SHIRLEY -- A near-capacity crowd filled the main meeting room at Town Hall last week for a Candidates Debate, hosted by the Communications Committee.
The turnout wasn't surprising, with the open selectman's seat coming up for a vote at the Nov. 7 Special Town Election. Also, as emcee Melissa Lynch pointed out, this was the first debate held in town for several years.
It was a sedate debate, despite a tenor in town that's been prickly in the recent past, townspeople taking sides on a range of issues, from personnel changes to ructions in the Police Department to a Recall Election early this year that ousted two selectmen from the three-member board.
Decorum prevailed as Bryan Sawyer and Debra Flagg, the two lifelong town residents running for the open seat held forth.
Face off, though? Not by a long shot.
The candidates' views on most issues were similar and as one of them pointed out, debate seemed a debatable header for this event, given its strict format and absent public participation.
They did, however, reveal different management styles, based on their resumes and their statements. Sawyer is general manager of the Bull Run Restaurant, his family's in-town business for many years. He holds degrees in Business Administration and Accounting and worked briefly for a Wall Street firm. He's served on the Finance Committee for four years and chaired the Budget Review Committee. If he's not elected selectman, Sawyer said he aims to stick with FinCom.
Debra Flagg is a teacher, retired after 42 years with the local school system. She holds undergraduate and advanced education degrees and specializes in Math, which is one of her teaching certifications. She is now a math coach in the Ayer Shirley Regional School District.
Sawyer came across as all-business, reserved, engaged and informed. Flagg has a longer history of involvement in town but acknowledged that her managerial expertise came mostly from managing her household for 40 years and from the front of a classroom.
The seat Flagg and Sawyer both want was vacated by James Wilson, who resigned early in his term. He and Selectman Holly Haase were elected to fill two seats opened up by the recall.
Despite lingering angst from that dust-up, there were no fireworks. Listing ground rules at the outset, Moderator Karen Luddington squashed any notion of interaction between candidates and the audience.
Calling for "courtesy" as they weighed in on important issues, that ranged from supporting the library (they both do) to paying for schools, she explained that questions they would address came from residents who sent them in advance, at the committee's request. Once she'd worked through correspondence, she'd take written queries from the audience if time allowed, Luddington said, noting pens and paper on the table. It was unclear if anyone took her up on that offer.
The previewed questions steered clear of head-on clashes with the "division" in town that both candidates alluded to but didn't directly address. Luddington made it clear she would not allow any cans of worms to be opened on her watch, cutting short a reference to the police department flap and stating that she'd ruled out questions about specific situations and those that mentioned people's names.
One question, however, raised an issue that still rankles in some circles: Should the town have a full-time building inspector?
Now part-time, the job was full-time for years and some argued to keep it that way, along with an accessible, full-time building department. The veteran town employee who held the position accepted early retirement amid a flurry of other departures, voluntary or otherwise, that one selectman called "an exodus." The municipal shakeup, touted as an efficiency measure at the time, upset many people outside town hall as well as in and was one of the reasons proponents cited for initiating the recall.
Should the town reinstate the position now? Sawyer said it depends. Basically, it's a cost/ benefit issue, he said.
"You have to weigh the options," based on what the budget can support, and on whether the current, part time inspector is overwhelmed or not. A full-time inspector would have the opportunity to do "a more through job," he conceded.
Flagg said no. "I don't think we need ...full time," she said, positing that the town is likely maxed out on new growth for the time being. She's moved twice since the job became part time and both of her new homes were promptly and properly inspected, she said.
She doesn't think the town needs a finance director, either. The volunteer Finance Committee, appointed by the Moderator, does a good job as it is, she said, adding that FinCom and the Selectmen must work together. Also, it underscores an earlier point she made, Flagg said, that hiring qualified people is key.
"We can't be a training ground," she said.
Sawyer reasoned that the new treasurer/collector and the new town accountant can probably handle the town's money matters, at least for now. Finance Director is a position more suited to larger communities, he said. "I wouldn't oppose it..." But for now, he'd wait and see, Sawyer said.
Asked about elected or appointed positions and the trend toward switching one for the other, both candidates said that in most cases, appointed positions work out better when specialized skills are called for versus on-the-job training for newly elected officials who might not have the right skills set.
How about rehiring previously discharged town employees?
Flagg said she'd need to know the conditions they left under, did they quit or where they fired? "If they want to come back and weren't fired... no problem." she said. Plus, re-hires might bring back to the town skills and experience acquired on the job they'd left to take.
Sawyer's answer was similar. He cited an example of an employee who was just rehired after moving back to town. The new town accountant started her new and former job this week, he said.
Asked about challenges and priorities going forward six months, Sawyer said it"s budget-building season and that would top his list, as it must no matter who's on the board. After that, future plans.
Flagg saw "a lot of challenges in the upcoming months, including the DPW. "We also have to think about the Administrator's contract, Regional Dispatch and solar farms" as an ongoing issue, she said.
Sawyer agreed. "Those are key issues," he said.
Flagg said she's concerned about the town's financial future, knowing its past mistakes. "We can't use it (reserves) all up in one fiscal year then start the wheel again," she said.
Asked to name the "best thing" that happened in town in the last few years, they both agreed in a heartbeat. "Regionalization," Flagg answered. "We belong with Ayer, we always did."
"Regionalization, hands down," Sawyer said. School budgets typically take up 60 percent of the budget, he said, and the town is getting more bang for its buck, with partnership in a new high school and two regional partnerships on track for continued success. The new and notably improved Ayer Shirley district and Nashoba Tech, which continues to do well, "year after year," he said.
Over an hour-plus, the candidates' slants on management points veered off from each other but they came together on where the town should be headed and for the most part, how to get there. Basically, that is, the direction it's headed in now.
Flagg said she'd favor a five-member board, then she and Sawyer could both serve. "We both have unique attributes to offer," she said. "It's a shame to have to choose one of us."
Sawyer said he didn't oppose the idea of a five-member board but would want a study group first.
Regarding growth, Sawyer favors resurrecting the Economic Development Committee, which drew "honest feedback" on rezoning proposals at Town Meeting. In his view, the committee could continue to enlist townspeople to see what they are comfortable with and come up with "appropriate" ideas to enhance revenue.
Flagg said townspeople have spoken loud and clear on commercial or industrial development. They don't want it, or anything that would change the town's rural character. Short of courting businesses, leaders will have to "get creative," she said. Shirley should stay as it is, in her view. But she'd like to see "downtown Shirley" spruced up to look neater, "more like Ayer," she said.
As for the "division" that has roiled the town, she'd like to see it "go away" she said, so the town can move forward.
Sawyer agreed on that point, but focused more on financial stability, which he said is attainable. He noted substantial nest eggs built up during his tenure on the Finance Committee. Specifically, $800,000 in the Stabilization Account and $400,000 in the Capital Stabilization Account, with both balances nearing the goals set for them: $1 million and $500,000, respectively.