. "You need to create rules of engagement and to follow them and to have a desire to unite for our shared cause and vision."
Morriss said state agency MassDevelopment, which manages the build out, is "not here for the long term. Its charter is due to run out. They're not permanent."
Morriss said it would seem unlikely that the legislature would convert the land into its own town, "You don't have the population there. You don't have the means to support the infrastructure," said Morriss.
But Morriss said it's too soon to definitively state whether the land should revert to the towns "I'm not coming down on that. I'm not of one mind. I'm for balance."
"I'm here to listen to all of the people," said Morriss. "I can see the situation 10 different ways to be successful or a disaster, depending on the will and the intent of the people involved."
Regarding issues over Shirley's ability to pay its share of the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District tab, Morriss said the overarching concern for Ayer should be providing it's children "a world-class education."
Maybe Ayer will and should pay more, suggested Morriss. While taxes could rise, the downside of inaction could be harm to property values, she said. "The health of the schools is tied directly to property values."
"Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society," said Morriss, channeling the Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s famous quote. "It's as simple as that."
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.