Select Board candidates share priorities

At a candidates night panel, three residents running for Select Board answered questions about their positions

Above: Candidates Al Hamilton, Marguerite Landry and Brett Peters answered questions posed by voters at the annual forum on Thursday. (photo by Beth Melo)

Following up on my earlier posts, here is my recap of the Select Board candidates’ panel discussion at Candidates Night.

As I previously wrote, 3½ of the 5 candidates for the two seats participated.*

During the candidates’ intros, each noted the number years they lived in town and children who attend(ed) NSBORO schools. David Parry has lived here for 40 years, Marguerite Landry 28 years, Al Hamilton 27 years, and Brett Peters 18 years. They also touted their relevant leadership/service experience and explained their motivations for running.

One major running theme among speeches and answers was the need to increase public communication/ transparency and encourage engagement.

David Parry, who is overseas, shared his introduction by video. It included his past experience as a city planner and in Southborough government including 3 terms as a Selectman ending in 2003. He said that his priorities were meeting the 10% minimum for Affordable Housing to avoid a 40B override, keep taxes reasonably priced, and emphasis on Town character (scenic roads, trees, etc.), and traffic. For the last issue he wants to improve north-south connections by building a bridge across route 9 to connect the schools and a tunnel to put Route 9 under Central Street. He said that could be done using state Transportation Improvement Program funds. He would seek public participation on that. (He wasn’t able to participate in the Q&A session.)

Hamilton noted that he has grandchildren and other young relatives currently in Southborough public schools. In Town government, his experience included chairing Advisory, Capital Budget, Town Administrator Bylaw, and Public Safety Building Study committees. He joked that some attendees knew him as “an obnoxious guy who talks a lot at Town Meeting”. After selling his company, his post-retirement volunteer work has included building houses with Habitat for Humanity and managing 26 acres of open space.

Both in his speech and in answers to later questions, Hamilton stressed his motivation to get the Select Board back on an even keel with Town Meeting. He advocated that the board should view Town Meeting as a partner in governance, not try to usurp its power. He’d like to accomplish getting more Affordable Housing built, making use of funds that have been sitting in the Trust. He also believes too much of the infrastructure spending have focused the downtown area. He’d like more to be directed to other areas of town. That includes building more sidewalks and “moving more public spaces out into neighborhoods where people actually live”. He also focused on the need to work to spend money efficiently in light of tax burdens.

Landry currently chairs the Library Board of Trustees and Main Street Park Working Group, and serves on the Youth Commission and Southborough Public Accessibility Committee. She had a long list of priorities: strengthening the Senior Center, supporting the schools and recreational facilities, building more sidewalks and bike lanes, protecting trees and scenic roads, keeping taxes as low as possible while funding a “vibrant community”, creating ” attractive affordable housing so that seniors can stay in town and that young people can afford to move in”, protecting historical heritage, and revitalizing downtown with modernized infrastructure ” which is one of the reasons that we don’t have a lot of restaurants down there”, and working on streets.

Landry followed that the most important priority was improving communication between the town government and residents. Later, she also shared a list of things she is worried about including Park Central egress, EMC/Dell land up for sale, MBTA Communities housing, school building decision, PILOT payments, Hopkinton Water connection, the potential Community Center, and public safety dispatch.

Peters’ kids are both currently attending Algonquin. He serves on the Stewardship Committee and is a member Southborough Open Land Foundation’s Board of Trustees. Inspired by the many residents who volunteer their time and skills, he is seeking to do more. Having worked at Microsoft handling service for millions of customers, he said he’s well versed in handling projects with lots of moving parts and big budgets.

He expressed concern that the Town hasn’t done a good enough job on transparency. He followed that information vacuums sometimes get filled up with rumor or conjecture, leading to discord or misunderstandings. He said he’d work hard to communicate early and often with online communications and office hours. Later during questions, he prioritized a need to balance affordable housing and conserving open space.

Bena Phillipo was unable to attend.*

Below are more highlights from the candidates’ answers to voters’ questions.

