AYER -- As five candidates aim for three spots on the Board of Selectmen in this year's town election, two are vying for the positions of town clerk and tax collector in Ayer's other contested race.
Incumbent John Canney is running against Susan Copeland -- Harvard's assistant treasurer, collector and town clerk -- for the two jobs that encompass a variety of duties, from record-keeping to hosting elections.
Canney, who is finishing his first full three-year term, said he most enjoys working with the people. As town clerk and tax collector, he gets to know many.
"There's always technical aspects of the job, but the human dimension of the job is the more important aspect of the job, and understanding the people you work for and why you work for them and how you can best help them," he said.
The Town Clerk's Office is the "nerve center" of the town that works with other departments and committees, he explained. His office often works with others in Town Hall, including the accounting, treasury and information technology departments.
He does not see any task as just another one to get off his desk and move out the door. Instead, he said, he looks to how it affects the other departments, and how his office might be able to work with them in the best way.
"It's not just seeing your job as only your job," he said. "It's seeing how your job fits into a bigger picture."
To him, showing empathy is one of the most important skills of the job.
"I'm willing to listen to the people," he said. "We develop empathy with what they bring to us as their issues, and whenever possible we work to help them in the best way, even if it means going outside our office to gather other resources from other departments within the Town Hall."
One of the biggest challenges for both offices is finding space to put all of the records required by state law to be stored for a certain period of time, he said. These include records for boards, meeting minutes, postings, tax records, census forms and more.
"The reality is the Town Hall is only so large and most all the space is being used now," he said. "We don't have a cellar and we don't have any extra rooms anywhere."
Canney maintained a town presence before filling the two vacancies for a one-year term in 2010 and being elected in 2011. He was involved in the Zoning Board of Appeals as well as the Devens Reuse Committee.
But he faced a couple of tribulations during his term, first when he came under fire in 2012 for posting a sex-offender residency bylaw two months after the Attorney General's office found the bylaw constitutional. The bylaw needed to be posted in five public places in order for it to take effect.
The Ayer Police chief noticed the delay when a Level 3 registered sex offender contacted the police about moving into town.
At the time, Canney said he was being careful to make sure he did not set up any grounds for a procedural challenge on the legitimacy of the bylaw, Nashoba Publishing reported earlier. He said he worked with the AG's office to see if there was any "preamble or statutory wording" required to open and close the legal posting.
Canney is tied up in the town's latest legal battle involving an accusation of a breach of a contract from its deputy tax collector, K. Bolduc Enterprises. Canney has deferred comment to Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand, who told Nashoba Publishing earlier that Canney has maintained that there is no contract between KBE and the town.
Despite these setbacks, Canney said his first term has been positive.
"I'm very grateful for the opportunity that the people of the town of Ayer have given me," he said. "I really do appreciate their vote and their willingness to see me as their town clerk and tax collector."
In the opposite corner is Susan Copeland, an Ayer native who worked at the Digital Credit Union for 10 years before seeking employment with the town of Harvard two years ago.
Copeland said she was approached by many concerned residents in town about some of the offices' issues, and hopes to turn them around. She said she seeks to boost the atmosphere, build back confidence and maintain integrity in both offices.
"I think in light of what's happened recently, I think there's just a disappointment and there's a lack of follow-through," she said.
Copeland cited a 2013 survey by the Finance Committee that revealed town clerk and tax collector as two of the top three offices that respondents chose for budget cuts. One of the comments from the survey reads, "BoS and Town Clerk are an embarassment."
Copeland said she learned a lot when she first came in to Harvard as assistant clerk during a presidential election.
"I really got a lot of experience with the primaries and the general elections and so forth, along with town elections and the state," she said. "That was a lot of first-hand experience on the whole process, along with everything else in the office that's covered by the town clerk."
When the town's treasurer and collector left for a job in Pepperell, Copeland also worked as the appointed one until the position was filled.
"I really had to step up with doing the bill commitment for taxes, for the property taxes, working with the assessors and so forth," she said. "It was like a trial by fire kind of."
But beyond this interim period, Copeland has not yet had the experience of steering two town departments on her own.
"I'd like to say that I'm a successful product of the town," she said. "I've lived in Ayer since 1976, since I was born, so I've reaped the benefits of the community."
Voters will cast their decision on the town election on April 28.