Ayer receives 44 mail-in voter reg. forms from job training center
By Mary E. Arata
DEVENS -- Boston developer Trinity Financial denies it's influencing the outcome of next Wednesday's "Super Town Meeting" vote.
Trinity admits meeting students at the federallyfunded Shriver Job Corps training center to brief them about its controversial Devens housing project. Food and voter registration forms were provided.
"To insinuate that there is something underhanded about encouraging young people to get involved in their community and make their voices heard is simply disgraceful," said Trinity spokesman Conor Yunits.
Afterwards, the Ayer town clerk's office received an unprecedented batch of 42 mail-in voter registration forms, all postmarked March 5. Two more forms have since arrived.
The total Shriver tally stands at 115 voters.
Too late for the March 6 "Super Tuesday" primary, the students can participate in Wednesday's Ayer, Harvard and Shirley "Super Town Meeting."
Trinity needs all three towns to agree to rezone Vicksburg Square for multifamily apartment use. The Patrick Administration backs the $83 million, 246-unit affordable housing proposal.
On a 22-73 vote, Ayer Town Meeting sunk a similar attempt in 2009. With a repeat low turnout, fears are that the student voting block could sway Wednesday's outcome.
During their eight-month- to two-year- stay, Shriver students receive food, shelter, health care and a living allowance.
Shriver students live within Ayer's historical political bounds. Residents within the former Ft. Devens base vote in Ayer or Harvard depending on where they live.
Ayer native Margaret Kidder is one of many with concerns. "I want to know why it is in the students' interest to vote on this. As a landlord in Ayer, I am totally against this."
Kidder said vacancy rates have climbed since the base closure.
"Add to that the last four years of no rental increases due to the economy, higher fuel and taxes, and now the town wants to endorse 246 new apartments up the road, of which a number will be affordable?" said Kidder. "Who is the town supporting? Citizens that live and work here, keep up their properties and support the town? Or an out-of-town developer looking to make a profit?"
"If this developer or their representatives are using Job Corps students to pad the vote for them, what tactics will they resort to in order to get tenants once the project is approved?" said Kidder.
Yunits said many Shriver students "were registered voters long before we came along. We met with them as we have met with about 20 other groups in the community, as these kids live practically across the street from Vicksburg Square."
The rumor mill talked of a pizza party. "We didn't serve pizza," said Yunits. "But we did serve cookies and cheese and crackers as we have for nearly every other group we have met with."
"The kids asked good, tough questions, several had some good ideas, and some even expressed concerns about the project," said Yunits. "Many were interested to learn that Vicksburg Square would create jobs in the occupations for which they are training (e.g., carpenters, painters and concrete finishers). Many others were sympathetic with the affordable housing goals of the project, as they already know they will have trouble finding decent, affordable housing when they graduate into the working world."
Shriver Job Corps Center Director Tscherina referred request for comment to the Boston Shriver office on March 16. No response was received.
New England Regional Council of Carpenters Regional Business Manager Jack Donahue hasn't responded either. Donahue and 17 carpenters constituted half the audience at the March 1 Ayer Town Hall hearing on the issue.
Shriver students have not been visible in the process.
There are 272 resident students at Shriver, with 305 enrolled in the program. Though they hail from points across the state, box 12 on the voter registration form asks the students to attest that the Shriver Center is their "home."
State law "permits a challenge to anyone believed to be unlawfully registered," said Ayer Town Clerk John Canney.
Due to the flap, Shriver students did not participate in Monday's 55-55 tie vote by Devens residents in advance of Super Town Meeting. MassDevelopment Chief of Staff Meg Delorier confirmed the agency didn't send ballots to Shriver Job Corps.
"MassDevelopment used its master mailing list for the ballot mailing," said Delorier. "Shriver residents are not on that list."
Devens Committee Chairman Phil Crosby said he'd explore why MassDevelopment maintains different voter registration lists from the Ayer and Harvard town clerks.
Before the Devens vote, Devens resident John Knowles suggested a separate Shriver tally. "The folks at Trinity will at least be able to take some solace in all the pizza votes they bought."
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.