Friday, May 8, 1998
by Seba Gaines
A League of Women Voters candidates forum on April 26 produced striking unanimity as to the major challenges facing Carlisle, laced with stimulating individual slants on how to approach them. Coordinated, long-term planning and attracting active citizen participation were the overriding themes articulated by 12 prospective office holders as moderator Jean Buckborough called them to the podium.
Three-minute presentations by each candidate, followed by half-minute rebuttals and 30-second replies to questions from the audience, kept debate moving. Each candidate was also asked to comment on two of three prepared questions from the League: What do you see as your main priorities if elected? What do you think are the reasons for lack of citizen participation in town government? What could be done to encourage more cooperation among town boards?
Ballantine vs. Peterson
The two candidates for a one-year term on the board of selectmen, John Ballantine and Greg Peterson led off. Economist and educator at the Kennedy School and former finance committee member Ballantine stressed the need to manage change more effectively He suggested formation of a small, five-person ad hoc committee made up of representatives from the five major town boards to draft a long-range plan. It would pinpoint the level of town services expected and the financial impact of each. "We must not remain in a reactive mode; we should be thinking five years out," he insisted.
As a lawyer with a firm specializing in real estate and environmental law, Peterson feels his litigating skills would be valuable on the board of selectmen. "Lack of legal training on the board sometimes slows down the process, since we can't afford to have the town counsel routinely present at board meetings," he declared.
Noting that Carlisle has some conflicts as to where limited funds will be spent, Peterson agreed with Ballantine on the need for long-range planning. Specifically, he recommended that the municipal land committee meet more often, discuss concrete options and find ways to get the public to attend. "I don't think we need a new ad hoc committee," he added.
Parker vs. Rubenstein
The two candidates for a two-year term on the board of selectmen, engineer and finance committee member Charles Parker and technology consultant and school committee member Burt Rubenstein agreed on the imperative for long-range planning, but with different emphases. Parker stressed the importance of developing a comprehensive plan that would include a revolving fund for property acquisition. Rubenstein called for a concurrent and concerted effort to leverage state and federal resources to the maximum.
On a personal note, Parker reported that he is starting a third new company, operating out of his home and he would therefore be available at all times for pressing board business. He also feels that his term on the finance committee has familiarized him with issues affecting all town boards. As for specific priorities, he placed the rising cost of special education (SPED) programs first, the pressure of town growth second and the onerous nature of the Northeast Solid Waste Committee (NESWC) third.
For his part, Rubenstein stressed his experience in negotiation and consensus-building acquired in his own company which specializes in helping corporations innovate and apply technology and in his tenure on the school committee, negotiating teacher contracts.
On the problem of encouraging citizen participation in town affairs, Rubenstein caused a ripple of agreement when he commented, "Frankly, most board meetings are boring. You have to sit through all sorts of dreary commentary before a board gets to the topic you're interested in." He suggested that the selectmen and other town boards schedule important or controversial topics early on their agenda, and publicize the meeting.
Rubenstein's top priority would be a coordinated planning agenda that reached out three to five years. "For a well-balanced future, we can no longer operate as a system of separate boards," he advised. The agenda he envisioned would aim to balance short-term operational needs, while protecting land and resources and continuing to provide a world-class education.
Incumbent selectman Michael Fitzgerald, who is unopposed for a second three-year term, hopes to "invigorate people" to get involved in civic affairs. He feels that broader participation is central to maintaining the present system of town government. "I like to know my friends and neighbors are running the town," he said. Fitzgerald feels it's necessary to educate all citizens about how the town operates, and to find ways to lessen the burden on those who do participate.
One citizen from the audience who was actively participating, Edward Bing of Old East Street, challenged all selectman candidates to explain the apparent split among them concerning the recreation commission's request for funds to construct new ballfields on the Banta-Davis Land. Said Bing, "We recognize that the present fields are totally inadequate....We have been researching this for at least ten years....We have land near the center, not too close to abutters....Why are you less than positive?"
Peterson tackled the question first, saying, "I am troubled by the blank check aspect." He agreed that the need is there, but pointed out that school construction, open space and probably library construction require funding. "The cost of the fields seem high, and I need to know the final amount," he concluded.
Ballantine also expressed concern about the specifics. Agreeing on the need for ballfields, he said the cost bothers him. Citing other pressing town needs, he urged RecCom to come up with "the most cost-effective way possible" to meet the need.
Rubenstein, who has strongly supported the request, said the decision to build has been put off too long. However he added, "I certainly care about the cost and there's no doubt we need solid figures by Town Meeting night."
Parker, who also supports the proposal, noted that the issue only highlights the need for a comprehensive planning agenda, which would show where an athletic facility needs to fit in. "They should have found a way to mitigate the first-year cost," he warned. Joining the chorus, supporter Fitzgerald expressed disappointment at the amount of the funding request and hoped that it will be brought down to "a manageable amount" by Town Meeting time.
