Sunday’s first forum featuring the four candidates for two seats on the Select Board in the March 12 town election wasn’t exactly a lovefest.
But it was respectful, constructive, at times collegial, with little beyond their resumes marking definitive differences among candidates.
Dan Carroll, Shawn Hanegan, incumbent Emily Mitchell, and Ron O’Brien offered opening and closing statements, answered some moderated questions, and fed other questions to each other at the 90-minute Zoom and YouTube event, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Bedford.
The tone was in sharp contrast to chatter that has marked a lot of social media postings over the past two months. One of the League ground rules Sunday was, “Personal references about other candidates are out of order.” But that wasn’t enforced – because all of the references were affirmative.
Indeed, Carrol challenged each candidate to say something positive about the others running, and the answers ranged from “friendly, personable, helpful, fair-minded” and “vision” to Mitchell’s and O’Brien’s years of sharing the stage with the band Stacey and the Party.
One of the most significant responses concerned the proposed acquisition of 139 The Great Road as the site for a new fire station, which is on the annual town meeting warrant. All four candidates endorsed the location.
Carroll, pointing out that he formerly worked as a public safety dispatcher in Bedford, said he spent two hours speaking with Fire Chief David Grunes about the proposal. The candidate said “we don’t know yet” if all ancillary equipment can be accommodated under one roof.
He also noted the need for a traffic study as well as the building’s potential for solar installation. “If we get those answers, then people will know more comfortably,” he said. “Right now I’m okay with the location until I get…” The moderator interrupted before the sentence was completed because the two-minute time limit had expired. (Carroll was asked after the program to finish the sentence; he said, “answers to abutters’ concerns, HDC, on the ability to fully store the boat, trailers, etc. and on the traffic study, as it may relate to the possibility of a traffic light or changes to the intersection if needed.”)
Hanegan, current chair of the Planning Board, said he feels this is the best site, while he acknowledged that there are concerns expressed by the Historic District C omission and abutters, and they should be addressed. But the current station is inadequate, he said and doesn’t give the Fire Department “the best ability to do what they need to do. Protecting life, safety, and property is the highest priority for the Select Board.”
O’Brien spoke after Hanegan and stated, “I wholeheartedly agree. Though it doesn’t satisfy everyone, the location is a good option.” He said town officials arrived at the selection “planfully.”
Mitchell said that because of the current facility, she is “worried about our ability to hire and retain staff.” She acknowledged that the Historic District Commission has jurisdiction over design specifics, and demolition of the current structure will be part of the construction plan. “I am confident that this is the right choice and there is no more time to wait.”
Other significant topics addressed – and the candidates’ positions – included:
The relationship with the town manager. The issue was raised by Hanegan: “There has been discussion in this campaign about some people having difficulty with the town manager. Can you have a productive relationship with the town manager and what would that look like if you have publicly expressed differences in the past?”
It was a general question but it targeted Carroll, and he said that although he has had differences with Town Manager Sarah Stanton, they also have met several times and he feels they are able to communicate in an “open, honest conversation.”
“I think it’s fine to be direct and work through difficult problems,” and voters should know that board members address them “even if it’s uncomfortable” He mentioned Stanton’s support of the townwide cleanup he engineered as a volunteer in May 2021.
O’Brien, who cited his own experience in management, said, “The important thing is that we are able to have discussions. There are always times when we have difficult conversations and it’s important to share ideas.”
Mitchell’s endorsement was absolute. “I think she is wonderful.” Mitchell pointed out that Stanton managed a personnel crisis in the Assessing Department as soon as she began, and several months later the pandemic arrived. “I think she has done a remarkable job,” she said, adding that, “I think you always have to work from a position of trust.”
Mitchell also stated that “the challenges of being a town manager are magnified when you happen to be a woman.” She said there are only three female managers in the commonwealth. “I think she has been treated differently,” Mitchell said. “I think we need to do a little bit better than that.”
The LWV moderator asked each candidate to comment on the “appropriate relationship” among Select Board members, the town manager, department heads, and citizen input.
