WVN #346: Clear choices in two town races
- CLEAR CHOICES IN TWO RACES
Wayland voters should have little difficulty distinguishing the candidates hoping to be elected on May 11 to open seats on the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee.
In both races one candidate represents continuity and is uncritical of current policies. The other candidate calls for change and is more specific about the approach to the job. How voters perceive the candidates may depend on how well they believe the town and its schools are being managed.
BOARD OF SELECTMEN
In the race to succeed retiring Selectman Michael Tichnor, JOHN BLADON stresses his experience as a small-business owner and former consultant with Arthur Andersen (now Accenture) and his service on the Finance Committee since being appointed by the selectmen in November 2008.
"I would like to continue serving the town and help guide its continued growth and evolution," Bladon says: "Through capable management we have balanced the budget without an override for three of the last four years, and have maintained a triple A bond rating, which keeps our borrowing rate low. While there are certainly challenges ahead, I believe the town is on a sound course..."
In the future, he says, "...we must focus on completing construction of the new high school, which is an exciting new investment for the town. To continue to be successful, we must move ahead with Town Center. To help minimize the need for future overrides, we must promote new commercial growth, use our free cash wisely, and continue making our government more efficient and effective. Maintaining a high level of public safety and service is a priority." This is in line with the agenda of the sitting selectmen.
Bladon, who describes himself as "uniquely qualified" by background for the Board, acknowledges other initiatives of interest to the selectmen, such as new recreational facilities, "green initiatives, and senior citizen and school programs." All must be given careful consideration before being brought to Town Meeting, he says, and projects should be on time and on budget.
In contrast to Bladon's generalities and confidence in current office holders, DON BUSTIN says "the Board needs different voices. "...many Wayland residents have no representation on the Board," he asserts, taxes are high (with five overrides in eight years) and more overrides on the horizon even as services are being cut. As Wayland moves toward having the highest tax rate in eastern Massachusetts, the "spend and borrow" path isn`t sustainable, Bustin says. He seeks "honest, transparent, (financially) efficient, civil, citizen-centered, and collaborative town government."
Bustin believes Wayland "has a divisive political atmosphere that at times makes agreement on a course of action almost impossible": "Our town leadership is partly responsible for this unpleasant climate. They and those who benefit from the status quo will not be the ones to fix it."
Bustin says taxpayers are the best judges of priorities but now often lack a voice in town decisions and lack complete financial information. A self-described bookkeeper by trade and former financial officer of an advertising agency, Bustin says town financial information is "grudgingly provided (if at all)." Bladon says an abundance of information is available at the Town Building.
During questioning at Candidates Night on April 14 and the Ask the Candidates WayCAM broadcast on April 28 Bladon and Bustin disagreed on most topics.
Bustin says Wayland boards and committees must work together and end "disharmony and dysfunction." Bladon said, "I've not seen anybody being disrespectful or uncivil." Bladon repeated the same position when queried later by WVN. Examples of disrespectful conduct have been reported frequently in recent years by WVN and other news organizations. Some examples from Town Meetings and selectmen's meetings have been televised on WayCAM.
Bustin favors a "menu" of options as a more democratic way of asking voters to approve overrides or debt exclusions, citing the expensive bath house on the May 13 Town Meeting warrant as an example appropriate for voter choice. He opposes Town Meeting Article 25, which would give the selectmen sole authority to lease part of the Loker Recreational area to a private firm for undefined recreation uses without any further vote by citizens. Bladon supports the article and opposes a menu system for ballot questions as potentially confusing and something that "really doesn't work very well."
Asked about the chance of a tax override in the next fiscal year, Bladon said it's likely that Wayland won't need one. Bustin said Wayland needs to learn how to balance its budget, particularly with unexpected flood-related expenses looming. In addition to an operating budget increase, with or without an override, taxpayers will find on average an increase of several hundred dollars to pay for the new high school.
The candidates agree in supporting Town Meeting Article 6, a resolution calling for an independent review of town and school budgeting. They disagree on other articles mentioned in public forums.
