With the local election in high gear, Board of Selectmen candidates gathered at North Reading Thursday night to debate local issues and make their cases to voters.
The candidates all agreed that they love North Reading and want to bring more businesses, as well as sewerage, to the town.
Longtime incumbent , a professional bank examiner, was first elected to the board in 1988 and has only taken a few years off since then. During the debate, he steered the focus to his experience on the board, portraying himself as a consensus builder with a proven track record.
Challenger is the director of public works for the city of Chelsea and serves as chairman of the North Reading Water Commission. He emphasized his experience and knowledge in water and wastewater management -- an issue important to many voters since the town has yet to construct a sewerage system.
And the other challenger, , is a registered lobbyist who served on the North Reading School Committee for 15 years and on the Finance Committee for five. She said her history has proven her to be a team player.
All three candidates agreed that economic development is a priority.
"I think we as a community need to realize our small business owners are part of a community," Foti said about bringing businesses to town. "We should make businesses feel welcome, so we can get those doors open. Bring wastewater in here, we'll see those doors start to open."
Harty-Vacca said that she would want to make sure the town doesn't have restrictive policies that may discourage businesses from setting up shop in North Reading. She also wants to increase senior housing and eliminate many user fees in town.
O'Leary pointed out that the town does have some vibrant sections and said he plans to move forward with a team to streamline the way the town deals with business development.
All three candidates said they would like to see commercial development in the Berry property.
Not So Fast
But what to do with the former Stop & Shop building has been a more heated issue. Last year, after Stop & Shop packed up and moved down the road, the supermarket chain discussed a lease of the property with discount retailer Ocean State Job Lot.
That ignited a firestorm of public opposition and outrage, and eventually the move was scrapped and Ocean State decided to open a store in Tewksbury.
"With Stop & Shop, I just can't believe Stop & Shop was allowed to get away with what they did," Foti said. "It's going to be very difficult to get one occupant, we may have to split the building in half, maybe some offices or restaurants. We need to get them [Stop & Shop] in here, put them on the carpet."
There was some disagreement at the candidate forum between Foti and O'Leary about why the plan was scrapped. O'Leary said he was instrumental behind the scenes in getting Ocean State to walk away, while Foti credited public outrage.
As a means to increase economic development, all three candidates support bringing a wastewater treatment facility to North Reading. But if elected, how would they make that happen?
"I have a background in water," Foti said. "I did look at the current proposal, and I first off think that building our own treatment plant is going to be very expensive." He stressed going to other sources, such as MWRA. But he added that providing sewerage to businesses should be first, then to residents.
"A lot of planning has been done, it's $40 million to $50 million project, which is very expensive, and we have to figure out how we're going to finance that," O'Leary said.
Possibilities include user fees and raising revenues from the tax base, he added, and agreed that the town should bring sewerage to Route 28 first and then to residential neighborhoods, to make the project more viable from a financial and economic development perspective.
Harty-Vacca proposed rethinking current plans and going to the state to get more funding.
"It's very cost prohibitive," she said. "We need to go back. It's a solid plan, but the roll-out and finance of that plan needs to be addressed."
Striking a Tone
There have been complaints around town about the tone of selectmen's meetings and attitudes of board members. Harty-Vacca didn't hold back her distaste for it.
"I have a reputation of being a team player and consensus builder... I have never been part of a committee that has demonstrated the rude behavior that I have witnessed," she said. "With the right people and the right attitude and common goal, we can improve that behavior.
Harty-Vacca later offered some advice on the matter. "There's a rule of thumb I raise my children by: It's not what you say but how you say it."
O'Leary acknowledged that tensions have risen on the board in recent years, particularly in the past 18 months. He said that he has had private discussions with colleagues he felt were distracting from issues or causing problems.
"We have strong personalities at times, and the people sitting here generally have egos," he said.
Foti had a different opinion on the matter.
"I think that's part of the process," Foti said. "It's difficult to have five people sitting on a board and think you're going to have consensus every time. People have different opinions, but it has to be done respectfully."
Check in with us, and Norcam to watch this forum again before the election May 8.