PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

AYER — The three candidates for the Board of Selectmen participated in a forum hosted by the Ayer Communications Commission on April 12. The event was moderated by Ayer Public Access Cable Manager Doug Becker. Ayer’s town election is on April 23.

Two seats are available on the board. Each carries a three-year term.

Incumbent Gary Luca said he helped shepherd balanced budgets, labor contracts and the settlement of two potentially devastating wrongful-conviction lawsuits for “pennies on the dollar” over his past six years on the board.

“If this is why you voted for me in the past, this is what you’re going to get in the future,” said Luca.

Former Ayer police Sgt. Mark Coulter said, “I’m running because I think it’s time for a change. If you are in a political office too long, it becomes stale.” Coulter advocates for six-year time limits for selectmen.

Christopher Hillman owns his own HVAC company. “I’m at the age now where I want to give back to the community. I believe the ceiling is unlimited here and I’d like to bring some of my views to the table.”

Top issues

Hillman said parking is needed for a downtown renaissance. “I’ve been told the garage could be designed to go up (higher). People may have an issue with that aesthetically.” But a parking problem is “a good problem to have. That means people are down here, getting off the train and they’ll want to get a sandwich at the pub or have an anniversary meal at the Italian restaurant or pick up a gift at Kelley’s (Hallmark).”

Hillman said the number of Ayer pupils who “choice” into surrounding school districts is “obviously alarming. I don’t want to be spending money to educate our students in Littleton, Boxborough, or what have you.”

“I’m not 100 percent sure,” but the state of the high school doesn’t help, Hillman said, adding he was “absolutely appalled” by its physical condition. “If we had a building up there that we could be proud of and education on par with, if not better than, other towns, they’ll want to stay here and play on our sports teams.”

Hillman said Ayer does not have a crime problem, though the town made news this past year for graffiti sprees, car breaks, sex offender arrests, and the death of a teenager allegedly robbed by teens seeking money to buy drugs. The death prompted an impassioned plea to the selectmen to study Ayer’s crime climate.

“You’re never going to curtail all of it,” said Hillman. “It seems we have been kicked a little harder over here lately, especially in the media.” Hillman called for downtown foot patrols and a return of a police liaison to the schools.

The three candidates agreed the present $3,400 selectmen stipend could be reallocated to fund a police liaison to the schools.

Coulter used to work as an Ayer patrolman assigned to the schools. “It was amazing how if you did that every day, and I met with (former principal) Don Parker every day and talked to teachers and councilors, that there wasn’t one problem in that school that we didn’t know about. We got to know individual problems with kids and their families and their relatives.”

“And if something went on downtown after hours, we knew right away where the problem was,” said Coulter. “Isn’t it a shame that if you ask the police anywhere in this county who are the bad kids in their town, they’ll name them off like that. Ask who the good kids are and they can’t tell you.”

Coulter advocated against Ayer seeking jurisdiction over “dead land” on Devens that cannot generate tax revenue. Coulter likewise opposed the Vicksburg Square residential rezoning effort which failed to woo Ayer and Harvard voters on March 28.

“I absolutely agree veterans and low income (earners) need housing, but how many apartments do we have in Ayer that are sitting empty?” said Coulter. “Down the road it would be a great project, but not now.”

“We have to be greedy, unfortunately, as Ayer residents and be greedy for Ayer. We’re worried about Devens but we’re not worried about Ayer,” said Coulter. “Main Street is emptier now” than when the Fort Devens Army base closed in 1996, said Coulter. “The selectmen should be downtown talking to these business owners.”

“Stick to 2 1/2 on taxes,” said Coulter, who opposes talk of overrides. He also cautioned against sliding the split tax rate in favor of businesses, “How are we going to get the money to make that up?”

Coulter encouraged selectmen to heed the Finance Committee. “Listen to them more in terms of what they’re thinking instead of just blowing them off and saying ‘Well, we’re going to do it this way instead.'”

“The Finance Committee does an excellent job of scrutinizing,” said Luca. “They ask the questions that need to be asked.” On April 10, Luca rebuked the Finance Committee’s suggestion to halve the selectmen’s $3,400 annual stipend (with $3,800 for the board’s chairman).

At the forum, Luca reversed course. “Go right ahead. I’m not against it. It may have been portrayed that way.”

The downtown is trickier since two landlords control tenancy, said Luca. “Every time someone moves out, they get someone to move in.” But regarding the tax rate, which is approved by the selectmen, Luca said the present split “turns off” small- and medium-sized businesses, while Pepsi, Cains and Catania Spagna have been “here a number of years and are doing well. It’s a balance.” Luca said town services and railroad access are Ayer’s selling points. Luca also suggested another lure to business could be more tax incremental financing subsidies from Town Hall.

The Ayer-Shirley Regional School District, launched last July 1, is “suffering a lot of growing pains,” said Luca. “I don’t think there’s anybody that wants to begrudge the schools the tools to educate the children.” But finances are tight. “Tough times are ahead and we’ll have to make choices. We need to work together as a team to do that.

Heather Hasz withdrew from the race to focus on her family. But she asked a hot-button question of the candidates, asking them to sound off about the “micromanaging perception” plaguing the sitting selectmen.

“I’ve been accused of that myself,” said Luca. As postmaster, Luca said he’s routinely scrutinized by superiors. “I don’t consider that micromanaging. If he can give me something constructive to do my job better, I certainly welcome it.”

Luca suggested “people don’t know the whole story” behind why DPW Superintendent Dan Nason left after three years to find similar work in Northborough. “Someone says they’re going to do something,” said Luca of interactions he had with Nason. “And they didn’t do it.”

Luca said a micromanager is “by definition a narcissistic person who likes to control things. I’m nowhere near that — ask my wife.” Luca said he only checks in daily on Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand.

Hillman said he has a “far opposite philosophy,” which is to “hire good people, treat them right and they will produce.” Hillman said his employees are “never reprimanded in front of someone else.”

“When your employees have respect for you, they produce for you,” said Hillman. “I believe from what I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, we have extremely competent people, like the town administrator. For me to be calling him for a daily update, it’s not going to happen on my end unless I feel it’s necessary. I may have opinions on departments, but I’m going to leave their operations up to them unless a situation arises where we do have to call them before the board.”

“You picked someone because you think they’re qualified, then you turn around and start telling them how to do their job?” said Coulter. “Why’d you hire them in the first place? To constantly be on someone every day or every other day to see how they’re doing or how they’re doing it just doesn’t make sense.”

Coulter said his approach as a police sergeant was to “give assignments, let them go and spot check them now and then.” Coulter said, likewise, the selectmen should cease interviewing police and fire candidates during selectmen meetings. “Who on the board is an expert?” Coulter said it’s a role best left to police and fire chiefs.

Coulter said the selectmen spent much of their time “arguing, fighting, and climbing over each other, micromanaging. A lot of time has been wasted in the past. And that’s got to end.”

“I don’t have an agenda. I’m as transparent as anything, and I hold people accountable,” said Luca in closing statements. “We’re not one special interest group or one agenda. I’m here to make sure they’re not a credit card that’s overdrawn. I’m not anti-school, I’m not a micro-managing freak. I want to do what’s best for the town.”

“I’d like to give back. Ayer has been good to me,” said Hillman. Hillman said one of his hallmarks is “my ability to communicate with people and ask questions. I’m fair and I’m honest, and I’d like to give the town an opportunity to see that.”

Video from the candidate forum can be seen on the town of Ayer website at www.ayer.ma.us and on Ayer Public Access Cable Channel 8.