LOWELL -- Two challengers in the running with incumbent Kelly Ross for two open three-year seats on the Board of Selectmen speak of change for Westford, while Ross says he wants to continue the work he started.
This May 6, voters will place at least one new person on the board in the annual town election. The challengers are Jim Jarvie, of the town's Energy Committee, who works for Constant Contact and ran for selectman previously, and Don Siriani, president of the Westford Kiwanis and legislative director for Republican state Sen. Donald Humason of Westfield. Selectman Valerie Wormell is not seeking re-election and incumbent Ross, a software engineer, is running for his third term.
At a debate hosted by The Sun at its Lowell office Wednesday evening, differences between the candidates were drawn on budgetary issues, financial matters, transparency concerns and even the local farmers' market. Ross told The Sun's moderator, Editor Jim Campanini, the town's projected deficit of $24.6 million through fiscal year 2018 was "never as bad as you (the newspaper) portrayed." Ross said the town is out of bad economic times now and on the right path.
Campanini responded that those figures were initially reported by Town Manager Jodi Ross (no relation to Selectman Ross), and were accurately reported. Ross said the town has not had an override in recent memory and is now projecting about a $7.7 million deficit going into fiscal 2017, according to figures presented in the fall. Siriani and Jarvie both said on the question of the town's finances, they were concerned, with Jarvie stating the town has a "spending problem." Both candidates said they would find efficiencies and look at regionalizing services when applicable.
"Expenses are increasing at a faster rate than revenues are coming in," Jarvie said. "We definitely have to reverse that trend."
Jarvie added the state Department of Revenue offers a free service to review the town's finances but Selectman Ross referred to the procedure as "an audit" that would tie up town employees for two to four days. Siriani said he believes that time would be worth it, adding the town should also concentrate on keeping housing affordable for seniors in Westford.
All three candidates said they have been happy with funds provided by the state for local aid though they could always use more. About 20 percent of Westford's $108 million budget comes from the state level. They all agreed actions need to be taken to address a lack of communication with Pan Am Railways following the February derailment on Bridge Street. Kelly Ross said he looked forward to a meeting scheduled with the company on election day.
"The threat (then) was very real, and very serious," he added.
The candidates said they are also pro-hunting and touted the efforts of the recently-formed Hunting Policy Committee. Jarvie said he would even support identifying parcels in town and assigning a set number of hunters to each piece of land so they could hunt there safely.
On the question of the farmers' market on the town common, Jarvie argued the space is "the people's land." Ross said selectmen are still needed to monitor the common's use while the challengers said officials should work to support local groups like the market's organizers, Sustainable Westford. Ross supported a recent vote to limit the number of vendors at the market.
Campanini asked about recent developments like Cornerstone Square and what residents got back from it. Jarvie said he believed the additional revenue was used to balance the budget with no improvement to services for residents.
"This was a good year because of Cornerstone and a few other housing developments in town...," he said. "The revenue that was generated really helped the picture but my concern is, as we move on in years, we're not going to have a (new) Cornerstone."
Finally, asked if the town government is as transparent as it can be, Siriani and Jarvie both responded no, while Ross said he believes the town does a great job.
Jarvie pointed to the $25,000 settlement paid to former Fire Chief Richard Rochon approved by selectmen behind closed doors last summer. Ross said he believes selectmen followed procedure appropriately in the case and released information as soon as they could. An appeal to the secretary of state by The Sun required the town to release the settlement agreement as well as a redacted consultant's report on the Westford Fire Department involving the chief earlier this year.
"That was a personnel performance record. ... I would not release that information out of a moral and legal obligation," Ross said. "This was a cost-effective way to move forward in a positive manner."
For a full recording of Wednesday night's debate, visit www.lowellsun.com. Follow Samantha Allen on Twitter and Tout @SAllen_89.