Barnstead spotlight shines on select board candidates
March 03, 2010
BARNSTEAD — With a number of public office hopefuls conspicuously absent from Barnstead's annual Candidates' Night last week, the spotlight was trained on the candidates vying for positions on the board of selectmen during the well-attended forum.
Kathy Grillo, who is challenging longtime selectman Gordon Preston for the two-year seat left open by her husband Phil's death late last year, said she chose to enter the fray because she felt "a great deal of gratitude to the town" for the outpouring of support she received after Phil's passing, and wanted to honor his memory by giving something back to the community.
"I heard about this town 24 hours a day, seven days a week," she joked, explaining that Phil loved the town, felt a responsibility to listen to people's grievances, and had a habit of bringing those concerns home with him.
Stating her belief that she knows what Phil stood for and what he would do in most situations, Grillo said that above all, she felt she owed it to him and to the town to "do my best to carry on what he did."
Resident Gail Darrell asked Grillo what she saw as her possible role on the board of selectmen.
Grillo said she would try to move the board away from micro-managing the town's department heads and free up more time for long-range planning, particularly brainstorming ideas for attracting more businesses into town to augment the tax base.
With extensive management as a registered nurse under her belt, Grillo said she would also bring grant writing experience to the table, having penned a successful grant that led to the creation of the first Alzheimer's behavior unit on the East coast, and had served on ethics committees in the past.
Her primary focus, she added, would be reducing the tax burden on local property owners and unifying the town.
Asked by Alan Glassman how her possible election might affect her position as Barnstead Elementary School's nurse, Grillo said she planned to continue serving the school district.
Noting that a ballot question had recently been placed on Barnstead's 2010 Warrant asking voters to reduce the number of selectmen from five to three, resident Bill Gosse asked whether she would support that idea.
While she thought a three-member board would be "doable" with a town manager in place to oversee day-to-day operations, Grillo felt that a five-member board was the better option.
Asked by resident Peg Simoneau whether she had any ideas in mind for attracting businesses, Grillo replied that the list of contacts Phil put together shortly before his death had given her some ideas.
Glassman asked Grillo whether she supported the idea of videotaping selectmen's meetings, which Phil lobbied heavily for.
Grillo said she agreed wholeheartedly with the idea.
"I think it would be a great opportunity for the town to see what's going on," she added.
Grillo's opponent, Preston, said he had "never seen an economy like this one," and had decided to run for a third term in order to continue his work with the Suncook Valley Towns (a loose association of area towns, from Gilmanton to Northwood, that began pooling their resources last year in order to cut down on operational expenses).
"We have to regionalize," he said, explaining that Barnstead had already saved $30,000 a year by joining with local communities in a health insurance "pool."
Stating that his primary focus would be on increasing the town's tax base, Preston said he had recently been talking with investors about the possibility of getting the Lakes Region Pellets plant at the former Timco facility (which was forced to shut down last month after running out of capital) back up and running.
"If there are no jobs, there are no taxes [coming in]," he said, adding that the alternatives to commercial development would be either a reduction in services or an increase in taxes.
Commenting that he had seen Preston in action, and felt that he was "understating what he's accomplished" (particularly with regard to the Suncook Valley Towns), Glassman asked whether Preston supported the idea of a three-member board.
Preston said he was against a return to a three-man board, which he felt would make it difficult for selectmen to juggle the responsibility of serving on other town boards and committees.
Asked to explain how regionalization might benefit the town, Preston cited the example of the Suncook Valley Towns, many of which were preparing to purchase cruisers for their police departments this year until Pembroke's town administrator offered to draft a joint bid on the association's behalf for nine cruisers.
The question that communities like Barnstead, Epsom, and Pittsfield need to start asking themselves, he said, is whether it will be economically feasible to maintain their own police and fire departments or other municipal services if the economy worsens over the next few years.
David Brown, one of eight contenders for the three-year seat currently held by Selectman Dave Kerr, said he had thrown his hat into the ring because he wanted to "give something back" to the town that has given so much to his family.
