Three for the board [Gloucester Daily Times, Mass. :: ]
(Gloucester Daily Times (MA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) May 03--ROCKPORT -- Incumbent Board of Selectmen Chairman Erin Battistelli and Vice-Chairman Paul Murphy spoke favorably of the work they've done on the board while challenger Jonathan Ring brought a call for change during a debate Thursday night.
Candidates tackled a variety of issues during the debate, held at the Rockport Art Association, while 50 or so Rockporters watched and listened.
The debate was sponsored by the Gloucester Daily Times, with all of the questions based on submissions from Times readers over the past week. The event, geared toward Tuesday's town election in which the three candidates are seeking two board seats, will also be televised beginning tonight at 8 on Channel 12 and throughout the weekend over Cape Ann TV.
Adjusting the town's alcohol regulations appeared to draw the most discussion as it was mentioned in responses to two different questions.
Question 2 asked candidates whether they supported recent changes made to alcohol sale regulations and if the selectmen should consider revisiting the entire ordinance altogether.
While Battistelli, answering the question first of the three, said she supported changes and proposed possibly putting a committee together to revisit alcohol sales, Ring said he only supported changes that are put to a vote.
Ring then accused the board of a conflict of interest when it voted to scratch out a portion of the regulations referring to the need to use glassware during a meal and having alcoholic beverages brought to the patron by wait staff.
The change was requested by Scott Lucas, owner of Top Dog on Bearskin Neck and the husband of Eliza Lucas, a current selectwoman. Ring said the decision by the board in favor of the change was wrong, even though Eliza Lucas recused herself.
"It favored one business and there was a conflict of interest," Ring said.
Murphy reminded everyone that the town's legal counsel, Kopelman and Paige, PC, handed the town a decision that said there wasn't one.
"The Board of Selectmen did nothing wrong," Murphy said, referring to the decision and heated response that followed as the "paper cup controversy of March."
Battistelli added that the town is small and that recusing oneself from a decision to avoid a conflict is the proper step to take.
"Technically there wasn't a conflict of interest, but there was a conflict of interest in a moral sense," Ring argued.
The topic came up again during a later question when Ring mentioned how the board did not reappoint Mindy Trafton, the town dog control officer for 12 years. The decision came sometime after a run-in she apparently had with Selectwoman Wilhemina Sheedy-Moores.
Ring again turned to the recent alcohol regulations tweaks, stating that the changes should have been granted longer than a two-week discussion period.
"Mr. Ring again refers to a potential conflict of interest. We treated this person like we would have treated any other person," Battistelli responded, referring to Scott Lucas, adding that it would have been wrong to turn him away because of who he's married to.
"This is one area where common sense would have played a better role," Ring said, adding that it creates the appearance of a conflict. "Town counsel can say anything they want. The point is there's a moral conflict of interest."
Removing the police chief position from civil service regulations, proposed by the selectmen and approved at last month's Annual Town Meeting, also brought back and forth between candidates.
"The selectmen didn't develop a process for (finding) a new police chief," Ring said. "This is another example of the Board of Selectmen moving too fast on an issue."
But Battistelli said this could easily be done when a new police chief is needed and that usually a search committee is created to take on this task.
"It's not rocket science," she said.
Murphy said current Chief Tom McCarthy has not announced plans for retirement. But when the time does come to replace him, he said the town will consider all candidates, including the internal ones.
"It doesn't preclude anyone from applying for the position," he said.
As for the search process when a chief is needed, Murphy said that should be dealt with when the time comes.
"I think it would be a little premature to develop a process when no one is retiring," he said.
But Ring said that not developing a search method points to a leadership issue on the board.
"Gloucester has a process and Rockport doesn't," he said. "This is just the lack of leadership and lack of planning by the Board of Selectmen."
Among other questions, the candidates also agreed on the complexities of and the need to monitor redevelopment work on the site of the former Cape Ann Tool Company, while all three also expressed varying degrees of frustration with the town's downtown parking -- made worse than ever, the questioner suggested, by a confusing system and varying rates of new parking meters.
The debate also played out in a colorful setting; the Rockport Art Association's gallery walls were adorned with magnificent works of art to be included in the RAA's 29th annual historic art auction, which runs today beginning at 2 p.m. after doors open at 10.
Candidates also took on how the town was able to avoid a Proposition 21/2 override and whether creating the $200,000 special education fund at Town Meeting cut into town funds.
Battistelli said creating the fund helps to eliminate stress in dealing with unpredictable special education costs, adding that doing this may help to avoid an override in the future.
"I think supporting our schools with our budget is extremely important," she said.
Targeting another part of the budget, Ring suggested that eliminating the selectmen's stipends and health care benefits, which he said would cut more than $100,000 out of the budget, could be used for schools.
"We need to stop spending money on things we don't need," he said.
However, Murphy said the town and the school district are working well with the funds they have.
"There is not a tremendous amount of fat on Jerdens Lane," he said. "The town is in a good financial position."
Polls are open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Arianna MacNeill can be reached at 978-675-2710 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @GDTArianna. Check for her blog posts in Cape Ann Chat on the GDT's website.
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