In what figures to be the last major campaign event before the March 6 local election, Board of Selectmen candidates John Arena and Karen Gately Herrick squared off in a debate last night at RCTV Studios on Main Street.
Meanwhile, just a few hundred yards up the road, the Selectmen, Town Manager and the Assistant Town Manager bid farewell to Camille Anthony, as she chaired her final Selectmen meeting after 18 years.
Arena and Herrick are vying to fill the seat Anthony is leaving behind.
The debate was moderated by Kevin Vendt and Dick Curtis, and each candidate was issued to “rebuttal cards” to be used to respond to a statement, or to lengthen the allotted time for answers.
A coin flip was used to determine who would field the first question, and Herrick was the winner, correctly predicting it would land heads-up.
The following is an account of the questions and answers. Please note that the exact wording of the questions may be paraphrased. For an unabridged account of the debate, see the attached video from RCTV.
Why are you the best candidate?
Herrick responded by pointing to her “long history of volunteerism in government,” which, she said, dates back to 2001, when she first ran for Town Meeting in Precinct 8. She went on to cite her membership on numerous commissions and committees, such as the Historical Commission, the Tax Classification Committee and the Solid Waste Committee.
“The candidate needs to have a good track record in town of volunteerism, and commitment, and knowledge of the town,” she said. “I’ve lived here since 1996, with my husband and my daughter ...”
Herrick also mentioned her two years spent as a paraeducator at the Coolidge and Parker middle schools, and said she understands the plight of those teachers.
She also said the best candidate would bring life experiences, and pointed to her time as a consultant with Accenture, working with Fortune 500 companies.
“I think there are a lot of parallels between making good policy decisions for Reading and doing much of the same for my clients,” she concluded.
Arena began by thanking RCTV and the moderators for organizing the debate, and said there are three reasons he is running for the Board of Selectmen.
“First, I love my town; second, I understand Reading’s small town character, and third, I’m effective at working with others and delivering results,” he said.
He went on to say that he and his wife have lived in Reading for 30 years, and raised three children in town. He also pointed to his involvement in school, civic and governmental activities as both a participant and leader.
“I’ve learned our town’s character and our government well,” he said.
Arena continued by speaking to his experience and abilities working collaboratively with others, and his long professional history of working with large groups.
“I’ve managed large team projects, and delivered solutions such as lowered costs and improved operations,” he said. “ ... I believe in strong leadership and collaboration in our local government, and I also believe that everyday citizens should be part of that government.”
How do you see yourself interacting with the other personalities on the Board of Selectmen?
Arena answered first, and said that he would view his role as a collaborator, not just a judge, but an individual who can work effectively within a group to find solutions to problems in any ways necessary. He stressed the role of collaboration in the duties of a selectman.
Herrick said that, initially, she would be doing a lot of listening, because “no matter how hard you prepare for a job like this, there is always going to be a lot you don’t know.”
She continued to state her agreement about the role of collaboration, and said her past experiences have prepared her well to do just that.
“Being a member of the Board of Selectmen, I would need to listen, I would need to have an open mind and I would need to work for the common good of Reading with the goal of keeping Reading great for our children, and our children’s children.”
From Patch Readers: What role should Board of Selectmen play in Economic Development Committee activity, and how would you encourage commercial development in town?
Herrick began by stating her belief that Reading’s Economic Development Committee is doing a great job at encouraging development, and said that selectmen shouldn’t do anything to impede that with any kind of restrictive measures, such as requiring extra reporting or micromanagement.
As far as encouraging development goes, Herrick said that lessening the “red tape” at Town Hall would help.
“Going to Town Hall means dealing with red tape,” she said. “Lots and lots of sign-offs, state regulations and lots of delays. Delays equal money.
“We need to be thinking creatively—while respecting the residents’ rights to security and privacy—about how to make it easier for business to get set up and get running so we can take advantage of them.”
Arena stated that he had spoken with numerous business owners over the past few weeks, and that common themes had emerged. One of them being Reading’s reputation for being challenging to work with.
He also said that, in his view, the role of the EDC should be slightly different than at present.
“I see, potentially, the opportunity for a public-private partnership,” he said. “Where representatives from our town and the business community can come together.”
He continued to say that such a partnership could yield a greater understanding on both sides, and ultimately, a better climate for commercial growth.
“Our business community is willing to help,” said Arena. “To a person, everyone that I’ve spoken to is willing to consult and provide their input as business leaders and members of our business community.”
Do you think Reading should have a split-tax, and why or why not?
Arena said it is possible to talk about a split-tax in Reading, but that the town’s small commercial base, and the small business nature of that base, means that a split-tax would have a disproportionately large impact upon small businesses.
“I think you can talk about (a split-tax), but at the end of the day, you have to understand the law of unintended consequences,” he said. “The energy is better spent not arguing about who’s slice of the pie is bigger ... but how do we make the pie larger.”
Herrick said that she takes a slightly different approach to this issue than her opponent, and that she doesn’t view tax classification as a burden or a non-burden. She went on to say that the goal of taxation is to equitably share the burden across all classes of property owners.
