HARVARD — There is one candidates’ forum in this year’s Town Election, and it was held Thursday at the Library. The forum was jointly sponsored by the Harvard League of Women Voters and the Harvard Press Newspaper.
Running unopposed for a three-year term on the Community Preservation Committee, Didi Chadran broke the ice by reading a one minute statement about his candidacy. He opened by snapping a photo of the audience from the podium. The crowd laughed. Chadran said the photo was for his proud mother.
Kara Minar and Christopher Ashley fielded League and audience questions in their race for a three-year Planning Board term.
Minar referenced her prior board service, stating she’d bring “institutional knowledge” to bear. Ashley, who led the Town Center sewer project to fruition and has labored on the Pond Committee, stated he’d produce “demonstrable results.”
Asked their first year priorities, Ashley admitted his work would be in “climbing the learning curve” on zoning and planning bylaws. Minar said her emphasis would be to push a refreshed Master Plan to completion and “preserving local character.”
The derailed Master Plan process sparked many of the League’s questions for the night, as did the Town Meeting-approved Town Planner post, voted at the April 6 Annual Town Meeting.
Both agreed the planner should report to the Planning Board. Minar said the planner should be “tethered” to the board in terms of management. Ashley said discussion was still needed on what “exactly what the role of the planner should be.” Minar agreed.
Both agreed — the Master Plan can be an effective tool to plot Harvard’s future. Ashley added, however, it’s only as good as the input. Without a consensus, the document risks being shelved.
“It’s a big expenditure of public funds,” said Ashley. “It would be a terrible shame to go through a process and not find enough ways to check in with the public.”
Minar defended the “effective” work to date of the Master Plan Steering Committee, which she maintained “involves residents.” A planner could help right the ship, said Minar, and ensure the document doesn’t become a “rubber stamp for development.”
Regarding the Devens disposition question, the two agreed that more study is needed.
“How do we know what Harvard should be negotiating for?” asked Minar rhetorically. Whether there’s a push to resume governmental jurisdiction of historical Harvard lands, a decision to forgo the land control, or some other “hybrid solution,” Minar said there’s a need for community-based and creative thinking.
Ashley suggested the Planning Board take an “active role in these types of issues. Exactly what that role is remains to be seen.”
“The Planning Board is well positioned in taking a leadership role in leading the discussion, studying the issues, and can be a big resource to the community,” said Ashley. There are many “moving parts and stakeholders” to include in the process, and a need to review the financial pros and cons of “assuming jurisdiction of the lands.”
“Then I’m going to trust the community” to decide, said Ashley.
From the audience, Deborah Thomson asked the candidates’ views on the further commercial development of the northern stretch of Ayer Road.
“That’s really a question for the community,” said Ashley. The board should “facilitate” those discussions and “approach things with an open mind.”
“We shouldn’t be afraid to bring things up and discuss them,” said Ashley. “Throw them all on the table. There should be a couple good chunks in there.” Otherwise, Ashley states he’s “agnostic” on development, other than to add “I agree, it would be nice to have some services in town. How that takes shape, I really don’t know.”
For Minar, the issue is “balance. How do we broaden our revenues and tax base and balance that with the quality of life” concerns over traffic, safety, and pollution for North Harvard residents. “How do we mitigate some of those potential impacts?”
“We need to be forward thinking,” said Minar. For example, Westford’s split tax rate has climbed to service the development of the last two decades, sparking the need to fund more employees and the associated pensions. There needs to be a focus on whether revenues raised are “meaningful” with a “sensitive” eye towards residents of North Harvard.
The drama dialed down on a second front, when the League yielded and allowed sitting selectman and Planning Board candidate Bill Johnson to deliver a brief statement on his candidacy. Erin Pastuszenski of the Concord-Carlisle League of Women Voters, who moderated the forum, read aloud a statement for challenger and Conservation Commission member Jim Breslauer who was not able to appear due to a prior out of state commitment.
There were no League or audience questions posed in the Johnson-Breslauer match up due to the circumstances.
The three candidates seeking two seats on the Harvard Board of Selectmen introduced themselves in order: former School Committee member Stu Sklar, former selectman Leo Blair and political newcomer and businessman Don Graham.
In introductory comments, Sklar, a 12-year town resident, said he helped bring the Devens education contract, which he called a “win for all parties involved.” He also noted his citizens petition was “overwhelmingly approved” at Town Meeting, exempting Town Hall from zoning regulations that threatened to derail the renovation and addition to the building.
“Harvard has it all,” said Sklar. In working to “preserve what we value most about being here,” Sklar said the job requires one to “listen before you talk.”
Blair, a 15-year town resident, called Harvard a “college town without the college” in that it provides a natural setting, an education emphasis, and a tradition of “engaging” civil life. “It all depends on a very delicate balance.”
Empty nesters are “glue that holds the town together” while parents of school-aged children benefit with “pretty much a private school education.” Property owner rights are also part of the balancing act, said Blair.
Not a politician or a professional speaker, Graham offered he’s a “better listener.” A four-year town resident, Graham said the impetus for his move was the “great schools.” Otherwise, “I don’t bring a personal agenda to the table.”
Town Meeting consensus reflects that the town is “moving in the right direction. If elected, I’d continue that progress,” said Graham.
Blair said he’d strive to get a handle on the other post retirement benefits (OPEB) financial obligations to town employees, and working to “resurrect and repair our relationship with our partners on Devens.”
Graham’s priorities include making sure “we’re doing the work of the people.” He also suggested a “summit” with other boards to work towards completion on the Master Plan to hammer out “our vision for the town.”
Sklar noted the mellow and lightly-attended Town Meeting shows there’s a need to engage people in the process. Feedback is needed to form consensus on Devens and Ayer Road development. “If we don’t know what we want, we can’t engage anybody.”
Regarding the road forward for the overhaul of Town Hall and potentially Hildreth House, Graham said the selectmen’s role is to be a “liaison to the community…. I think we have a responsibility to make sure to ensure all the views are represented.”
The selectmen’s “first and most important role is to implement the will of the town at Town Meeting,” said Sklar. The board must also “make sure it gets done on time and on budget. There’s nothing more important as far as I’m concerned.” Sklar admitted he wasn’t “up to speed” on Hildreth’s needs.
With a “green light” for Town Hall, Blair said the past controversies over the scope and zoning for the project are “settled business at this point. We need to get it built.” While seniors “give the most and ask the least,” Blair said the board needs to see different rehab “iterations” and a firm read from the Finance Committee on “what we can afford.”
All three agreed on the need for civil, respectful discourse, and the need to stand behind town or board consensus views, while reserving the right to speak out as individuals with minority views.
Sklar said the board must “lead by example” between selectmen and between boards. “As a private citizen, you can speak out certainly,” but Sklar said each member needs to “support the majority.”
“I think civility’s important,” said Blair. But the laws that require transparent and public deliberation lead the uninitiated to believe that public body members are squabbling when it may (and should) be the first time an issue is being aired.
“What people think they see as discord is just compliance with the law,” said Blair. With work, a board can “usually come to unanimity. Not always. Most times you can give and take and get to a position that everybody can get behind.”
“Cooperation and collaboration is important in order to get anything done,” said Graham. As a project manager he’s found that when some “don’t listen to each other and work against each other and try to put their ideas out front, it kind of delays the process.”
The forum, in its entirety, can be seen on the “Harvard Cable TV” YouTube.com channel.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.