All agreed that the town manager is legally accountable to the board. “If you have a Select Board member who wants to go directly to a department head with a specific request, that puts the department head in an awkward position,” Mitchell said. The town manager should be copied on that. She added that the board should be the primary contact for citizens.
“All relationships should be respectful and reciprocal,” Carroll commented. Fellow board members and the town manager should be advised of conversations with department heads. The board is “accountable to town employees and the citizens,” Carroll said, and “we should more proactively go out there and engage the citizens.” As a board member, he said, he would meet with department heads on general questions, including staff morale.
“Communication is really what we are talking about,” O’Brien said. Conversations with department heads are fine “as long as they’re done in an open manner.” He explained his personal experience with chain-of-command matters in the workplace and called for “open communication among all levels of government.”
Hanegan replied that Select Board members “should be able to speak to department heads to get a sense of what’s going on,” while making sure that conversations don’t result in a violation of the open meeting law.”
Mitchell asked the other candidates if their record of public participation “meets residents’ expectations.” O’Brien answered affirmatively. Hanegan commented, “I think it’s great that we have new voices but I also understand being a Select Board member is complicated and requires a lot of background.” He said he has voted in every town election and attended all but two town meetings since moving to town in 2011. “It’s important to have that type of record so you know what you’re getting into.”
Carroll pointed out that if voting and town meeting were the sole criteria, perhaps only 10 percent of residents would be qualified to run. He said his passion for the community and his business experience are qualifiers as well.
The LWV asked each candidate “how to get people of diverse cultures and ethnicity and backgrounds” to participate more in town government. Mitchell pointed to the town’s ongoing Racial Equity Municipal Action Plan, outreach efforts by the Cultural Council and Volunteer Coordinating Committee, and her leadership in writing a volunteer handbook.
“Inclusivity and diversity are “who we are as a nation and who we are as a town,” O’Brien said. “It’s also how we treat each other, being fair, open, and honest.” Hanegan observed, “I think Bedford is a better place when it’s more diverse. He cited his work in the area of “economically diverse” housing opportunities, which can lead to “more ethnically and racially diverse housing, which makes Bedford a better place.”
“We’re all going to be saying the same thing in different ways,” Carroll commented. He said that during his campaign, he has engaged with the town’s Indian residents, and they feel town leaders are not reaching out to them. “We have to proactively engage this community,” he said.
Another League question focused on a municipal policy or procedure that the candidate would change or discard. All four addressed the area of communication.
Hanegan said, “the board or committee structure that exists sometimes does not allow people to participate” who can’t attend meetings. He said he would like to find ways to “incorporate other voices in town,” including charettes and surveys. O’Brien said the virtual meeting format has encouraged residents to log onto public meetings, and he said he would like to see that access continue as the pandemic recedes.
Mitchell pointed to the plan to improve the town website, making it “more accessible to different kinds of people,” and “the need to do a better job of explaining how town government works.” Carroll declared, “I’m going to agree with everyone.”
The candidates’ opening and closing statements exposed the sharpest differences. Carroll credited his mother, widowed at age 34, with “my optimistic, loving attitude for life and for Bedford.” He cited his achievements as a private citizen: raising money for solar panels on the middle school and organizing a town-wide cleanup.
Hanegan enumerated his “10 years in various roles within Bedford government. I’ve put in the time and effort to understand how our government works.” Though he would be a newcomer to the board, he is “backed with skills and knowledge on how to get things done.”
Mitchell also emphasized experience. “Select Board members need to know a lot from day one,” she said. Mitchell also emphasized the collaboration inherent in the board’s work. “No Select Board member can force change by herself. We have to work together and we have to respect each other publicly and privately.”
O’Brien emphasized his training as an engineer and his professional positions that are “directly applicable to this role and would enhance the board’s technical depth and breadth. That’s my particular strength.” O’Brien is director of facilities operations at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He filled a similar position at MITRE Corp. for more than 12 years.
“You all have my respect and you all want to do what’s best for Bedford,” said Hanegan as part of his closing comment.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763