“We would need a split-tax if it became clearly apparent that we weren’t doing that,” she said.
Herrick also said that the Board of Selectmen need to look carefully at the tax levy each year to ensure that property owners are paying taxes on assessments that reflect fair market value, and that the town had an issue with low assessments in 2007.
Arena then opted to throw his “first challenge flag” to address Herrick’s statement.
He pointed out that, in his view, there is a “fundamental difference between an assessment problem and a split-tax rate.
“If a building is mis-assessed, you deal with by reassessing it,” he said. “You don’t do it by taking an entire class and reassessing its value; you don’t allow the majority to pay the sins of a single instance.”
Arena continued to say that using a split-tax to address an inequity with assessments would be “using a hammer where a screwdriver might be better used.”
How can BOS discourage underage liquor sales?
Herrick began by stating she had opposed the addition of a new liquor license at the last Town Meeting for this reason. But she also voiced her view that the current Board of Selectmen has done an excellent job at addressing this issue.
“I think the Board of Selectmen has been doing an excellent job,” she said. “I’ve seen businesses shut down ... operations stopped for violations.”
She also noted that police have been active in curbing the sale of alcohol to persons under the legal age through compliance checks.
She concluded by saying that selectmen have taken excellent steps to this effect, and should not reduce their efforts at all.
Arena said that, in his view, when incidents occur, most often it is the result of a breakdown in education or a need to reinforce standards.
“I would suggest a combination of enforcement and education—a carrot and a stick approach,” he said. “I too have seen the enforcement issues in our newspapers, and often they have been attributed to staff education issues and problems that can be addressed one-on-one with the business owner.”
He then offered the caveat that recurring issues indicate a need for harsher measures, and that this issue is of central importance to the larger issue of substance abuse within Reading’s schools.
What would look for in selecting a new Town Manager?
Arena first stated the need to find someone with the proper experience for the position, such as past work with budgets on the order of $50 million to $250 million per year, and someone with demonstrated success that came with a variety of recommendations.
“You would want somebody, frankly, that fits into the small town character we have here,” he continued. “ ... In addition to understanding the character of the individual, we also need to understand their management style and the way they operated in their prior setting.”
Herrick agreed with her opponent’s assessment regarding the requisite qualifications for a new Town Manager, and added her belief that such a person should have a proven track record of fiscal responsibility.
“I would expect a Town Manager in Reading would have an excellent reputation for listening,” she said. “ ... Somebody who is willing to go the extra mile, as Peter (Hechenbleikner) has done for us for many, many years ... We’re going to be looking for somebody who can at least stand up to what Peter has accomplished, and we’re going to be very demanding.”
From Patch Readers: What’s your position on reducing the number of Town Meeting members?
Herrick said that she does have a concern about the low number of Town Meeting seats being filled for the March 6 election, but that she hadn’t reached a conclusion on an alteration the amount of seats available.
“If Town Meeting as a whole thinks this is the right thing to do, then I would support the initiative,” she said. “Knowing that if it we find it just doesn’t work for us in the future, we can fix it. That’s one of the beauties of a small town.”
“It’s clear we have quite a bit less interest in becoming a Town Meeting member than we are designed for,” Arena said. “And the primary issue is one of quorum; which is 50 percent.”
Arena continued to say that he has no issue with dropping the precinct size, and thinks it is the prudent thing to do, provided it is done incrementally.
He also said that, in the short term, he thinks a precinct size of 18 people, opposed to the current 24, looks like an appropriate number.
Herrick opted to throw her first “rebuttal card,” to encourage viewers to participate in Town Meeting as write-in candidates, and explained how to do so.
If you had to cut one thing from the budget, what would that one thing be?
Arena said that it is not a question of cutting one item, and that the town has already made significant cuts.
“What Reading has done, however, is make investments using free cash, and carefully manage our budget during the year, typically under running many of our our operating accounts, and at the end of the year having a vehicle to replenish our free cash.”
He continued to say that he doesn’t have a “sacrificial lamb” to place on the block, and that the answer is not what to cut, but making all the programs in town run successfully, and using free cash or other means, find a way to replenish the budget at the end of the year.
“We’ve cut the fat from the budget,” replied Herrick. “There’s not a lot of fat in there.”
She also stated that she is glad that the town has been able to maintain a surplus over the 5 percent recommended by FINCOM, and noted that the School Department has asked for a budget increase for the first time in several years.
“I don’t really see where we have areas that we can cut,” she said. “We do have issues like drug use, and big city-like crime issues that are arising, so I really don’t see that we can cut anything.”
What is the best way to enhance revenue in Reading?
Herrick started off by saying the best idea she had heard, was putting a tollbooth at the entrance to Bagel World, a quip that drew a few laughs from the moderators and studio audience.
She pointed out that FINCOM has done a great job of brainstorming on revenue enhancement ideas, and said that she would like to see law enforcement patrol by West Street and “start handing out tickets to all these out-of-towners who are cutting through on our roads.”
