AYER -- Voters will pick one, and not three, selectmen at the April 30 town election. That's because a home rule petition, passed by Town Meeting in May, has not yet made its way through the Legislature. The measure called for the reduction in the size of the Board of Selectmen from five to three members.
A timeline handed out at Town Meeting advised voters that the Legislature would act on the measure in January. But that's not quite the process, according to Sen. Jamie Eldridge.
Legislators are sworn into office in January and committee assignments are made in late February. If anything, Eldridge said the Ayer legislation, now known as House Bill 1481, is doing well to have been heard by the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government this past Wednesday.
Eldridge and state Rep. Sheila Harrington agree -- the hope is that the Legislature approves the bill this summer.
The Town Meeting timeline suggested legislative action in January, followed by a February special election to confirm voters' desire to shrink the board. Then, if the question passed, the terms for all five sitting selectmen would have terminated and the spring election would fill the seats on a shrunken three-member board. That procedure may now move out to the April 2014 town elections.
Instead, this spring the status quo remains in terms of board structure, and on April 30 just one term is due to expire -- that of Frank Maxant. Maxant and three other candidates -- Mark Coulter, Jannice Livingstone and Jane Morriss -- are racing for the single available seat.
Former Selectman Murray Clark chaired the Town Government Study Committee, which sponsored the home rule petition, among other recommended changes to town government. Town Meeting bumped the size of the Board of Selectmen up from three to five members about 12 years ago. Clark believes the board needs to contract back down to three members. He faults "the way the (current) board has been operating, unfortunately."
"Individually, we have five very good members of the board," said Clark. "But they don't seem to work together at all."
Clark's neighbor, selectmen Chairman Jim Fay, disagrees. "A five-member board can do more for the town," said Fay. Of the board's quarrelsome nature in recent months, Fay minimized the seriousness of the situation, calling it a "PR problem with the board appearing to differ with each other."
"My sense of the board is it has healthy debate," said Fay. However, "any disparaging language between members is wrong on any day," said Fay. "I'll say I was guilty of that at one point and I hope to never be guilty of that again."
Fay is in the midst of his fourth term on the board. He was first elected when the board expanded from three to five members. Fay said a larger board helps share workload.
"Although we have a population of 7,400, we are really a small city with full service to the town," said Fay.
Fay said the board has had a productive year as evidenced by Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand's successful completion of all goals and objectives the board set forth. Those goals and objectives have not been publicly shared.
Fay said each of his peers brings something different to the table. "Gary (Luca) has postal service and business experience; Chris (Hillman) is independently employed and an entrepreneur. Pauline (Conley) does her homework -- there's no denying it," said Fay.
"Frank (Maxant) is a very bright guy," said Fay. "He shoots himself in the foot. That's nothing the board does to him but he's still a very bright guy."
Without endorsing anyone in particular, Fay said voters have to choose between Maxant, who has experience in elected office, and the other three "newbies." Fay was clear to say that newness isn't a bad thing, but, "You can't look at their record and say they'd be good. You can only go on their word and what they say, which has been positive."
"So you've got something in this election unlike another. You have a person with a record of service -- do you want that?" said Fay. "Frank's been elected and re-elected, so he does have a record to look at. He'll probably get the better part of 300 votes or more. Frank has his point of view. He hasn't got a mean bone in his body and definitely has Ayer in his best intentions."
Fay doubted that voters would again vote to shrink the board during a special election on the question.
"I don't know if I'm optimistic or not but what voters want is the board to stop bickering and being unprofessional."
Former Selectman Chuck Miller served in Ayer politics for over a decade. Miller blogs about Ayer politics at GaspingForAyer.com.
Miller feels voters will vote to shrink the board once the Legislature acts on the measure. "People are fed up with this dysfunctional board. Every time I am out and about in town, all I hear is complaints about how this board is so wrapped up about political posturing that they are doing no business for the people of the town."
"I have heard grumbling from people who want to wipe the board clean, recall them all and start from scratch," said Miller.
Miller said the sitting selectmen should have voted on Tuesday to back House Bill 1481 since Town Meeting "(has) spoken, so it should be incumbent upon the selectmen to back that position. To not openly embrace the voter's rule certainly suggests that members are more concerned with protecting their seats than honoring the will of the people."
Miller recalled smoother sailing for the selectmen in days of a three-member board. "We did not have "logjams," we had "differences," said Miller. "We had some rowdy battles, but generally speaking I do not recall anyone harboring grudges. After a lousy night of contentiousness, we'd go out for a beer and remember that we weren't enemies, we just didn't disagree. I still get along with everyone I served with."
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.