Citing road maintenance as a priority, Brown said he felt the town's road crew needed to be given the ability to do its job free from micro-management.
He had also filed for election to a three-year term on the school board, he said, because he felt there was a deep division between the town and the school district "that doesn't need to be there," and could be resolved through cross-membership.
Asked by Glassman what he felt his qualifications were for serving as a selectman, Brown said he has served on the zoning board for the past three years, and had served on the Oyster River Cooperative School District's board in the past.
Clarifying his question, Glassman said he was thinking more along the lines of what in Brown's educational background might qualify him for service on the board of selectmen.
Brown said there was nothing specific in his educational background that would qualify him.
Asked whether he would support the idea of televising selectmen's meetings, Brown said he would.
Asked by Simoneau whether he would have the time to serve on both boards, Brown said he does not work evenings, and could, as a self-employed ice cream machine repairman, carve out any necessary time during the day.
Selectman Andy Houle asked whether he would support a return to a three-member board.
Brown said he saw "no reason to change what we have now."
With school board candidate Kathy Preston pointing out that he would have to decide which board to serve on if elected to both, since both boards meet on Tuesday nights, Brown said that was one of the issues he hoped to change.
The scheduling of school board and selectmen's meetings on the same night, he added, places residents in an unfair position, making them feel as though they must choose whether to be involved with the town or the school.
Theresa Grow, wife of police officer Donald Grow and contender for the three-year term, felt that positive changes were needed, particularly in the selectmen's relationship with town department heads, and said she was prepared to spearhead those changes.
Asked by Darrell what she felt her qualifications were, Grow described herself as a "good listener," explaining that she would bring with her a willingness to listen to the concerns of department heads and residents.
As someone who reads local newspapers regularly, Grow said she felt the selectmen have been "doing a good job," but needed to make changes in their attitude toward department heads and their approach to the budget.
Asked by Houle to state her position on the ballot question calling for a three-member board, Grow said she saw no reason to change the size of the board.
Glassman asked her to provide details on her background.
Grow replied that she has lived in New Hampshire her entire life, and has been a teacher for the past 11 years, currently working at Barnstead Elementary School as a pre-school teacher for special education students.
As a former site manager at Concord Head Start, she said, she also has supervisory experience under belt.
Asked by resident Nancy Carr how many selectmen's meetings she has attended, Grow admitted that she had not been to many during her time in Barnstead.
With Darrell asking whether she had any ideas in mind for accomplishing the positive change she advocated for, Grow said she hoped to see the town take advantage of government grant programs to off-set rising property taxes, and boost the local tax base by working to attract businesses that will help to preserve its small-town qualities.
Asked whether she would support the taping of selectmen's meetings, Grow replied that it was a "great idea."
Providing the audience with a few details concerning his background, incumbent Dave Kerr, a retired postal inspector and U.S. Army veteran who said he does not consider himself a politician, said he served on the school board and planning board before joining the board of selectmen three years ago.
Anticipating Glassman's question about videotaping board meetings, Kerr said he felt it would be a "good idea," and would welcome Glassman's participation on the committee that ultimately researches the issue and determines the costs involved.
On the matter of a three-member vs. five-member board, Kerr said he would "just as soon" stay with the five-member format.
One of the drawbacks to a three-member board, he added, is that no two selectmen can speak to each other in public without posting the conversation as a public meeting.
Resident Rick Simoneau asked Kerr what, if anything, he would do differently if elected to a second term.
Stating that he did not consider micro-management to be an issue, and was surprised to hear accusations of micro-management leveled against the current selectmen, Kerr said he would encourage department heads in the future to come forward and talk to the board if they feel micro-managed.
"I'd like to get that resolved," he said.
Addressing the issue of micro-management further at a later point in the evening, Kerr explained that the selectmen are obligated, under state law, to oversee the town's finances, and fulfill that responsibility by reviewing every check and purchase order made out by department heads the previous week during their Tuesday night meetings.
