The three candidates for the two Select Board seats met Saturday for the HCAM Select Board debate, with town staff job retention — specifically the town manager and police — and the budget being the primary topics for discussion. The Annual Town Election is May 16.
John Coutinho, a former two-term Select Board member who is bidding to make a return, suggested that Town Manager Norman Khumalo’s decision to apply for the job of city manager for Watertown reflects poorly on the current Select Board.
“I think before we even start thinking about what we’re going to look for in another one, we really have to figure out, why is our town manager leaving?” he said in response to a question from debate moderator Tom Nappi about what the town should look for in a potential new town manager. “It comes down to management No. 101. The reason why people leave jobs is because of their management. The No. 2 reason people leave jobs is because of money. So, before we can attract somebody else, we have to find out why we didn’t retain our present town manager. Did we not challenge him enough? … Why are we losing this great person who may be going to another place? That’s the question. That’s much more important than trying to find somebody. Because who might want to work here if it’s not going to be challenging?”
Incumbent Mary Jo LaFreniere countered that Khumalo’s potential departure is a personal decision.
“I think we have to accept that people want a change at a point, and they want to move on, and the idea of managing a city is very appealing to Norman,” she said. “People sometimes have their own private reasons for leaving.”
Candidate Shahidul Mannan also said it would not be appropriate to assume Khumalo’s decision is reason to criticize the town’s highest-ranking board.
“One thing we want to do is look at due process,” he said. “I’m very data-driven. I don’t have enough data to make any such assumptions. One thing I do know is that we have a Personnel Committee, we do exit interviews, or in situations like this, assess what are the things that we might do to retain talent. I agree with that, we definitely want to look at that across the board. But I don’t know if a great town manager leaving after 13 years without any specific data or specific information from Norman that I would jump to any conclusion.”
Coutinho continued to restate and expound on his point, part of his recent strategy to paint the current Select Board as underachieving.
“Could it be that he sees that there’s no vision?” Coutinho said. “Over the last two years, is it a point of stagnancy? To Mary Jo’s point, he may want to go to a city because there’s more things to do. But we have challenges here. We have a lot of challenges here. We have the schools, the overcrowding in our schools that’s looming. We have our roads, we have our lakes that need to be fixed and other projects. In the last two years it’s just been stagnant. There’s no vision, there’s nothing that’s coming out that he says, ‘Oh, I want to stay to get this done, to get this fixed.’ ”
Responded LaFreniere: “I have to disagree. Have you talked to Norman? And we did fight a pandemic. And when you say there’s nothing been done, there’s been lots of things done, under difficult circumstances. That’s all I’m going to say. It’s not right to Norman to discuss him.”
Coutinho said he had talked to Khumalo, and he added: “A lot of activity, but what was the impact? And that’s what I think is maybe driving Norman out.”
Coutinho also touched on job retention when asked about top priorities should he be elected, focusing on a number of departures from the Police Department.
“It’s trying to make sure that we retain our world-class people,” he said. “It’s protect our world-class schools. Make sure that we build [a replacement for] Elmwood School. Protect our award-winning Police Department. Support the chief’s initiatives to retain his personnel. Work with him to create a training task force.
“This is one of the things that was going on before. People were saying there was no rhetoric to get rid of our police and defund them, but silence is acceptance, and a lot of stuff was happening in this town. We’ve got to support our Police Department. We’re No. 1 [in safety]. We should be sending our personnel out there with standing operating procedures and training the regional police forces to make them as good as we are.
“And then protecting the taxpayers. No overrides. We should actually start thinking about doing underrides. We’ve already got $400,000 left on this budget. So we’ve got to start looking at things, and not taxation for just because.”
LaFreniere listed some other priorities should she win reelection, and she dismissed Coutinho’s accusation that the Select Board has not been supportive enough of the police. She said Franklin has been using a recruiter and trying to hire away police in Hopkinton and Southborough because of the towns’ impressive safety records.
“I want to see the town move forward in every way,” she said. “We have some smaller items — and they’re not so small. The accidents that have been happening every week, it seems like, by Cumberland Farms has to be addressed. We’re working with MassDOT [the Massachusetts Department of Transportation]. They’re studying the problem now, and we’re going to do something about it. I feel that all of those things are priorities. They have been priorities.
“And we’ve got some rumors out there that I’d like to put to bed. We always have supported our Police Department. If you go back and look at the budgets, they have always been funded and they still are being funded.
