By John Castelluccio
---- — HAMILTON — The town pool at Patton Park and Aquila Farm were the dominating issues during a spirited debate between selectman candidates Jeff Hubbard and Shawn Farrell yesterday morning at the town senior center.
Special Town Meeting in November voted down a proposal to replace the pool, while voters at a June Special Town Meeting chose not to buy the farm, also known as the Pirie Property, for senior housing and open space.
Hubbard, who’s seeking his second term as selectman, had voted against borrowing $3.9 million to purchase the 86-acre Bay Road property and argued yesterday it was too costly a project for the town to undertake. He said the proposal, combined with $2.5 million if voters had chosen to replace the town pool, would have saddled the town with another $2,200 in debt per household per year.
He said everyone in town wants the pool, but it’s not a necessity — there are several local facilities for residents or students to swim at instead. If the town replaces or upgrades the pool, and Hubbard hopes it happens, the project should be paid for with existing resources, he said. He added that residents who offered expert engineering input on the project were rebuffed by the town manager.
Making his first bid for office, Farrell has been part of community projects such as the new playground at Patton Park. While sharing concerns about both projects, he said he would have supported the Pirie land purchase and the original pool proposal. He agreed that in light of further study and recent bids, the pool project is “way out of the [town’s] price range.”
Farrell said it’s not feasible to keep or repair the existing facility, and further efforts should be made to find a more affordable solution.
He said the Pirie Property project could have provided much-needed affordable housing for seniors being taxed out of town.
Yesterday’s debate, hosted by the Hamilton Council on Aging, became heated when Selectwoman Jennifer Scoteri criticized Hubbard over the Pirie Property project during a segment allowing questions from the audience.
She challenged Hubbard’s assessment of the situation, saying, “Shouldn’t we be transparent about what happened to the [property] since the sale?” She said the land recently sold for $7 million. She and Hubbard then argued over the difference in property taxes levied on the property since that sale.
Both candidates agreed that those issues were dominating discussions in town at the expense of other important topics. They also agreed the school budget needs closer scrutiny.
Another issue that sizzled yesterday, however, was transparency in town government and communication with residents. Both Hubbard and Farrell said it’s a problem, but they seemed to disagree on what exactly the problems are.
Hubbard said there’s a “Town Hall morale problem,” relations with neighboring Wenham are faltering, and he’s hearing from residents “disgusted” with the conduct of some selectmen. Hubbard also said he just learned about a proposal to use town resources to purchase the Mac’s Shoe Repair property, but that plan has largely avoided public scrutiny due to a lack of communication.
Hubbard said there are too many unanswered questions about the property to justify the town purchasing it now. Farrell, on the other hand, said there were clear benefits to the town in terms of future lease payments.
Hubbard also argued that the town manager form of government places too much consolidated authority in one person and should be thoroughly reviewed. Farrell, however, said more communication is needed from town government to the public and also between boards and departments, but he disagreed that the fault necessarily lies with Town Manager Michael Lombardo.
Farrell said Lombardo is a competent, professional who’s working with selectmen.
“The information is out there ... but it’s tough to find,” Farrell said, even such as the when and where of Town Meeting. “You can see all the different silos, but you don’t know what’s inside of them.” He noted the town may hire a part-time staffer to update the town’s website.
Scoteri also criticized Hubbard for questioning the town manager structure but still voting for a new contract for Lombardo. Hubbard said that wasn’t true — he didn’t vote to extend Lombardo’s contract or give him a raise.
The candidates discussed several other issues, including the Community Preservation Act, local meals taxes, privatizing some services, alternative revenues, upgrading the downtown septic system and the tax burden, especially for senior citizens. They also participated in a candidate forum that night hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Town elections in both Hamilton and Wenham take place April 10. Hamilton’s annual Town Meeting is Saturday at 9 a.m. at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School. Wenham’s annual Town Meeting is also Saturday, at 1 p.m. at Buker Elementary School.
You can reach John Castelluccio at 978-338-2527, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @SNjcastelluccio.