Bing also quizzed Fitzgerald as to what the town is doing in the cranberry business. Terming the Cranberry Bog "a continuing drain" and a "polluter," he suggested trying to sell it to the state. Fitzgerald responded that he would be happy to sell it to the state, but that the town has a 20-year obligation to the farmer.
In the four weeks since the town caucus, four write-in candidates have stepped forward for the two seats on the planning board. According to Council on Aging outreach coordinator Ron O'Reilly, it was this vacuum and a resulting concern about the health of representative government that moved him to run. The two other candidates present, civil engineer Dan Holzman and interior designer and newcomer to town Katharine Reid, indicated a similar motivation. The fourth write-in candidate, computer industry professional Andrew Ostrom did not attend.
O'Reilly said his first priority if elected is to learn the job. He proposed to start by becoming thoroughly grounded in the existing planning documents and the priorities that they have established. He will review the rules and regulations already in place with the subsequent aim of helping to bring clarity to those that exist and to all future implementation measures.
O'Reilly stressed the primacy of "the idea of community" and "the interplay of people, place and procedure." As representatives of the community, he saw the board's role to be one of "taking care of our house properly," while promoting interchange of ideas and tapping the energy of all segments of the population.
Holzman, who manages a civil engineering company specializing in water quality, waste water management and conservation, declared that the Carlisle Planning Board "has some amazingly complex issues coming." In view of the inevitability of several large subdivisions and the "huge problem posed by contamination in the town center," it will find itself with a mammoth job of balancing competing interests.
On the matter of long-term planning, also one of his priorities, Holzman proposed to develop public/private partnerships. He envisions matching public and private money to accomplish community goals.
Reid termed herself "no stranger to town government." Having served on a number of Concord boards ranging from planning board to school committee, she said the board's top priorities must be "to ensure the health, safety and welfare of town residents" and to manage the tension between that goal and the desires of individual citizens. Citing dead-end roads and cul-de-sacs as a good example of that tension, she proposed developing "creative links" such as fire roads between subdivisions. She promised to "keep the master plan in mind" and try to shape future events to conform with it.
Seeking to elicit some specific numbers, Ballantine asked the three candidates how they would propose to nail down "build-out figures" for future town development. Reid replied, "No one has a crystal ball," but says she understands that two sets of numbers are available and just need to be reconciled.
Holzman brought a laugh when he interjected, "[Realtor] Brigitte Senkler could probably tell us all we want to know." He pointed out that the maps are available, leaving only one big question, "What portion will be bought by the town?"
Diversity in housing
A League question as to how the town can keep diversity in housing size, brought the comment from Holzman, "We are one of the least diversified towns in the state." While Holzman praised those who have pursued such objectives in town with limited support, he felt the future for diversified housing is pretty dim. "With land prices what they are today, it's pretty hard to tell someone they can't tear down their small house and build a larger one," he said.
O'Reilly took a different tack, declaring that the town has a "moral responsibility" to those who are not in the upper level of society. He pointed out it's not only a matter of economics, but also often a matter of age. He feels the town should provide for its senior citizens, not just for their sake, but for the community as a whole. "Yes, it's difficult, but we shouldn't give up," he concluded.
The two school committee candidates gave brief statements and invited comments from the audience. Operations management specialist and former university teacher Paul Morrison conveyed a strong personal interest in the local schools, attributed in part to his three daughters' enrollment in the elementary grades, plus his own professional background in teaching and service operation. He indicated his prime concern at present would be the management of transitions that may be brought about by the new standardized state tests. Confident that Carlisle students will do well, he nevertheless feels that responses to those tests and to possible state recommendations could create concern. His second priority would be to understand the special education (SPED) mandates and to consider the town's options.
Pre-school educator Suzanne Whitney Smith, who has been an active leader of the Carlisle School Association has long wanted to get involved at the board level and felt this was the time. She shares Morrison's priorites concerning SPED and the possible reaction to standardized testing. She indicated particular interest in moves to get pre-school age SPED students into the program ahead of time. "I know how much it helps in the long run," she said. As for the tests, Whitney Smith emphasized that the community is still pretty much in the dark about them, but she looks forward to the challenges they may bring and to helping the community understand the issues.
In answer to a question from Ballantine about funding education values, Whitney Smith replied that it's largely a matter of communication. "We owe it to ourselves and the community to maintain the high quality that Carlisle wants." She noted that in this town the will exists to be both "innovative and creative" in achieving education goals. Morrison indicated the key is "to lay out what the money is being spent for and then make people understand that it will cost money."
Jim Marchant, candidate for a three-year term as assessor, highlighted his 15 years as a professional real estate assessor specializing in contaminated properties. Not surprisingly, his first priority is to address the problem of water contamination in the town center and the effect this should have on real estate valuations there.
Moderator Buckborough closed the meeting after reading communications from library trustee candidate Mary Cheever and housing authority nominee Harold Sauer, both of whom regretted their inability to attend but offered written answers to the League questions.