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Discussion of Town Hall project with opposition voices


HARVARD — It wasn’t a public debate on the Town Hall renovation project. Nor did the three people invited to share the selectmen’s table Tuesday night claim to represent an organized opposition.

But Billy Salter, Paul Richards and Tim Clark certainly voiced differing opinions with considerable verve.

No stranger to the Town Hall debate, Richards had previously presented a petition to the board opposing “1B,” the makeover plan selected from a list of options provided by the architects at the board’s request. This, after townspeople refused to ante up more money for the $3.97 million renovation project and selectmen took it over.

Another bone of contention for him was that selectmen didn’t hire an owner’s project manager when they took over, which he said violates state law requiring public projects with multi-million-dollar price tags to have an OPM.

Town Administrator Tim Bragan said he had worked it out with someone in the Attorney General’s Office after the original plan was scrapped. But Richards didn’t buy it, based on his own conversations with the same attorney.

The “he said, she said” wrangle continued briefly until Chairman Stu Sklar ended it, warning that if things got out of hand the colloquy would be terminated.

Salter, for his part, insisted that the board had not reached out as it should have and was making decisions on behalf of the public that townspeople should be making themselves.

Selectman Lucy Wallace bristled at the notion that selectmen acted on their own.

“We’ve given you three people a lot of time,” and they provided “good input,” she said.

But in her view, there was plenty of opportunity for others to have their say. “I don’t think I live in a bubble. I talk to people, they talk to me,” she said.

“These meetings are open” she said of selectmen’s meetings, which are broadcast on the local public access cable TV station. “We’ve been struggling with this for a long time, but how are we to know if people don’t speak up?”

Three of them certainly spoke up Tuesday night.

Clark, a former selectman, was part of Town Hall project history during his final term and afterward. He advocated for restoring the building’s second floor stage to recreate the community performance and gathering space that once was there.

Like Salter, he’d have preferred more public outreach after 1B was selected. “We had a discussion a long time ago, but the path has narrowed since,” Clark said.

At issue now is the plan selectmen would present at the Oct. 29 Special Town Meeting, seeking approval of 1B and a tentative plan to move to leased space permanently rather than temporarily during the renovation, leaving the restored building for other uses.

Wallace envisioned the 18-month renovation period as a time for incubation and innovation. During that time, townspeople could get a feel for the off-site operation and decide if they like it or not, she said, and have community “conversations” about whether town offices should move back, and what to do with Town Hall, if not.

But Salter suggested that if the notion selectmen were operating on was that “the least important use” of Town Hall was to house municipal offices, they were wrong. “You have not conducted formal public outreach,” he said. If they had, his guess would be they’d find out most people don’t think much of the plan they’ve come up with, he said.

He pressed for board members to “commit” to a plan calling for a temporary move only.

Selectman Leo Blair said he’s open to whatever route townspeople want to take. But at this point the plan on the table is 1B, plus a 20-year lease with an 18-month opt-out clause that selectmen authorized Bragan to negotiate for office space on Ayer Road. They haven’t signed yet.

As selectmen explained, they didn’t have much to choose from. After an earlier rental deal for space in the Appleworks Building was set aside, later outreach produced only one bid. It’s a perfect set-up, with space for volunteer boards to meet as well, Sklar said. He acknowledged the rent is high but said a scheme has been worked out to pay for it without raising taxes.

Blair proposed the impromptu sit-down. “I’m going to make an unusual request,” he said. “There are folks here who are passionate about this…”

Indeed they were. “One of my biggest problems (with the current plan) is that we’re having schematic design discussions while the architects have been instructed to do “detail design” drawings, Richards said, since the architects would charge extra if asked to switch direction again.

Brandishing a to-do list and sketches to be refined before Town Meeting, Blair explained how the two stages dovetail, with few changes. Basically, it’s the same plan, he said.

Although board members mostly kept their cool during the discussion and questions that were not always as polite as the responses, Wallace seemed ruffled after the men left the table.

“Not to be dismissive, but that’s only what three people…say,” she said of the thorny issues they’d brought up, particularly the move-out plan, which none of them approved of and which they predicted townspeople might not like either.

The board agreed to meet Monday morning to decide on new wording for the warrant article they would present at the Special Town Meeting next Wednesday night.