Though the FinCom voted 3-3 and reported taking no position no position on Article 21, which would change the character of Town meeting by scheduling a vote at the polls after an earlier night of debate, Bladon supports it. Bustin opposes it, citing unanswered questions about how amendments would be made, and who would decide which articles are put to a ballot vote. If the selectmen had that decision, Bustin said, the process could be politicized. ( Article 21 could be enacted only with approval from the state Legislature.)
Bladon and Buston supported the concept of electronic voting as described in Article 22, but with reservations. Bladon called for more exploration to determine whether the cost, which he estimated at up to $180,000 over the first five years, is justified. Bustin said keypad voting would achieve speed, accuracy, security and privacy, bringing the traditional Town Meeting up to date without changing its character. He favors initially leasing the equipment (estimated at $20,000) to test how well the system works without making a capital commitment.
Asked about the concept of tax neutrality in debt exclusions from Proposition 2-1/2, Bladon said it is well understood that taxes don't change if the amount of debt rolling off is equal to the amount of new debt. Bustin said of the term, "That's just spin," and the effect is that indebtedness -- and taxes -- don't decline, as they would if voters rejected the debt exclusion.
Asked about rapidly rising user charges as examples of new burdens on residents (such as the water surcharge of $236) Bladon defended the procedure, saying "it seems only fair to me" that users bear the burden. The town has used water revenues to bolster the overall town budget rather than treating the Water Department as a self-contained enterprise.
Bladon strongly supported aggressively going after additional commercial revenue as the only way to ease the tax burden on residents. Bustin asserted that the fiscal effect of such projects as the Town Center on a $63 million budget has been exaggerated, and that commercial development being hoped for now will produce no revenue in the near future. Bladon acknowledged that he doesn't have an estimate for the amount of new revenue that the first phase of the Town Center would produce, but said that even a few hundred thousand dollars makes a significant difference because a typical operating override request tends to be in the $1.5-2 million range. (Recent estimates of Town Center revenue are in the neighborhood of $600,000 annually, assuming that the entire project is built; the first phase represents a fraction of the proposed square footage.)
Bladon praised the selectmen's efforts to "expedite" the creation of the Town Center since voters approved the required zoning in 2006, blaming delays on the permitting process performed by other town boards, as sitting selectmen have done.
The current Board of Selectmen votes unanimously on almost all important issues. All indications are that Bladon would join that consensus and Bustin would not.
Bladon's campaign statement is at
Bustin's website is at www.onewayland.org.
One of the candidates to replace Deb Cohen, the only lawyer on the committee, is another lawyer, BETH BUTLER. The other candidate, SHAWN KINNEY, has a doctorate in chemistry and runs his own high-tech company.
Butler, a former Superior Court judge now in private practice, sees her skills as useful. She says:
"...The School Committee will be facing many issues in the coming three years which will benefit from review by a member with legal knowledge and experience: negotiation and implementation of upcoming employment contracts, oversight of the high school building project, and ensuring compliance with existing and new laws and regulations, including those concerning bullying, to name just a few. As a lawyer myself, and a practicing mediator and arbitrator, I believe that, if elected, I will be able to contribute in a meaningful way to the challenging work of the Committee.
"I also believe that my experience as a Massachusetts Superior Court judge for 13 years honed skills that are equally applicable to this kind of work: listening carefully, weighing evidence in highly complex matters, understanding legal issues, treating parties and advocates fairly, and making difficult decisions, while encouraging respectful discussion of the issues in an open and fair manner." She says her mediating skills would help the town avoid expensive litigation.
Butler is a member of the Youth Advisory Committee to Wayland Youth and Family Services.
In her candidate statement and on Candidates night, Butler spoke mainly in generalities. Reporters couldn't recall seeing her at a School Committee meeting before last month. In the April 28 WayCAM broadcast Butler said she had been active as a school parent for many years and has recently been reading School Committee and High School Building Committee minutes and other documents.
