A near-sweep for anti-tax group

By William Mackie, Merrimack Journal staff
Published: Thursday, Apr. 13, 2006

Proposing and then pushing through a reduced budget, defeating the library, and claiming victories in seven key seats in town government, Merrimack Cares appears to have emerged as a political force in town.

The group, co-founded by Jennifer Twardosky and Jennifer Thornton, both of whom were successful candidates in Tuesday’s elections, called for an end to tax increases and distributed a voter guide to supporters at the polls.

Of the eight positions and 11 articles on their list, voters agreed with all but one recommendation — a single school board seat. The group supported the reduced budget, opposed the new library and supported returning the funds saved for building the library for tax relief.

“You know what this vote means? This represents a complete repudiation of the current administration,” said Merrimack Cares political consultant Bill Boyd immediately following the announcement of the results.

Merrimack Cares supporters and many of the winning candidates watched the results on television and celebrated the victories at Florence’s restaurant, just down the street from where the vote totals were announced.

Selectmen candidates backed by the group, Betty Spence and Mike Malzone, finished easily atop the field of 10 candidates, ousting the incumbent chairman, Dick Hinch, and providing selectman David McCray with some like-minded allies on the board.

“I’m actually just blown away by the whole thing,” Spence said at the boisterous post-election gathering. “It was a great election and there were some great candidates, and I thank everyone for their support.

“A lot of work needs to be done, and I’m going to do my best,” she said, addressing the issue of finding ways to cut nearly $1.5 million in proposed municipal spending to reflect the reduced budget. “I have no intentions of eliminating any current staff or current municipal services.”

Added a happy Malzone, “Today is a victory for the taxpayers. We’ve got a big job ahead … and I’m sure we can work this out as a community to set the town down the right path.”

McCray was also among the jubilant attendees at the post-election party.

“I’m very happy,” he said. “Betty and Mike will do a great job, and they will respect the will of the people.

“Now we need to get down to the serious business of restoring fiscal responsibility to the town.”

Besides claiming victories with the elections of Spence and Malzone, the group’s four budget committee recommendations were also supported by voters with the victories of Twardosky, Chris Ager, Jack Rothman and Rod Buckley.

“This is like a big Christmas present to Merrimack residents,” Twardosky said. “When they get their tax bills in December, instead of crying this year, they’re going to be happy.

“I can’t wait for them to unwrap their presents.”

The group also managed to grab one of the two available school board seats, with Thornton emerging as the top vote-getter in the race. Eleven-year Chairman Ken Coleman, meanwhile, received the fewest votes of four candidates.

“I’m floored,” Thornton said. “I’m just floored by the amount of support I got. I think this town is definitely ready for a change.”

The only seat Merrimack Cares campaigned for and failed to earn was the other school board seat, where their supported candidate Rick Barnes was defeated by Jody Vaillancourt.

Understandably, the mood was more somber from the losing camps, where there was disappointment, sadness and anger.

A visibly upset Pat Heinrich, chairwoman of the library trustees, declined to comment on any of the three votes which went against the library, but fellow library supporter Nancy Burt was angry and vocal.

“We can support, what, five Dunkin’ Donuts and three upscale restaurants in town, but not a new library? I’m not buying this argument,” Burt said. “It’s obvious somebody in this town has some money.”

“It’s not so much disappointment as a sense of sobriety knowing that the town has lost something that it will never be able to get back,” added a somber, still-sitting selectman Chuck Mower, a staunch opponent of the reduced budget and a supporter of Hinch.

Mower said that the votes were a demonstration that the town does not value the opinions of competent staff and a lack of financial commitment to retain necessary administration.

“No qualified paid administrator is going to stay here, and we will wither on the vine as a result,” Mower said.

Town Manager Tim Tieperman, asked if he planned to resign as a result of the elections, said, “I am non-committal.”

Mower also indicated that David McCray, who will likely seek the chairman’s role on the board, had questioned whether or not Mower would continue to serve on the new board (He will not).

“David McCray … told me that he didn’t think I would even come to the next meeting,” Mower said.

Hinch, meanwhile, was at Town Hall Wednesday afternoon packing up his belongings and turning in his key to the building.

“When I look back on the three years, I feel that I did the best job I could do and I wouldn’t have done anything differently,” he said. “I want to congratulate Mike and Betty, and I want to wish them the best of luck going forward.”

