GROTON — Seeking another three- year term on the Board of Selectmen, incumbent Peter Cunningham still finds satisfaction in the political process and the challenge of taking the public along with him when good ideas come along, he said.
“I’ve been on the board almost 15 years and have enjoyed serving the town,” said Cunningham, a resident of Smith Street. “I’ve enjoyed very much being part of the dynamic between the board and Town Meeting. I’d like to continue serving on the Board of Selectmen because there are some things I’d like to keep up with as they move forward. For instance, I was very involved in the transition to a town manager form of government. That’s a process that’s sort of ongoing with the town still adjusting to it and I’d like to see it through.”
One major effort that involved Cunningham as a mover if not a shaker was that of drawing up a new Charter for the town and its implementation.
“I’d like to continue supporting the town as it transitions to a town manager form of government,” said Cunningham. “I think that’s important; overseeing the organization of town government and to help it realize its greatest efficiency. That way, we can help realize the level of services that the townspeople expect without placing an extreme burden on the tax rate. Also, the creation of more affordable housing is very big and I’d like to do more to increase the town’s inventory.”
Affordable housing is a subject that has not been far from the candidate’s mind having only recently come off a victory convincing both town officials and residents into backing a new development that will serve as a model of public/private partnerships in the future.
“I definitely support the 134 Main St. project,” said Cunningham. “I’d like to try and encourage construction of more affordable housing in town. I think that collectively as a town, we’ve not done enough yet. But beyond trying to reach the minimum number required by the state, it’s important for the community to increase the amount of affordable housing. It’s important for the elderly people or younger people who want to start out as first time homebuyers. There’s a whole number of people affordable housing is good for. That’s why I encouraged the approach taken by the Main Street project. There’s a lot of controversy regarding spending taxpayers’ money with a venture involving a private entity but there are plenty of examples of such partnerships. We need to keep in mind the larger public good.
For that reason, I think the Main Street project is appropriate and hope that town meeting will support it because Chapter 40B projects don’t give the town much say in that kind of project. Engaging in the kind of project where we have some say is preferable to that and to date, not one stick of affordable housing has been created with CPA money. There have been studies paid for but we have not actually created any more affordable housing. We need to think outside the box to do it where we have control.”
But the Main Street project is only one part of a larger mosaic involving further development of the downtown area.
“The 134 Main St. project requires a developer that will do it in a way that addresses the needs of the community,” Cunningham said. “Station Avenue is another example that hopefully will realize some community development downtown. Nothing’s really happening with it at the moment. You can only do so much. The town by itself is going to develop Station Avenue. We’re certainly going to do everything we can to make an environment that’s supportive of that. So far, there have been no responses on that. We’ll continue to work on it but there’s a limit on what we can do. At the end of the day, we’ll need a private developer to do it.”
Outside the downtown area, the candidate is convinced that a mix of uses will be needed to help residents find what they need at home instead of having to drive miles to satisfy even their simplest shopping needs.
“I think we can do both commercial and agricultural development in town,” said Cunningham. “We need them both in order to address the needs that people have and that have been identified. Some of that dovetailed into the sustainability movement but we need to do more on the local level. With the cost of gasoline pushing $4 a gallon, if we’re able to shop locally and get what we need closer to home, the better it will be. If you do it locally, clearly there’s an advantage to that.”
But dominating every issue is government spending, particularly municipal spending that depends on a revenue stream that has shrunken dramatically in recent years.
“The budget is huge, obviously,” admitted Cunningham. “I think we’ve done a good job on it. Everyone is stepping up to the plate to create a balanced budget. We also have some good management, something that has been brought about by the change in town government’s management structure.”
A big part of the town’s budgeting picture is the school system, which demands the lion’s share of revenues.
“The school administration was part of the budget-formulation process; that was huge,” said Cunningham of efforts by Superintendent Joseph Mastrocola to keep spending down. “It had an all around very positive outcome. The budget is an ongoing process that must be considered and paid attention to as the year goes on and if an opportunity to realize some more savings comes along we have to take advantage of it. All that stuff enters into the budget process.”
Another piece of the budget puzzle is the Community Preservation Act, which has come under more scrutiny by the public in other towns due to the state’s broken promise of matching whatever funds are raised through a surcharge on local property taxes.
In Groton, the CPA has become an important funding alternative for everything from the purchase of open land to the preservation of historic records at Town Hall.
“It was clear from the get- go that the CPA was not just about open space,” noted Cunningham, a supporter of the CPA. “That was just one piece of it. There are other aspects of it covered in the language of the law. Still, it’s been useful. We’ve taken on a significant amount of debt for Surrenden Farm so we need to cover that. If there was ever a move to revoke the CPA, townspeople would need to consider that. Until the debt is retired it would need to become part of Groton’s operating debt. So people would need to bear that in mind.”
But the bottom line for Cunningham, a former School Committee member, being a selectman means continued involvement in the civic life of Groton and immersing himself in the give and take that renders vitality to public service.
“It is a fun dynamic when you interact on pretty much a daily basis with the townspeople,” concluded Cunningham. “But people aren’t always paying attention to what’s going on so part of the challenge of being a selectman is making people aware of the issues facing the town, educating them when they come to town meeting and making sure they are informed about why these things are going forward. A good example of that was the recent Special Town Meeting in which the Sacred Heart site was discussed as a possible location for a new Central Fire Station. A lot of people seemed shocked by the proposal even though it was evident to me that our current station was completely inadequate. The town had been looking for the right site to come along. We’d been trying to secure a site somewhere in the central area with access to Main Street. That’s why that site made so much sense. But a lot of people were not informed about all that so we were forced to go back and take more time to look at it. After that meeting, I think people began to understand that we really need to do this.”