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Ashland meets its candidates

February 25, 2010
ASHLAND — With the days quickly counting down until town elections, residents of Ashland had an opportunity to meet candidates for several open town positions and get their views on important town issues during Candidates Night last Thursday night, sponsored by Friends of the Ashland Library and held at Ashland Elementary School.

A solid turnout provided plenty of questions and answers between residents and candidates, with most of the inquiries directed at the four select board candidates vying for two seats. Candidates for the School Board, Budget Committee, Water and Sewer Commission and Library Trustee were also on hand, giving voters an opportunity to familiarize themselves with possible town officials come next month's elections.

In the select board race, Dennis Potter and Jeanette Stewart will both seek reelection for three-year terms, but face two competitors for the seats as well, as Bobbi Hoerter and Steve Lake are also running to join the board.

Hoerter is no newcomer, having served as selectman in place of Dan Golden in April 2008, though she did not run to keep her seat in March 2009. She described herself as "fiscally conservative" in town matters and promised to keep tight reins on the town budget. She also expressed a desire to improve the demeanor of the select board, citing a need for meetings to be held in a more respective manner than has been seen.

"I was a selectman before and learned quite a lot," said Hoerter. "I think I would bring a level-headed sense of reasoning to the select board."

Potter is one of the newest members of the select board, replacing Hoerter in the 2009 town elections, and has served as chair since being elected. Though he recognized the tensions between members of the current board, he also noted what has been accomplished in the past year and that the town is "back on track," keeping the tax rate from going up and initiating some much-needed projects, including the River Street Bridge and re-shingling of the town hall roof. It's his hope to see the town finally develop and initiate a long-absent Master Plan, which would make Ashland eligible for grant monies surrounding towns have been receiving.

"I went into this with no experience," said Potter. "I went in there and did everything I could to educate myself…I will serve you as I expect to be served."

Stewart is currently the longest-serving member on the select board, the only one elected or appointed prior to 2008. A lifelong resident of Ashland, Stewart spoke of her dedication to the town, having attended all meetings and meeting weekly with department heads while maintaining interaction with residents. She expressed a strong desire to see the town become more involved with meetings, citing the relatively large turnout for the Candidates Night as an example.

"We need you at the selectmen's meetings," said Stewart. "We need you to speak up. You are the town. If you come and speak up, then things will get done."

Lake is the only candidate to have not previously served on the select board. A regular attendee of the meetings, however, he entered the race with a desire to get involved in the town, as well as reduce some of the tensions often evident between board members by initiating change and bringing a fresh perspective to the board.

Bringing new businesses into the area was a priority for all candidates; asked about how to attract new businesses, the candidates stressed a collaborative effort by the town, while Potter and Hoerter agreed that businesses might be encouraged by incentives. "To attract business, you've got to make it attractive to them," said Potter. "They have to know they're going to be able to support themselves."

The candidates were asked about a pair of petitioned warrant articles critical to the makeup of the town's current government, requesting to reduce the select board to three members in one article and reestablishing the post of town manager in another.

Hoerter and Lake both spoke against the articles; Hoerter believed there'd be more experience and greater quorum with a five-member board, while Lake noted more diversity. Stewart added that three members would be narrowing it down too far, and as a reaction to the current problems facing the board did not guarantee a positive response. "If you put it down to three, it's not going to solve your problems," said Stewart.

Potter spoke in favor of reducing the board's numbers, noting the problems of the current board and the practice of three-member boards in the majority of the state, outnumbering five-member boards three to one.

"Obviously five doesn't work for us," said Potter. "It's working in 151 other communities; there's no reason why it cannot work here."

Discussions of a town manager conjured memories of Rosie McNamara, who had abused her position to steal thousands of dollars, contributing to a $1 million debt at the time of her removal ten years ago. Many of the precautions missing during McNamara's service have since been implemented, however, including annual audits (as voted for by the town) and responsibilities such as bookkeeping having their own positions. "When that incident happened, audits were only done every five or six years," said Stewart. "We wouldn't have had that problem if they were run more often, as it is now."

Potter was the only candidate to speak strongly in favor of reinstating the town manager position, noting that the town needed to get past McNamara and consider a governing official who could be more "proactive" in the affairs of the town. "It sounds like people want to use this as a scare tactic to keep people from doing anything in this town," said Potter. "The town manager would provide a lot better service to this community."

The Ashland School Board has three candidates for two three-year terms (a fourth candidate, Anne Lamson, has bowed out of the race). Miriam Brown is the only incumbent running for reelection this year, and cited her services to the school district as a member of the school board and superintendent search committee, as well as the accolades Ashland Elementary School has received, including School of the Year and Principal of the Year. "The school has managed efficiently through everyone's hard work," said Brown. "I'd like to continue to meet the needs of the students and families of Ashland."

Two new candidates are joining Brown in the race. Shaun Smith entered the race as a concerned parent and Ashland resident, looking to take an active role in the school board's operations and how taxpayer money is allocated. Also running is Michelle Bobb, a Thornton Central School teacher and Ashland resident who also seeks to be more involved in the community, as well as bring her knowledge and experience to the Ashland school board.

The Budget Committee has three candidates for two three-year terms, with incumbent Paul Branscombe, Steve Lake and Christine Austin. Branscombe, a one-year member of the committee, noted the weight of knowledge and responsibility in serving.

"I've learned an awful lot, and when you sit on this side of the table, it takes more than a year to embrace what's going on," said Branscombe. "It's a very important position. The fiscal responsibility we all have is very important."

Lake, who had previously served on the Budget Committee, also hoped to rejoin this effort. "I was on it and really impressed how the committee was run," he said. "It's a completely different animal from the way the select board's been running, and would like to do it again."

When asked about a petitioned warrant article asking to delegate the default budget to the budget committee, rather than the select board, Branscombe opposed the idea. Committee Chairman David Ruell backed Branscombe's response, noting that the select board and commissions would have greater knowledge of how to appropriate the default budget, being in connection with the budget and departments year-round.

While there are three candidates running for two positions, there are also two two-year terms for the Budget Committee, for which only one candidate is currently running (Bruce LaRiviere).

The Water and Sewer Commission has two candidates for a three-year term, Alan Cilley and Anne Lamson. All other positions have unopposed candidates: Richard Ogden for Town Trustee of the Trust Funds (three years); Alice Staples for Library Trustee (three years); Kendall L. Hughes for Electric Commissioner (three years); Phil Preston for Town Moderator (two years); and MaryAnn Reinholz for Supervisor of the Checklist (six years).

Friends of the Ashland Library have sponsored the Meet the Candidates Night for seven years, providing a valuable opportunity for voters and candidates alike to reach out before the elections. Attendees were treated to a variety of refreshments, as well as materials on the upcoming election.

The Ashland Town Elections will be held Tuesday, March 9, 9-7 p.m. at the Ashland Elementary School gymnasium. A full list of candidates and warrant articles can be viewed in the Ashland Post Office, at the Ashland Town Offices or online at ashland.nh.gov.

Martin Lord Osman
Brewster Academy
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