Herrick also said that commercial redevelopment downtown was crucial to increasing revenue, as it would help increase the tax base, and that continuing the path the town is on regarding such projects as the South Main Street and Atlantic Market projects is the best course of action.
She also stressed filling up the empty storefronts on Main Street.
Arena agreed with Herrick that filling empty retail space is the key to increasing revenue, but cautioned that if it were easy, the town would have already done it by now.
He then offered a chart that demonstrated how, since 2006, revenue from property taxes has increased steadily, while revenue from all other sources had remained relatively static.
“All of the growth in our budget has come out of property taxes,” he said. “What we need to do is find additional ways to shoulder the load, to relieve the burden of property taxes from our homeowners. The way you do that is by growing the pie. Finding additional commercial enterprises to move into our town.”
He then reiterated his belief that working with existing business owners is the best way to accomplish this.
“They know what it takes to move to Reading,” he said.
He spoke further about the possibility for a public-private partnership, and stated his belief that it represents an opportunity to grow the commercial base.
When would you be in favor of a prop 2 1/2 override?
Arena said that, in some cases, you may not have a choice and proceeded to illustrate the instability of current municipal finances, as expenses are growing at a higher rate than revenue.
“We’ve done our best to manage our expenses, but there are times when effectively you’re so far out of kilter, unless you have some money from the sky opportunity, you have no other alternative, said Arena. “Structurally, in some cases, you absolutely have to.”
He acknowledged that no one likes to pay higher property taxes, but reaffirmed his belief that such measures can be necessary.
Herrick agreed that nobody likes overrides, and said that she would be in favor of a prop 2 1/2 override for things like capital improvements—renovating schools, or expanding the library. She cited the recent override to finance Reading High as an example of a good use of an override, and stated she had voted in favor of it.
“I would never vote—I would hopefully never have to vote—for an override to finance operations,” she said. “That would mean we were in poor, poor condition as a town.”
She continued to state that this is far from the case in Reading, citing a small budgetary surplus.
She closed by reiterating that she would be inclined to vote for prop 2 1/2 overrides for capital improvements.
What is your view on RMLD’s decision on RECs?
Herrick offered a recap of her understanding of the issue’s timeline, and stated that she was in favor of the decision to retire Reading’s Renewable Energy Certificates, and that by moving towards reexamining the matter, she felt that it demonstrated that the issue may need to be examined annually and that the board was acting appropriately by moving towards reexamining the matter as there is enough concern from ratepayers. She also referenced RMLD commissioner Phil Pacino’s letter to the editor submitted to Reading Patch as an example of a good strategy moving forward.
“I think they’re responding as they should,” she said. “When there is a concern, whether it’s from the ratepayers, the Board of Selectmen or the Citizens Advisory Board, that’s enough feedback to reopen the subject.”
“I want to do both,” Arena said. “That may sound crazy, but the way RMLD has modeled this is it’s ‘we either sell them all, or we keep them all.’ In fact, you can do both.”
Arena continued to say that this issue is not an all-or-nothing situation, and, much like RMLD’s Green Choice Program, the opportunity exists to create a similar situation with RECs.
“There is an opportunity here to both sell some, and keep some,” he said. “We already have it in the form of the Green Choice Program, and this lends itself to a modified Green Choice Program where our purchases of green power can be treated in the same way, and both constituencies get what they want.”
What would you propose as a solution to the amplified sound issue?
“To me, sound is a measure of people—typically children—enjoying themselves in a healthy, active activity that causes no problems and typically creates team-building and leadership experience,” said Arena. “Noise is a consequence of human beings ... clearly there have to be limits in the amount of sound that is produced.”
He also stated that he didn’t attend all 2 1/2 years of meetings on the subject, and that we will have to wait and see how the new policy works out.
Herrick began by saying that she has no intention of rewriting the policy the committee just came up with, but that she feels that inclusion and resident input are crucial to forming policies such as this. She stated that she would hope the Board of Selectmen would always take the necessary steps to hear residents on both sides of the issue before taking any actions.
Herrick also said that she feels this was done with regards to the implementation of the new Amplified Sound policy—which was being approved at the Town Hall while the debate took place.
What is one thing you would change about the town of Reading?
Herrick responded by saying she would eliminate some of the traffic lights on Route 28.
“I just can’t believe how many lights there are, and how long it takes me to get to my office in the morning,” she said. “If wishes were reality, that’s probably what I would wish for.”
Arena said he would have two changes. The first being a more balanced budget, so that “we’re not, each year, trying to figure out how to get 11 cents out of a dime, which we have done successfully for many years.”
He also stated that he wishes the town could do more about substance abuse, as “these are tomorrow’s citizens ... and this issue of substance abuse is, frankly, one that can ruin an entire lifetime and nipping it in the bud while these children are young both helps our society by giving us more productive adults and also, I think, makes for a happier citizen.”
To hear the candidates closing statements, please watch the attached video from RCTV.