Answering a question about their plans to help senior citizens in town, Hamilton highlighted the increasing demographic in town (from 11.5% in 2010 to almost 14% today). He followed that he didn’t have a specific plan but that the we need to “reevaluate the set of services we provide” and the amount for seniors.

Landry highlighted the “terrible imbalance” where often an senior owns a home that has become worth more than they can afford to pay property taxes for. She believes more tax relief help is needed for seniors. She also said the senior center and other boards/committees provides vital services. But she believes that help needs to be organized and strengthened. 

Peters echoed that the senior center programs need to be supported. He also said that they need to recognize the burden rising taxes place on longtime residents. A priority would be outreach for ideas to help the senior population.

Patricia Burns Fiore asked how the candidates felt about Southborough becoming a “water municipality” and what they would like to see in the agreement negotiated by the Select Board.

Peters apologized for not being well versed on the project to supply water to Hopkinton, but would love to hear feedback. Landry responded that it’s good that Southborough can help Hopkinton because their Town water is undrinkable. She thought it was said that if the Town doesn’t do something the state “will come in and do it for us, and it won’t be as good” as the planned arrangement. But she acknowledged that it impacts residents who live on streets that the piping will go through. She believes there should be a large discussion with “all of the assorted stakeholders” before an agreement is announced as a fait accompli. Hamilton believes helping Hopkinton was the right decision and it comes with benefits for improving our water infrastructure. It does have some inconvenience for people living on roads to be torn up and he believes the town needs to “mitigate that to the greatest extent possible.

Claire Reynolds and Stan Moschella asked them about how they would avoid continuing high tax increases. [Note: The discussion first referred to the coming 6% residential property tax hike. Advisory Committee Chair Andrew Pfaff later updated that the new forecast estimates it as 5.42% increase]

Hamilton said that the tax increase is unsustainable. He noted that the Select Board is responsible for about 1/3 of the Town’s budget. His philosophy is that even though the community is “fairly well to do”, a fraction of every tax dollar comes from a senior citizen or single mom who is struggling. He followed, “as leaders have to be able to look that person in the eye and say yes we need that money it’s going to be effectively spent.” He said labor costs are probably the Town’s biggest financial challenge. He wants to leverage technology to make workers more productive and look at new modes of organization with cross-training. He also clarified the impact that decreased commercial property rates (after Covid caused vacancy rates to rise) have in shifting the tax burden to residents. Therefore it’s important to make sure businesses want to relocate here. Echoing Landry, he agreed that the Town should have someone focused on grants and grant writing. He also talked about reassessing whether to get rid of some Town buildings.

Landry noted the Town is fortunate to have so much free, volunteer labor. She believes residents need to be consulted on how the Town should best spend money. She noted that the US has been fighting about taxes since 1772 when they dumped tea in the harbor. It’s an ongoing battle. She would like a grant officer to coordinate grants, ” there’s a lot of money around we don’t always know where to get it.” She noted that for many in town the increases are a pain, but not a hardship. For others, she’d like programs to mitigate and provide a better safety net.

Peters said this is a tough question every town faces. The balance is difficult. He noted that the great schools are why so many people moved here, but we have to spend money for that, and he’d love to do more for the senior center. He would focus on trying to be efficient and would love to use technology to help doe that. But it also will require communication and listening to priorities. Peters said the Town should continue to pressure the private schools to increase PILOT donations. He also thinks that they need to do as much as they can to continue to pursue grants to offset costs.

Outgoing Select Board Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski asked how they would handle the public safety dispatch staffing. Hamilton believed that they need to continue to examine regional dispatch and if it can meet requirements at a lower cost. He noted that about 33 million California residents are served by 40 regional centers. Landry said that while technology has improved, but people are used to having a dispatcher in the police station and there needs to be a discussion about what residents want. They need to better understand it. It might take place in 2-10 years but everyone needs to be comfortable it works for them. Peters though there was a felling that we will go there eventually but don’t necessarily need to rush into it. We need to understand public concerns and what other agreement could we enter to alleviate them.