Kinney has attended Committee meetings over the past year and studied school management and financial practices. He offers his professional experience (which includes teaching) as a way to make the system more efficient without sacrificing quality. He said he asked the School Commmittee during budget discussion in November to do everything possible to avoid teacher layoffs and look to administrative positions first.
Kinney's website www.ShawnKinney.com contains a comparison with 13 towns described as similar to Wayland. The comparison shows Wayland with the highest cost for operations and repair, second highest for pupil services, third highest in administrative cost per pupil, fourth highest in classroom and specialist teaching cost, and one of the lowest costs for retirement and insurance.
"Wayland voters approved a debt exclusion override last November to fund building a new high school," Kinney says. "Improving our town's efficiency to lessen taxpayer burden is not only prudent but necessary."
According to Kinney, "We should begin the process of evaluating how more efficient schools are able to get superior performance for their education tax dollars. We must understand how we are spending our education tax dollars, beginning with a detailed evaluation of school expenses, a bottom-up school budget, and a school administration and School Committee that strive to improve our cost per pupil as well as our performance per pupil.
"We must analyze the budgets of the efficient towns and determine the secrets to their success...The sum of $10.2 million is the benefit Wayland would have appreciated in 2008 if its cost per pupil had been equal to the average of the efficient towns."
At Candidates Night Butler said she's generally not in favor of overrides. "However," she said, "I think it's too early to tell what will be needed for the town and schools in 2012." Kinney said he would favor an override only if there were enough due diligence to be sure that no more inefficiencies can be cut from the system.
If staff reductions are required, Kinney said, the schools should look first at non-teaching positions, adding,"The last thing we should be doing is cutting teachers."
Butler said she hadn't attended recent budget hearings but generally doesn't favor cutting teaching positions.
Kinney recommended exploring ways to share administrative resources with the town. In the April 28 broadcast he said he had been at the recent School Committee meeting where a replacement was hired for the schools' business manager, Joy Buhler, who is leaving after the end of the school year. Kinney said he was "a bit disappointed" that the Committee hadn't taken the time available to hire a consultant to explore other possibilities beyond simply hiring the person recommended by the superintendent, perhaps looking into sharing some accounting functions with the town staff.
Kinney and Butler agreed that spending on technology is important but that the proposal for a laptop for each ninth grade student is insufficiently developed.
Like selectman candidate Bustin, Kinney called for greater transparency, including making all School Committee emails available to the public. He added that the Committee wasted money on legal action to avoid disclosing Committee emails. (The Committee ultimately lost in the Supreme Judicial Court. Among the withheld correspondence was strong criticism of Superintendent Gary Burton from one member that didn't appear in a final evaluation.)
Kinney's call for transparency didn't mention a subject that still seems to bother some school parents, the process toward a decision to close Loker School, which even those supportive of the Committee called a public relations disaster.
Asked what proposals they would offer to their colleagues if elected, Butler said the concept of "differentiated teaching" to address specific needs is exciting and is worth more attention. Kinney said he would suggest preparing immediately for the next budget, embracing the Town Meeting resolution calling for an independent audit and working on a consistent set of peer towns for comparison. The FinCom peer list recently began to diverge from the School Committee's, and Kinney said the school list includes such communities as Brookline and Wellesley, where enrollments are much larger than Wayland's.
Butler's candidate statement is at:
Perhaps to a lesser extent than in the Board of Selectmen race, one candidate seems generally committed to the status quo, the other to new ways to deal with challenging times.
-- Michael Short
DID YOU RECEIVE YOUR TM WARRANT?
The town has received reports that some residents haven't received their warrants for the annual Town Meeting beginning on May 13. The warrant, with a distinctive bright orange cover, was mailed to all households for delivery this week.
Extra copies are available in the Selectmen's Office during regular business hours (Monday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.). There may be extra copies in the lobby of both post offices.
The warrant is also posted on the Town's website.
Voters are encouraged to bring their own copies of the warrant not only to Town meeting but also to the warrant hearing on Monday May 3 at 7:30 p.m. in the large hearing room of the Town Building.
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor