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Mass registration of Shriver students raising concerns on Vicksburg vote

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Ayer receives 42 mail-in voter registrations

By Mary E. Arata

marata@nashobapub.com

DEVENS — Devens is abuzz with news that the Ayer Town Clerk’s Office received an unprecedented bulk batch of mail-in voter registration forms.

Forty-two individually-posted forms were received on March 5 — each sporting the same stamp design and all sent from the Shriver Job Corps Center at 270 Jackson Road on Devens.

There are now 113 Shriver student voters registered to vote in Ayer.

The students registered too late to vote in the March 6 “Super Tuesday” presidential primary. Rather, the first Ayer election the students may participate in is the controversial March 28 “Super Town Meeting” vote over the proposed multifamily rezoning of the empty Devens Vicksburg Square Innovation and Technology campus.

It’s an $83 million, 246-unit affordable housing apartment project pitched by Boston developer Trinity Financial. A similar MassDevelopment rezoning request failed to pass Ayer Town Meeting in June 2009 on a 22-to-73 vote — 95 voters participated.

In that instance, a 113 Shriver student voting block would outstrip the number of Ayer municipal residents and control the outcome.

The federally-funded residential trade program provides under-privileged youth (16 to 24 years old) with food, shelter, health care, and a living allowance while they acquire job skills and, if desired, their GED or high school diploma.

When voting on regional matters, Devens residents vote in Ayer or Harvard depending on the historical political bounds that still divide the former Army base. Shriver students live within Ayer’s political bounds on the Shriver campus for eight months to two years.

“I share all the concerns listed here regarding the legitimacy of the Shriver Job Corps students,” said Ayer native Margaret Kidder, who spoke in her individual capacity though she is a member of the Ayer Board of Health. “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,” said Kidder. She said Ayer’s apartment vacancy rate has climbed since the Fort Devens Army base closed in 1996.

“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?”

Kidder said she understands the developer’s drive to profit, but “to do this on the backs of the multifamily home owners in Ayer and surrounding communities is wrong.”

“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?” asked Kidder.

Nashoba Publishing asked for comment from Trinity President James Keefe, Project Manager Abby Goldenfarb and Shriver Job Corps Center Director Tscherina Telesford about the voter registration drive. None responded. Telesford referred the newspaper’s request for comment to the center’s Boston office on Friday. No word from that office either.

Shriver carpentry teachers are union carpenters from the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. The 22,000-member union is a vocal supporter of the project. A request to Regional Business Manager Jack Donahue for comment went unanswered.

Donahue has been at each public hearing for the project dating back to November. At the last public hearing in Ayer on March 1, Donahue confirmed that roughly half (17) of the 40 people in attendance at Ayer Town Hall were union carpenters. None appeared to be student-aged.

Telesford did confirm that there are presently 305 Shriver students on Devens, with 272 living on campus and the rest commuting. Though the students hail from cities and towns all over the state, box 12 on the voter registration form asks the students to attest that their registered address is their “home.”

State law “permits a challenge to anyone believed to be unlawfully registered,” said Ayer Town Clerk John Canney.

Are Shriver students Devens residents?

Before the March 28 tri-town vote, Harvard selectmen asked for a read on what Devens residents want to happen with Vicksburg Square. That advisory “vote” of Devens residents occurs tonight, organized under the auspices of the Devens Committee. The tally is to be performed in open session. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in Conference Room 1 at 22 Andrews Parkway on Devens.

There was no talk of Shriver student participation in the Devens advisory vote through last Monday’s last pre-vote meeting of the Devens Committee. Since the Shriver vote came to light, Devens residents demanded clarification as to whether the student vote would be counted in the Devens resident poll.

On Thursday, Devens Committee Chairman Phil Crosby said that ballots were being sent to all Devens residents, including the Shriver students. He said the voting committee, consisting of equal numbers of project opponents and proponents, would be “fully in control of the process and vote count” and empowered to put questionable ballots aside.

“My thinking at the time was that anyone could object and we would put the ballot envelope to one side for later reexamination. I admit I did not articulate this thought as it seemed to me to be something we could readily agree on at the time,” said Crosby. “In preparing the list for mailing I did not see it within my authority to decide which residents listed on the (Devens) census were to be asked to submit a ballot.”

However, on Friday, Devens Committee member Tom Kinch reversed course. “The interesting point here is that due to timing, the registered voters at the Shriver Job Corps Center were not included in the initial distribution of the ballot information,” wrote Kinch. “Since the flap has arisen, we’ve held off on the distribution of the ballots to this part of our community. Were I included in this category, I would not be pleased!”

Kinch explained that there are two manners of voting as a Devens resident. When voting on matters that have ramifications outside of the DREZ, Devens residents vote in either Ayer or Harvard, as registered at the respective Town Clerk’s Offices. However, there’s a different registration methodology for Devens-centric elections.

“(For) a local Devens election, the approach is to have all registered at Devens voters submit a ballot on the subject of the election. Again, the requirement is that the voter casting the ballot be registered in Devens,” said Kinch. “The voter list is public information and maintained and made available by Mass Development. This list is reviewed by our Town Administration, Mass Development, and is used to get voter information out to Devens residents. ”

“Mass Development then oversees the process of the election,” said Kinch. “For the last 15 years this list has included all residents. (e.g. home owners, renters, veterans, Transitions (temporary shelter for women), and Shriver Job Corps.”

On Monday morning, Devens resident and project opponent John Knowles suggested another approach — tally Shriver votes, if any indeed had been cast, separately.

“We could have a category for Shriver Job Corps students, a category for Devens residents (home owners) and we could add categories for any other group the Devens Committee and Trinity may have up their sleeves as they pop up — like guests at the hotels, state police living in the barracks, federal prisoners, reserve troops in the south post, ultimate Frisbee players on Rogers field, etc.,” said Knowles. “This way when the dust settles the original intent of the poll for the surrounding towns will not be lost, which is finding out what the Devens residents that actually have a stake in their community think.”

“The folks at Trinity will at least be able to take some solace in all the pizza votes they bought,” said Knowles, hinting at rampant talk that Trinity sponsored a pizza-party for the Shriver students while gathered together to register to vote by mail. Neither Shriver Job Corps or Trinity answered a request for comment about an alleged the pizza party.

— Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.