WVN #492: Candidates present clear choices
- Dear Wayland Voter,
If you don't believe that the April 2 election for the Board of Selectmen is important, candidate David Gordon Cliff would like to change your mind.
During Thursday's Candidates Night discussion Cliff aggressively declared that if his opponent, Tony Boschetto, is elected, he and two sitting selectmen "will try to take Wayland in the wrong direction."
The debate showed a clear contrast between the candidates and their visions of Wayland. Cliff repeatedly attacked Boschetto's positions and track record.
The accompanying debate between the two candidates for one School Committee seat wasn't confrontational, but it embodied the same contrast of views. More on that below.
Status Quo v. Change
Cliff's Candidates Night comments and his stated positions present a picture of Wayland as running so smoothly that voters needn't worry about financial details and should leave most of the functioning of government to elected officials and employees.
To Tony Boschetto, Wayland suffers from substandard financial controls, overtaxing and big-money decisions made out of public view. Change, including tax relief, was taken because he and others (including School Committee candidate Donna Bouchard) found serious irregularities and brought them to public attention. Boschetto calls for continuing attention to problems.
In Cliff's view "Ed (Collins), Doug (Leard) and Tony" would harm Wayland. Collins and Leard have been on the losing end of several 3-2 votes since they were elected a year ago. Boschetto could tip the balance the other way.
Doug Leard served two previous terms as selectman (2003-2009) without incurring such wrath. He has led the town's Emergency Response Team, overseen renovations at Station II and worked to bring Advanced Life Support services to Wayland.
Leard and Collins needed a third vote in January to protect the town's 2005 $1.45 million Danforth housing project settlement agreement. With the recommendation of the town administrator, Selectmen John Bladon, Steve Correia and Joe Nolan voted to give up about half the project mitigation money that would be used to protect the town's water supply, abutting Pod Meadow conservation land and pedestrian safety in various locations - no matter what size housing project gets built across the town line in Framingham.
Cliff, who has lived in Wayland for six years and hasn't held elected town office, presents himself as an effective successor to John Bladon, who didn't stand for re-election and has endorsed him. Cliff is backed by a number of former Wayland board members and citizens with ties to the Save Our Services political action group.
Though Boschetto hasn't held elected town office either, he comes to the campaign with a record of three years investigating town finances and initiating Town Meeting action resulting in tax relief and increased fiscal transparency. Both men serve on the appointed Audit Committee.
Cliff presented an election campaign program to "Keep Wayland Strong" with 1) excellent schools, 2) open space protection and 3) a safe and caring community. His six-point program called for building a new Public Works facility (a matter coming before April Town Meeting) and improving the delivery of services, specifying no methods.
Boschetto told the audience that he felt the need to get involved when he discovered millions of dollars in surplus cash and questionable accounting practices such as undisclosed contributions to employee retirement benefits. Officials first ignored him, he said, but he later worked effectively with the Finance Committee to win support for actions that resulted in continuing efforts to improve procedures. He said the work he instigated resulted in tax relief averaging $1,000 per household. Before that, Wayland's tax rate was poised to become the highest in the state (estimated around $21 per $1,000 of assessed value).
Though Boschetto and Cliff agreed on a few points, the pattern was change v. status quo.
When the moderator asked both candidates how they felt about payments to an irrevocable trust to pay for Other Post Employment Benefits (mainly health care for retirees) Boschetto said many elected officials didn't even know about recent payments until he discovered them. He said he has worked with actuaries and has audited other pension funds and asserted that the town needs to understand what its true pension costs are in order to manage them.
Cliff questioned some of Boschetto's figures and supported contributions to OPEB. The town needs to amass a fund of $38 million over decades and has contributed about $10 million so far, he said: the town has "a handle" on the situation.
Whether voters agree with Cliff or Boschetto on this and other spending questions could depend on how they view their own tax bills. If paying a quarterly bill of thousands of dollars seems much the same as paying a utility bill, why worry about relatively small differences? If paying the tax bill requires budgeting carefully and juggling expenses, there may be more attention to details.
Contrasting views on governance appeared when Cliff said on his campaign website, "We can't run a $70-million town from the audience seats at town meeting," implicitly disparaging the centuries-old system under which town meeting voters constitute the legislature. He also called for "less micromanaging/second-guessing" of town officials.
Cliff removed the remarks about town meeting from the site, but Boschetto referred to them indirectly, saying that Wayland can do better than leaving so-called "routine" items to officials and taking an attitude of "We'll figure it out" rather than planning rigorously. If accounts hadn't been closely monitored by citizens, none of the changes for which Boschetto and Bouchard are credited would have happened.
On specific questions:
-- Should voters approve at least $11 million for a new Public Works facility? Boschetto pointed to significant problems with the site and access to it (which were discussed in previous WVN newsletters). He contrasted the new high school project with the earlier Public Safety Building: The former was the result of a rigorous, sound process; it won enormous support and was finished on time and on budget. The safety building, he said, was built on the assumption that an obvious problem known in advance could be fixed. Result: millions of dollars in cost overruns and a basement flooded beyond purposeful use. Cliff argued to approve the new DPW project. The problems are manageable, he said, and the cost of waiting is too high. Boschetto said the selectmen's responsibility is to ensure a process by which projects are fully vetted before they are presented for a vote.