“I just think that Hopkinton is a great town, the schools are doing well, and I was really happy when we were challenged with taking $2.5 million out of the budgets, the schools and the boards and everybody came together and they said, yes, we will open up our budgets. It’s one town, one budget. And I think it’s one town, one team.”
Mannan touched on growth, business and collaboration.
“I’ll focus on three key areas,” he said. “The first and foremost, we’ve been talking about it: managing growth. And that is a complicated equation. We want to keep our eyes on the ball, our prized asset, the schools. We want to make sure our police, DPW, fire, everyone’s funded properly and we maintain the level of services. And we want to do it with a balanced budget, keeping taxes in check. But we need to do it with proper planning, strategic planning, and making sure it ties together. We definitely don’t want overrides, or more taxes on our burden, but it’s not going to happen magically. We have to make it happen. [We must have good] planning, and we need everyone hands together to cooperate on that.
“No. 2, I want to focus on business. Post-Downtown Corridor [Project], how can we make it more vibrant, how can we attract more business and support post-COVID-era business evolution and business growth.
“And last but not least, again, focus on collaboration, building and helping with diversity and working as one Hopkinton, one community.”
The other major issue of discussion — appropriately enough, considering Annual Town Meeting is Monday night — is the budget.
“This year’s budget, I actually read every single line item that came in from every department, and I still think it’s a very good budget,” LaFreniere said in response to a question about what should be considered most when making a budget policy statement. “I know it’s $104 million, it’s a lot of money. … We kept level services throughout the pandemic, which is quite a goal. And I think that all the town’s departments have been working together, and actually are working together pretty well.”
Mannan has spent the past seven years working on town budgets as part of the Appropriation Committee, and he said it’s important to focus now on some upcoming concerns.
“[The budget] shows some alarms that we need to be aware of and manage for the future,” he said. “It does make the statement that for 2024 we will start to fall short to keep our service levels with the current growth, the current projection and everyone. We do take [$]2.5 million off the growth money, which is tapering down, this year alone it went down by 27 percent and it will probably continue that path, so how do we make that up? And we have the Eversource challenge, that we have seen, that we have to keep money aside [due to the utility appealing its assessments every year]. So, those challenges are also looming, and we need to be more thoughtful, more analytical how we focus on the future. But it’s a great start, and I give kudos to everyone that we have been able to keep the service levels and within the budget, only with 2.09 percent increase in taxes.”
Coutinho took pride in the fact that there have been no overrides for some time.
“We have to have a balanced budget,” he said. “We’re not the [federal government], who can not have a balanced budget. So we have to have a balanced budget. The first pass, we always have revenue shortfalls. It’s just the way it looks. … When we start talking about balancing it and that going into 2024, 2025 that we’re going to be short, even this year we found extra buckets at the end of the year, and we’re putting $400,000 towards the turf fields. So we can find the money, and we always come up with the budget in the end, and we haven’t had to do any overrides in a long time.”
Mannan noted that he is acutely aware of the budget process and stressed the need for “foresight into the future,” as the town’s Finance Committee made the comment on the executive summary about the challenges ahead. He also said the town needs to diversify its tax base, getting more from commercial and industrial.
Coutinho downplayed Mannan’s concerns, stating: “Two years ago, when we did the budget, this year we were supposed to have a shortfall. And if you look, we only taxed up to 2.1 percent. That was very good, that we were able to [keep it at] 2.1 percent. We have to take into fact that the budgets do work out, that we do have other sources of revenue. … We’ve been trying to attract businesses for a long time. That means working with the Planning Board and zoning and such to change the zoning so that the businesses can come. That’s one of the reasons why I think I’ll do a good job, because I did five years on the Planning Board and 14 years doing the zoning, trying to attract businesses like Lykan that’s on the warrant this year [for a tax increment finance agreement].”
Mannan noted he currently serves on the Planning Board and stated: “We cannot say it will automatically get balanced. We need to think about it. When our financial experts point out certain things, we need to look at it and say why is this happening and how can we make it better the next time.”
Added LaFreniere: “The budget was a difficult one this year, sometimes because of the pandemic. But I absolutely as an assessor support the TIF [tax increment finance] program. … It’s a good TIF and I think we’re going to make a lot of money from Lykan in the future. If we have a few programs like that, we’re going to attract more business to South Street and the town.”
The debate initially was going to feature all contested races (including School Committee, Housing Authority and constable), but due to an issue with candidate availability the format was changed. The Hopkinton Women’s Club held a Meet the Candidates Night on Wednesday that included candidates from the other races.