By James Niedzinski
---- — MANCHESTER — From dealing with the fallout of the plastic bag ban that takes effect July 1 to confronting unfunded liabilities and hypothetical million-dollar allocations, the three candidates for Manchester’s two Board of Selectmen seats fielded a variety of questions at a debate Friday morning.
Hosted by the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce, roughly 30 residents — including current selectmen Thomas Kehoe and Margaret Driscoll — listened in as the candidates answered questions submitted by readers of the Times and the Manchester Cricket, and posed by Times Editor Ray Lamont, Patricia Slade, editor of the Cricket, and Jane Enos, editor of the Cape Ann Beacon. Bill Scott of Manchester’s Scott Energy and the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce served as the moderator.
With residents due to go to the polls at Memorial Elementary School Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., the candidates are Ann Harrison, a software developer, former Finance Committee member and current School Committee; Eli Boling, a software engineer and emergency dispatch ad-hoc committee member; and Robert Hoff Jr., a substitute teacher, volunteer for the regional school district and a marketing consultant.
All are vying for the seats being vacated by current Board of Selectmen chair Susan Thorne and selectmen Mary Hardwick, who are not seeking re-election.
With business owners stepping forward about having an excess of plastic bags to get rid of by the July 1 deadline, candidates were asked how they would address the merchants concerns.
There has been talk of possibly delaying fines and allowing leniency. Another option presented is for the Manchester Essex Green Team, which talked to a store employee and not a store owner about the ban, to host a fundraiser to buy up the remaining bags.
“Our businesses should not have to suffer for our effort to clean up the environment,” Boling said, adding he would be in favor of aiding merchants.
Harrison had a different take on the issue.
“When the Town Meeting votes, it establishes the rules for the town,” she said. “It should not be the position of the selectmen to go against the ruling of town meeting.”
She said she was against granting any extensions to businesses, but would support the schools’ Green Team buying up bags that will unusable by local businesses. The owner of Zak’s on Central Street has about 4,500 bags.
Hoff noted Attorney General Martha Coakley has still not signed off on the article.
Hoff, too, was sympathetic of the business owners and was critical of the Green Team.
“Did the Green Team do their homework?” he said. “There were a lot of unanswered questions and they’re all coming out now.”
The candidates were also asked where they would allocate a hypothetical $1 million added to the budget.
Harrison said one of her highest priorities would be to overhaul the town’s infrastructure, doing an inventory of what the town needs and allocating money to fix the biggest infrastructure problems.
Boling said he, too, would focus on capital projects, adding that the state Department of Environmental Protection could fine the town in the near future if problems are not addressed.
Hoff said he would look to market Manchester as a tourism spot, similar to Essex and Rockport and take advantage of the influx of people that come to Manchester in the summer.
Harrison said people should step “fairly carefully” about how Manchester is pushed as a tourist destination.
Boling said one area he would focus on, in addition to infrastructure, was communication between different boards and residents.
“(Some) residents don’t actually know what the town is doing, it tends to lead to a bit of contention,” he said.
Harrison said she would ensure the incoming town administrator, as well as other town volunteers, would pull in the same direction and work together, while improving communications.
Hoff recognized it’s not the Board of Selectmen’s call to decide how school dollars are being spent; he would take a leadership role to ensure residents benefit from every penny spent.
Harrison, who has sat on the School Committee for nine years, said the school is progressing smoothly, the MCAS scores are high and the cost per student is down.
“I think we are getting the best bang for our buck,” she said.
Hoff said he too would encourage others to volunteer for boards or committees, another area he would look to focus on are the unfunded capabilities of retired and current town employees.
“Manchester is not an open ATM machine,” he said,
Harrison said the town has allocated sufficient money into a trust set aside for the unfunded liabilities, the school district is also addressing the issue by a change in payment, negotiation and contribution structures.
“We are responding in very proactive ways,” she said.
Hoff said he encouraged the School Committee to have the same discussion and set aside money to address the mounting problem.
“If it’s good enough for the town, why isn’t it good enough for the schools?” he asked.
“By that argument, we should immediately dump $1.4 million into the school budget,” Boling said.
He added the school district is taking active steps to address their unfunded health care liabilities.
“We don’t have to spend a ton of money right now to solve this problem,” he said.
The debate is scheduled to be shown this weekend over Cape Ann TV; check the CATV schedule for specific times.
While the Board of Selectmen race is the only contested one on the ballot, there are two ballot questions that would raise $1,731,000 in bonds to pay for treatment of the former burn dump site on Pine Street, while another question would exempt the town from debt assumed by the amount.
A number of other candidates on the ballot are unopposed for re-election, while there is also one write-in slot for a Planning Board candidate.
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.