-- Should Wayland hire an additional police officer and support the Wayland Cares antidrug program if grants are no longer available? Cliff said the officer would return the force to its 2004 level and is necessary because of new traffic regulations. Boschetto said the hiring could be delayed because the Town Center hasn't yet produced a lot of additional traffic or any new revenue. Essentially Cliff followed the recommendation of the police chief while Boschetto called for scrutiny and planning.
Cliff favors using town funds if necessary for Wayland Cares. Wayland Cares proponents told the School Committee on March 11 that they don't intend to return all the money being requested if their federal grant comes through and are unable to estimate how much they would return to taxpayers. Boschetto said he thought a zero tolerance policy and engagement in extracurricular sports were effective in diverting students from substance abuse.
-- Community Preservation Act funds. The CPA program, partly matched by the state, adds about 1.5% to Wayland tax bills (not to the rate) mainly to support preservation of open space. Cliff criticized Boschetto for supporting a steep reduction last year on the added tax. Boschetto noted that taxpayers have taken on $27 million in debt for recent major projects and should consider new obligations carefully. He said that if a huge acquisition (say, Mainstone Farm) becomes available and the current fund isn't large enough, the town can vote to borrow additional money. Negotiations with the Mainstone property owner have gone on for years. Cliff said the fund may appear large at the moment but should continue to grow because the future can't be predicted with enough accuracy.
-- Do the Town Center developers owe the town money? Boschetto argued for vigorous investigation into a $3 million agreement signed in 2006 and amended since then; the promised windfalls seem to have evaporated. (Throughout the development process the Board of Selectmen was accused of caving to the developers.) He also opposed spending public funds for amenities on private land as has been suggested. Cliff said the agreement was reached when the market was at its peak; times have changed and the town should accommodate that. The Town Center is a success, he said, and the town should turn it into a community attraction. In response to a question, he said he was not overly bothered by the advent in Wayland of national chain stores. The concept of the Town Center was sold to the town as streets full of unique high end boutiques. So far, it has been difficult for small retail to commit to the planned small shop spaces given the lease requirements.
-- Capital spending. Cliff supports new space for the Council on Aging but is more skeptical about the need for a new library at a time when we don't know the future needs of libraries. The library trustees have been studying facility needs for years and mentioning their overcrowding problems at selectmen's meetings, with five reports spanning the last decade posted on their website:
Boschetto said the voters are the ones to decide on such projects.
-- Should borrowing for the DPW facility be exempt from restrictions of Proposition 2-1/2? Boschetto argued that we don't need the exemption because the $1 million in annual interest costs would be well within the present tax levy limit. Cliff disagreed vigorously, saying that this takes away the voters right to decide, and the town's policy has been to fund large projects through exempt debt. Unstated was the fact the town never before has had so much room for spending increases before it reaches the levy limit.
Polite Tone in School Committee debate
In contrast to the aggressive tone of the Cliff-Boschetto appearance, Jeanne Downs and Donna Bouchard were so pleasant that one could almost imagine they were running unopposed. Both have children in Wayland schools and have extensive business experience.
Downs emphasized her years of leading the PTO at each level, becoming familiar with the staff and instruction at every level and studying the budget. Several times she said she was "uniquely qualified" because of her career in financial services. Even when questioned about specifics, she usually responded with generalities, even apologizing for repeating herself. Her oft-repeated goal is to give every student a "chance to shine" and make the schools the "cornerstone of the community."
Like Boschetto, Bouchard has spent the recent years studying town and school finances. It's time for 21st-century financial practices and more budget precision, she said. Seven teachers lost their jobs in 2011, she said, before a million-dollar budget surplus was discovered.
When asked about choosing where to invest in new initiatives, Downs suggested "thinking outside the box." Bouchard suggested focusing on elementary years, where the returns could be greatest, and noted that a task force is studying the question.
Bouchard emphasized extracurricular activities, particularly sports. Several coaches' stipends were on a list of cuts, she noted, but could be restored as expenditures are more closely monitored.
On priorities, Downs mentioned the goal of turning out "good citizens of the world."
A questioner asked, if you have to find efficiencies, where would you focus? Downs said the system doesn't have a lot of extras. One approach might be to reduce supplies, she said. Bouchard said there shouldn't be cuts. She called for a school budget subcommittee, new people who would bring new skills and scrutiny to a $33-million budget. Bouchard cited redundancies in the town and school administrations where some consolidations may be possible.
On class size, Downs said there is no specific standard to achieve. Bouchard said that if tough decisions have to be made, older students can thrive in larger classes because by that age they have learned self-regulation.
Downs and Bouchard are vying to replace high tech entrepreneur Shawn Kinney, who during his three years on the Committee relentlessly uncovered financial oddities and errors. He discovered financial procedures that were substandard and possibly illegal. Some school accounts were closed. Scrutiny continues.
WayCAM broadcast the candidates' debate live and has posted the following rebroadcast schedule on its website:
Tuesday, March 26 at 2:30 p.m.. Wednesday March 27 at 3 p.m., and Thursday March 28 at 2:30 p.m. So far there is no evening rebroadcast scheduled.
The candidates meet again on Thursday, March 28 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in a WayCAM telecast of Ask the Candidates Live.
-- WVN Staff
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor