AYER -- Last April 22, Mark Coulter suffered a myocardial infarction heart attack. The next day was the town election. Coulter was one of three seeking two seats on the Board of Selectmen.
Coulter's wife, Catherine, quickly administered aspirin and called 911. Within minutes, the retired 16-year Ayer patrolman and 33-year emergency responder was strapped to a stretcher.
"To become a victim who needed help made me realize how quickly things change in life," said Coulter.
His youngest child, Liam, waved as his father was being loaded into an Ayer ambulance. "I realized it could have been the last time my son saw me alive."
Before undergoing triple bypass surgery at Beth Israel Hospital, Coulter was given his Last Rites. On election day, news spread of Coulter's condition.
Coulter placed 54 votes out of the money. Political newcomer Christopher Hillman got the highest tally; incumbent Gary Luca secured the second seat.
"I'll try to stay upright this time," laughed Coulter, who has launched his fourth selectmen run in five years. Coulter is one of four candidates for one seat in the April 30 election.
In time for the school year, Coulter was given a clean bill of health and returned to his post-retirement job driving a school bus for regional bus company. Coulter turns 61 later this month.
Coulter has four children: Brandon (who's provided Coulter's first grandson), Ryan (an Ayer-Shirley senior), Isabella (an Ayer-Shirley
A Quincy native, Coulter has primarily lived in the Ayer area. Coulter worked as a Lowell EMT for several years, becoming an officer and detective for the Ayer Police.
Coulter said his near-death experience changed his perspective on life and politics. "It will spook you to be on death's door -- literally knocking on it. You look back and realize what's important to get bent out of shape about and what's worth letting slide and letting go."
Incumbent Frank Maxant is also in the race. Coulter said he's not targeting Maxant but the selectmen's chances seem bleak.
"He's done it to himself," said Coulter. "Many are upset about where he lives. That's not my concern -- people have the right to associate with who they want."
Maxant lives in a William Street tenement targeted by the selectmen for alleged bylaw violations. His landlord infamously announced that he housed sex offenders and drug addicts.
"When you're in a position that Frank's in, you have to use better judgment about who you want to hang out with," said Coulter.
Coulter said Hillman "hit it right on the nose" when claiming owners of targeted properties are thumbing their noses at the town. Coulter said a planned multi-board approach is wise, but that the town bylaws need to contain teeth and steep fines.
"Hitting them in the pocketbook affects them more than reading a letter threatening legal action but never doing it," said Coulter.
Coulter said Building Inspector Gabe Vellante is "doing the best he can" but "his hands are tied" with antiquated bylaws and courts that grant extensions to comply.
However, Coulter says Ayer needs a full-time building inspector. "If Gabe wants the job, that's great. But Ayer is big enough for a full time inspector."
Coulter said he's been in several Ayer "hoarding" homes. "It's awful." The homes pose no risk to the public if "they don't let anyone in, but it can become a public safety issue if there's a fire."
Coulter says the selectmen do a fine job "keeping an eye out for the pocketbooks of the taxpayers." But Coulter faults the board's lack of unity and goal-setting skills. "They have a group agenda of getting through meetings and getting out of there on time."
The board's interpersonal communication style is also faulty, Coulter said. He said he can help maintain order at meetings.
"I think one person can calm and tone down the arguments when they begin," said Coulter. "I found in my police career that being a mediator involves being calm, not yelling, and that humor can de-escalate a lot of situations by throwing the battle off track to give the combatants a second to think about what they're doing."
Public service isn't for the thin-skinned, said Coulter. "If you, as a public official, start to take things personally, you need to move on. As a public official, you're an automatic target and you should be prepared for that and be willing to accept that."
Coulter said the selectmen would be well-served to spend time in the trenches and doing ride alongs with those in departments they oversee. "Spend a night riding around in a snow plow to see the obstacles the guys face. There's nothing better than on-the-job experience."
Coulter said selectmen need empathy, an open mind, and a willingness to receive information from all camps. Coulter said that apparently didn't happen in the board's protracted scuffle with the treasurer.
The resulting "political hullabaloo" clouded two consecutive selectmen-led Town Meeting initiatives to convert the treasurer, tax collector and finance manager posts into selectmen-appointed jobs.
"They were butting heads, so it didn't look like a legitimate request," said Coulter. "It sounded like, 'If we want to get rid of you, we'll get rid of you.'"
Selectmen Gary Luca is planning a run for treasurer. If successful, Coulter said Luca should resign his selectmen seat, stating Luca's dual-service would lead to recusals. "If you have a five-member board, all five should have input on anything that's before the board."
Luca chairs the Joint Boards of Selectmen for the Devens towns, a panel Coulter calls "a waste of time."
"Devens -- and I've always said it -- is going to do what Devens wants to do. It doesn't matter what the towns say or vote on," said Coulter. "(State agency) MassDevelopment has deep pockets. They've done a really good job developing Devens, but at the expense of brining in businesses that compete with Ayer business."
"I'll give Frank (Maxant) his due. Frank is the Devens expert and he's always been right on Devens," said Coulter. "He's said for years they can't be trusted and he's right."
If Devens became a town, then "the towns can go back to doing what they need to do for themselves," said Coulter.
Coulter opposes any notion of Ayer joining the Devens Regional 911 Dispatch Center. A former dispatcher and trainer, Coulter said dispatchers must have the highest familiarity with the territory they're covering.
Coulter said promised savings would come at the expense of stripping seniority from veteran dispatchers. "They have to start over? All in the name of a dollar? Public safety should never, ever take a back seat to money."
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.