HARVARD -- With 286 townspeople attending -- the lowest turnout in 10 years, according to Town Clerk Janet Vellante -- Saturday's annual Town Meeting started with a shuffle, thanks to three separate motions to take as many articles out of sequence.

The first motion, made by Selectman Bill Johnson on the advice of Town Counsel, was to move Article #43 up on the roster and address it before Article #10, which asked the same thing. It wasn't immediately clear why the second article was inserted, but the stated intent was to discuss both as one and dismiss the original when it came up.

The motion passed by a majority vote, with only a few opposed.

Article #43, placed on the warrant via citizen's petition, sought to hire a town planner and fund the position for one year. With $40,000 from taxpayers and $20,000 from available Planning Board/Master Plan money, the funding would cover a part-time town planner's $45,000 salary plus $15,000 for benefits. The Finance Committee recommended it.

Intended to supercede Article #10, sponsored by the Planning Board, the aim of the second was the same as the first, to hire a part-time contractor versus a town employee for the first year, paving the way to establish the position the following year.

With voting too close to call and a majority required, Moderator Bob Eubank asked for a count. The motion passed, but not by much. Article #43 squeaked in: 119 yes, 101 no.

When Article #10 came up, Johnson made a motion to take no action, which passed.


Advertisement

The issue had a history of controversy that surfaced again Saturday morning.

Economic Development Committee member Jim Stevens urged voters to say yes.

Part of his group's charge was to create a business-friendly environment in the commercial district, and they've worked with the folks there to that end. "But we're volunteers," he said, and can only do so much.

Having a professional planner on the job would be a step in the right direction, in the EDC's view, to keep up the good work now and move forward in the future.

Timely information and communication is key, Stevens continued, and it's critical for developers to have an in-house person to contact when making their decisions.

In addition to working with incoming developers, the town needs to go after new business, to up its revenues and relieve taxpayers of some of the burden they now shoulder, with almost all the town's tax base in the residential sector. A planner could provide guidance through the permit process and monitoring during construction, he said.

But Conservation Commission Vice Chairman Jim Breslin said his board did not favor hiring a planner. "We don't support this article," he said, adding that land-use boards were not approached for their views about it. "We feel it's a waste of money and we urge a no vote," he said.

Debate went on for some time.

On one side, resident Billy Salter said it was "badly needed," and he supported the idea.

Julie Waldman, on the other side, said this wasn't the time to hire a planner. She suggested an independent, third-party evaluation of all town positions instead, to see if there's already a position that could cover town planning. A big-picture look could also help town officials set priorities. "There may be a job we need more," she said.

Planning Board member Tim Schmoyer pointed out that his board lacks professional support available to other town boards, but they may need it more. He urged a yes vote.

Planning Board member Joe Hutchinson, who served on the Master Plan Steering Committee, said much the same thing, and a lot more besides, but he stood on the opposite side of the issue.

The gist of it was that town planning calls for an "organizational structure" similar to the Finance Department, a complex problem that simply hiring a professional planner won't solve. He urged a no vote, allowing time to "work it all out," he said.

Another board member, Peter Brooks, said he started out against the measure but favored it now. With just three remaining members on a board that has gone through much turmoil, he said it could claim "very little" in terms of long-range goals accomplished. The master plan, for example, is in limbo, with Devens disposition unresolved.

A professional planner is "critical" to completing the master plan, Brooks said.

Schmoyer agreed. The process stalled at phase two, he said, adding that the notion of hiring a town planner was not new. Determined to be a high priority by previous Town Meetings, it was part of the 2005 action plan, he said. "It's been discussed many times."

Selectman Ron Ricci, citing his reputation for frugality, said he supported hiring a planner as a wise investment and "the right thing to do."

Bill Johnson offered the selectmen's official position on the motion. To begin with, they were "concerned about investing in an employee ..." and voted against it, 3-2, "as printed," he said. Newly worded to start with a contractor, without benefits or "post-employment costs" to consider, they voted 4-1 to support it, he said.

Speaking for himself, Johnson said it's a lot to ask of volunteers to take on extremely complex, time-consuming tasks. As a town official, "I can't imagine doing what we (selectmen) do without professional staff," and the same goes for the School and Finance Committees, he said.

"We're always extremely reluctant" to add new positions to the town payroll, Finance Committee Chairman George McKenna said, and members spent much time debating this one. But with the new motion taking an "incremental approach" to hiring a planner, it was simpler to back the proposal, which they did, unanimously.

But Breslaur pointed out that the Conservation Commission has a staff person with 12 years experience and a related college degree. "We see no benefit in replacing her with a planner," he said.

As the only selectmen who voted against the current proposal, Chairwoman Lucy Wallace explained why, citing master plan working experience dating back to the 1980s and acknowledging that more than one action plan noted the need for a planner. "Yes, we've said it would be good to have a planner, but this request lacks direction," she said, and even hiring a contractor for a year is premature."

The town works well with its "citizen committees," she said. "We really resent someone from outside coming in and telling us what to do."

Rather than hire a planner now, she suggested using $100,000 set aside for the purpose to hire consultants, as needed, and proceed with the master plan process. "Let's see where we are next year," she said.