Carol Yozzo asked Landry to clarify an earlier comment about keeping the Senior Center where is. 

Landry said that she believed seniors want to keep it where it is, not relocate to a proposed Community Center at Woodward School. Yozzo disagreed with the first part, saying that seniors she has spoken think the building is too crowded and limited for their capacity needs, but agreed they didn’t think the proposed space at Woodward did either. Landry said that she supports the senior center being where it wants to be, and would seek focus groups and surveys to get seniors’ feedback. She also suggested that while the building has issues but the current parcel makes sense.

Moderator Janet Maney, a Library Trustee who also serves on the Community Center Exploration Committee, commented that they have just begun and want public feedback, but she believes they had already “moved past” the concept of using Woodward. Later, Sandy Kiess of Council on Aging echoed Yozzo’s sentiment and followed that they are currently working on their 5 year strategic plan and wil be sending out a town survey.

Eric Glaser asked about their ideas to address affordable housing, especially in light of preserving open space. 

Peters said that the proposal for using the Town’s Arts Center while preserving the building is something they should look at, and explore more areas like that. He also would like to get feedback.

Landry noted that there is an unfortunate loop that the more affordable units they add, the higher the 10% Mass Housing threshold. She said it was unfortunate that the Affordable Housing Trust Fund is held in a way that means they can’t quickly access it in time to buy old homes that could have been charming for the use. She wanted to do something about that and with the MBTA project need the train station.

Hamilton noted that there are multiple types of affordable housing. He raised examples of duplex houses that blend into neighborhoods. He pointed out that there was too much wet or already developed land near the train station to do much there, but we could do some. He followed that if the Town doesn’t find a way to comply with the state’s MBTA Communities zoning, the state will “do it for us in ways that we might not like”. He was upset that the Town couldn’t get out of its own way in time to use money sitting in the trust fund to purchase an historic, reasonably priced house downtown as an affordable home. 

Jen Primack asked what their plans were for increasing transparency. 

Hamilton said he would follow Select Board member Sam Stivers’ example and regularly be at the Transfer Station to speak with people. Landry would have the DPW send out regular emails so that residents know what is going on (road projects, schedule for fixing potholes, sidewalk plans, grants being applied for, etc.) Peters said that he has a website, and would like to use the Town website, this website, or create a blog to keep communication frequent. He’d also like to have regular office hours.

Freddie Gillespie asked whoever is elected to set up some kind of forum on effects of Climate Change and sustainability. Hamilton agreed, noting that based on his analysis it seemed the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in Southborough is the Town. Many years ago he tried to convince the chief to look at hybrid cruisers. Landry said it’s also a great place for grant applications. Building on a suggestion by Gillespie, Peters said that the town should keep abreast of regulation changes being done in other towns and if people were willing to volunteer for a committee he would support it.

Grant Farrington asked about their position on adopting a policy prohibiting private groups flying flags in the Old Burial Ground (referring to the controversial historical military flags flown by town veterans). He confirmed that the flags are down just for the winter and believes they will be put back up before Memorial Day.

Peters said he would and believed that only the American Flag should fly there. Landry said that she would put it on the ballot as a referendum. Hamilton said that as a history buff he wanted to set straight that each flag had a history, some good and some bad, and that in 1776 slavery was still legal in Massachusetts. Each is a history lesson that needs to be told and understood. But it if was up to him only the American Flag “that is supposed to unite us all” would fly there.

Southborough Access Media posted the video of the program. You can skip straight to the Select Board section here.

For more information on each candidate, read their statements here.

You can also look for more of my election coverage here, and find the Town’s election page here.

For the video captured by Southborough Access Media, click here.

*[Note: Albena Phillipo had notified the Trustees well in advance that she wouldn’t be able to attend a forum that evening. When I reached out to her, she explained that she would be in upstate New York for a class.]

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