The selectmen also keep a close eye on the town's finances through a purchasing policy, he said, explaining that department heads are required to gather three bids, either in written form or through phone calls, for purchases ranging from $300 to $2,500.
For any purchases totaling more than $2,500, he added, three written bids must be obtained.
"It's not our money," Preston added. "It's your money."
Resident David Allen pointed out that the board of directors presiding over a large corporation is also responsible for overseeing the company's finances.
"They don't look at every check," he said.
"Maybe they should," Preston commented.
"That's not what I want to elect any of you to do," Allen continued, suggesting that the board of selectmen should be managing the "big things," such as augmenting the tax base, rather than focusing in on minutiae.
Donald Grow commented from the audience that he considered it a shame for the selectmen to pay a department head, such as the police chief, $60,000 a year to manage his department's affairs only to repeatedly second-guess his handling of the department's budget.
Responding to Kerr's comments, Grillo agreed that the selectmen are responsible for overseeing the town's finances.
She suggested, however, that, "you also have to give your employees autonomy."
Focusing in on the details at the expense of the overall picture, she said, is "senseless."
"That's poor management," she added to a burst of applause from the audience.
Asked what he considered to be his two biggest accomplishments as a selectman, Kerr cited the board's efforts to ensure that town departments are now receiving annual budgets comparable to those in surrounding communities and the resolution of hostilities between the town and Barnstead Fire-Rescue, Inc. (BFRInc.) as the standout moments of his tenure.
Bob LaRoche, another contender for the three-year seat, said he had spoken with Phil Grillo on a number of occasions, and appreciated what he saw as the deceased selectman's efforts to foster a "spirit of community" in Barnstead.
"I don't see that now," he said, commenting on the animosity he has seen between the selectmen and town department heads, and suggesting that there has been micro-management on the board's part to the point where "there's no compatibility there."
Promising to bring "honesty and integrity" to the office of selectman, LaRoche said he has done extensive work at the town ice rink on a volunteer basis, and would like to see more residents volunteer their services.
Asked by Glassman to state his position on a three-member board and on the idea of videotaping board meetings, LaRoche answered "yes" to the taping of meetings and said he wanted to see the five-member board remain in place.
Asked by Gosse what he would do to encourage a healthier relationship between the selectmen and department heads, LaRoche said he hoped the make-up of the current board would "change a little" following the election.
The key to improving the situation, he added, is the need for the selectmen to trust department heads to do the jobs they were hired and/or elected to do.
"If they're not doing a good job, then we need to get rid of them," he said.
Bruce Grey, a member of the town budget committee for the past nine years and a candidate for the three-year seat, said he had deliberately tried to avoid attending selectmen's meetings in the past because he wanted to remain neutral when voting on the budget and Warrant articles presented by selectmen each year.
Stating that his primary concern was expanding Barnstead's tax base, Grey commented that trying to get by in the face of the on-going recession by "pinching pennies" and scaling back services will eventually "turn around and bite us sooner or later."
Commending the current board for level-funding the town's 2010 operating budget wherever possible, Grey said he was also pleased, as a former member of the Fire Department Study Committee, to see a final solution to the dispute with BFRInc. proposed on this year's town Warrant.
Asked whether he had any ideas in mind for expanding the tax base, Grey cited Lakes Region Pellets as an example, explaining that he wanted to see businesses such as small manufacturing firms that won't become a draw on town services.
Asked by Houle what his thoughts were on the possible return to a three-member board, Grey said he found it beneficial to have a board of five selectmen to "spread the responsibility around" and generate fresh ideas.
A five-member board does, however, have its drawbacks, he said, adding that it can sometimes be difficult to get a "friendly majority" among five members, and can take longer, at times, for a decision to be reached.
When asked how his possible election to the board would affect his position as a budget committee member, Grey replied that he would have to resign from the committee.
On the subject of videotaping board meetings, he said he had no problem with the idea itself, but was concerned about the costs involved.
Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org