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AYER — The turnout for Special Town Meeting Monday night wasn’t spectacular — just 147 voters — but it was an engaged crowd that passed articles that created the role of town manager, shifted some elected positions to appointed, and established parameters for recreational marijuana sales.

The first four articles set the stage to shift the reins of town government from elected officials to appointed professionals: the town clerk, treasurer/collector (a newly-created position that for the most part combines the duties of two existing ones) and the tree warden, specifically.

Those articles all passed, as did a proposal to create a town manager position that revisits and significantly revises the town administrator’s job. Robert Pontbriand has held that post for eight years and is expected to continue, albeit with an altered and expanded job description that he said is more fitting for the future and aligns with the direction other communities are headed in, statewide..

But some residents were leery. “What’s the benefit?” Laurie Nearing asked. A former selectman, Pauline Connelly, who recently served on the Government Study Committee, revisited that question later in the meeting.

Addressing such concerns, also voiced by another former selectman, Frank Maxant, Pontbriand noted new trends in the Commonwealth that favored appointed versus elected positions for some municipal jobs. He also cited recommendations by the state DOR and others, including the town’s own Government Study Committee. Under the current set-up, he said, anyone at least 18 years old and a registered town voter can run for office and thus become town clerk or tree warden, without any experience or the skills needed to do those jobs.

As for accountability, which Maxant and other residents said they were worried about losing, Selectman Jannice Livingston said it’s still in there, and then some.

“If any one of you has an issue, you’d go to” management, she said, same as they would to lodge a complaint at a store, such as Target. Here, it’s the selectmen. And if someone still felt his or her voice wasn’t being listened to, they could show up at a public meeting to have their say, if it cane to that, Livingston said.

Pontbriand supports the change to town manager and laid out the pros, drawing from and elaborating on the case he made for it in a multi-page memo to the Ayer Finance Committee that spelled out the state law that would create the position.

Basically, it’s more efficient and makes more sense, he said.

And, Pontbriand added, it unburdens the selectmen from day-to-day tasks a town manager would take on independently, with input from others in his administration but without triggering the protracted process that exists now. Hiring or firing non-department heads, for example, say a DPW laborer or an administrative assistant. Rather than going through a series of meetings that can take weeks, given the current protocol and the selectmen’s schedule, shifting those responsibilities to the town manager frees up the town’s top board to tackle the policy-making role it was intended for, Pontbriand said.

But, he pointed out, these transitions have been in progress for some time and won’t be implemented, officially, until they pass muster with the state legislature. As for the upended elected positions, the Town Clerk and Tree Warden in particular, those individuals can serve out their terms.

Recreational Marijuana Proposals Pass

Debate was especially lively when the last two articles came up: proposed general and zoning bylaws aimed at allowing an existing medical marijuana dispensary, Compassionate Care, currently located on Central Avenue, to begin selling the controversial substance for recreational use, now that it’s legal to do so across the state. The proposed new zoning doesn’t state where such facilities could or could not set up shop but it does allow only one, based on a percentage of the number of package stores in town.

Some folks who lined up at the mic to speak were more anti than pro and more than one favored a ban on all such facilities or at least a 12-month moratorium that other towns have opted for but which selectmen said would only postpone rather than solve the issue.

Better to settle the mater now, with limits in place and the possibility to add more if the experiment goes well then simply “kick the can down the road” and potentially lose the power to set parameters and risk the friendly relationship the town now has with Compassionate Care owner and founder John Hilliard, who has indicated that he’d move his facility out of the town center if the proposal passes. Some pointed out that so far, he’s kept his word on other matters and they trust him to continue.

With Town Meeting’s ok, Hilliard had a few words to say on the matter. “We’re not a pot shop,” he said, rejecting a term a couple of residents used to describe recreational marijuana sellers in Colorado.”We specialize in cannabis and…healthy lifestyles,” he said. “We have (medical) patients who will buy it (elsewhere) if we can’t sell it here,” he said, thus bypassing multiple trips to the doctor to get a prescription and other costly impediments.

Hilliard said he’s open to further discussion and would gladly sit down with anyone who wanted to talk about the issue. But call his office first, he cautioned, because the facility is locked.

All things considered, the somewhat lengthy discussion was milder than might have been predicted and decidedly two-sided. One resident even proposed an amendment to up the number of facilities allowed in town from one to two. The amendment failed.

The main article passed with a few no’s. “The aye’s have it,” Moderator Tom Horgan said as the meeting wrapped, just before 10 p.m.

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