And although Hinch said he will not run for town council, Merrimack Cares is already planning for the upcoming race and figuring out who they might endorse.

“Merrimack Cares is going to continue to have a positive impact on improving the quality of the government in Merrimack,” Boyd said. “Obviously at this point (for the town council race), we need to seek two like-minded individuals who not only care about the town, but also about the people.”

Merrimack voters issue a mandate for change

Voters not only chose new faces for their top governing board this election, but they opted for a brand new government as well.

On Tuesday, residents said goodbye to board of selectman Chairman Dick Hinch while at the same time approving a new town charter, which effectively retools local government by, for starters, changing the current five-member board of selectmen to a seven-member town council.

An apparently disgruntled electorate was also defiant about a new library, not only voting down an $8.5 million building proposal but also abolishing a $2.5 million library capital reserve fund and returning that money to the general fund.

And voters supported a substantially reduced municipal budget — $1.5 million less than what was originally proposed by selectmen and $1.2 million less than it would have been had they opted instead for the default budget.

In the aftermath, Hinch was at town hall Wednesday, turning in his key and cleaning out his file cabinets.

“That’s three years worth of work there,” Hinch said as he loaded the last of four boxes of files into his Ford Explorer. “When I look back on the three years, I feel that I did the best job I could do and I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”

The town council will include new members Betty Spence and Mike Malzone, the top vote-getters in a 10-member race, but not Hinch, who received the third-highest vote total. Former Vice Chairwoman Carolyn Whitlock did not seek re-election.

In addition to the sitting five, two new council members will be elected at a special town meeting on June 13. The filing period for those seats will run from April 26 to May 5 at town hall, with a filing fee of $1.

And while it is unknown who will be on the June 13 ballot, it is clear that Hinch will not.

“No,” he said Wednesday. “Absolutely not.”

Supporters of the new form of government have said that the expanded council is more representative of the population of Merrimack.

The council will now have expanded authority to make changes in ordinances and zoning, items which used to be brought to the ballot for voters.

For matters involving money, however, the same process of conducting a deliberative session and full day voting will still apply.

And for those who have the ambition to gather enough signatures, the government can now be directed by the actions of motivated citizens.

The charter also abolishes the municipal budget committee, which formerly would oversee the budgets of the town, school district and water district. Although abolished for the town and water district, the budget committee will continue to oversee the school district budget as a result of another article which passed Tuesday.

Voters approved the charter by nearly 60 percent, 3,660 to 2,551.


Library: three strikes

Supporters of a new library endured the worst possible results from Tuesday’s voters.

Article 4, a proposal to build a new $8.5 million library on the town-owned land next to the post office, failed soundly. Needing 60 percent to pass, the article failed to garner even 30 percent, with only 1,932 voting in favor and 4,638 voting against.

The proposal took an additional hit when voters approved the petition article dissolving the capital reserve fund (3,973 to 2,613) for tax relief, and adding insult to injury, residents turned down a proposal (which was ultimately rendered irrelevant anyway) to add $50,000 in surplus to the capital reserve fund.

Library board of trustees Chairwoman Pat Heinrich chose not to comment.


Drainage bond also fails

A drainage bond article aimed at funding seven drainage projects around town failed as well. Despite getting a simple majority of votes (55.4 percent, 3,481 to 2,801), the $1.7 million bond article failed because articles including a bond require a 60 percent majority in order to pass.

Zoning change passes by 10

Article 2, a zoning article to allow the planning board discretion over whether to allow mixed use development of properties greater than 50 acres in size along the state-managed Route 3 corridor, passed by just 10 votes, 2,721 to 2,711.

The zoning change allows the planning board to give conditional use permits to developers looking to build industrial, commercial and residential mixed use developments in the I-1 industrial zone.

The change also reintroduces the ability to developers to propose “big box” retail development (retail buildings over 75,000 square feet in size) as part of those proposals, reversing a decision made by voters last year to prohibit such in the same zone.


Split decision on contracts

Three of the five collective bargaining agreements which were reached with local unions passed on Tuesday, but two failed.

While the voters approved the contracts for firefighters (3,804 to 2,654), police officers (3,583 to 2,873) and public works and maintenance departments supervisory and clerical employees (3,512 to 2,842), they rejected contracts for fire and police supervisors (3,052 to 3,235) and public works non-supervisory employees (3,203 to 3,0211).

It marks the second straight year the non-supervisory public works employee contract has been turned down by voters.