The Town of Wellesley depends on the active participation of its citizens in governance of the Town.
Wellesley will hold a Special Election on Tuesday, Sept. 1, to fill a seat on the Board of Selectmen vacated by a BOS member who moved out of town.
The Board of Selectmen serves as the chief executive board of the Town, and as such, oversees all matters affecting the interest and welfare of the community. The Board exercises the authority vested in the Town not specifically assigned by law to any other board or office.
Three candidates are running for the single open seat. The candidate elected will serve for a term of six months, to expire at the next Annual Town Election on March 2, 2021
The three candidates running are Colette Aufranc, Gwen Baker, and Odessa Sanchez.
We invited each of the three candidates to answer a few questions about their qualifications and priorities for the Town of Wellesley. Colette Aufranc’s Q & A is below. Gwen Baker’s and Odessa Sanchez’s Q & A will appear pending their responses.
The Swellesley Report: What is your background and what qualifies you for this position?
The Board of Selectmen is the Town’s executive body with significant fiduciary responsibilities. By training, I am a Chartered Accountant (the UK equivalent of a CPA) and worked for twelve years as an auditor with PWC in the UK and USA. I am serving my third year on Wellesley’s Audit Committee and am the current chair. I have also been a Town Meeting Member since 2018. Running for election as a Town Meeting Member and seeking an appointment on the Audit Committee were purposeful steps I took in 2018 to gain a better understanding of Wellesley’s town government and its overall global financial picture.
I have volunteered for years in the community with several organizations including, but not limited to, Sprague PTO, Central Council of PTOs, The Teen Center, Sustainable Wellesley and Wellesley High School PTSO. Since 2006, I have acted as a neighborhood advocate in the redevelopment of Linden Square. This engagement was my introduction to Wellesley’s town
government and through this ongoing work I have learned how to make our residents’ voices heard by the various town boards and how to effect change within Wellesley’s complex government structure.
My background in finance, knowledge of Wellesley’s particular financial situation through the Audit Committee, and experience of Wellesley’s town government prepare me well to join the Board. My personal style of engagement is collaborative, polite, persistent and reasonable — something I think we can all appreciate.
SR: The Wellesley business district has faced challenges recently, as evidenced by several empty storefronts. How can the Board of Selectmen and the Town further support existing businesses and encourage new ones to come into Wellesley?
Colette Aufranc: Wellesley’s business community is facing unprecedented challenges. Our town has shown creativity and flexibility in supporting businesses by installing sanitizing stations, helping restaurants utilize outdoor spaces for dining, eliminating parking charges, working with the Community Fund for Wellesley to source meals for our vulnerable population in partnership with our local restaurants, and obtaining a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Transport to establish a “mobile mini parklet” in areas where restaurants do not have easy access to outdoor seating.
This tapestry of creative ideas has been critical in supporting the business community and we should continue to extend these efforts. Town Meeting recently approved $50,000 from traffic and parking funds for use in improving amenities in Wellesley Square – the timing is perfect to apply those funds to help make downtown more vibrant and welcoming to shoppers and new businesses. Other simple ideas include encouraging local artists to fill empty storefronts, working the Department of Public Works to spruce up plantings, and including QR code surveys of what types of shops and businesses local residents would like to see come to town.
Shopping events like “July Jubilation” and “Mom’s Day Out” have traditionally been very successful. While we cannot have single day, large gatherings, I would support a “shop local, support our businesses” push after school starts to jump start a recovery for local retailers. A successful model to promote local businesses this fall could form a basis for supporting businesses again in the key shopping period between Thanksgiving and New Year.
Economic hardship is being felt across Massachusetts. Neighboring towns have cut liquor licence fees, established small grants for businesses to cope with COVID related costs, and opened up public spaces in creative ways. We should look to what has been successful in other towns and consider if those ideas would work for Wellesley.
SR: How can Wellesley more effectively engage in acting on the concerns of its residents of diverse backgrounds?
Colette Aufranc: The first step in acting is listening to the concerns, understanding them, and therefore knowing where Wellesley needs to focus efforts for change in order to become a more welcoming community. Several grassroots organizations have been voicing the concerns of our residents.
Most recently, Wake up Wellesley met with the Board of Selectmen to discuss the group’s efforts and the main takeaways from their work. At that meeting the Board shared that Wellesley had recently completed a grant application to the Metrowest Area Planning Council to join a pilot program called the Racial Equity Municipal Action Plan. This program would help us identify needs specific to Wellesley, and develop a plan to take concrete steps towards racial equity. If we are not successful in obtaining this grant, I would support allocating resources to ensure this important work still goes ahead. I would also support the creation of a diversity and equity steering committee to act as a resource to town boards for developing and implementing strategies to advance diversity initiatives.
A second important step involves effective communications strategies, both to receive feedback and to share with residents the initiatives we undertake as a town. Through the Town’s communications manager, we have recently broadened the modes of communication we employ, but this is an ever-changing landscape – especially for younger residents. Again, the recent Wake up Wellesley conversation highlighted opportunities to engage our students and younger residents in town government. I would fully support involving student interns in our communications strategy, offering “Town Government 101” training aimed at high school and college aged students and outreach specifically targeted to new residents to help explain how our complex town government works.
SR: How can Wellesley manage the financial implications of the pandemic going forward? Already a plan has been put into place to cut Wellesley’s capital spending 25% across the board. In addition, some Free Cash Reserves money has been tapped to cover items such as public safety and snow removal. What else can be done to manage the financial implications of COVID-19?
Colette Aufranc: Wellesley is fortunate to have seasoned top level management in its executive director, finance director and treasurer. We must leverage their expertise and the sound financial infrastructure we have worked so hard to develop into a best in class asset for our town.
Immediately upon recognizing the financial implications of the pandemic, our town’s financial and management leadership teams put in place cash capital spending cuts and reduced income projections to ready us for a challenging time ahead. We also have CARES Act funds and some state funds specifically designated for the school department, that can be used to defray COVID-19 related expenses. The selectmen’s office and the school department have been working closely to utilize these funds fully and not leave a penny on the table.
In listening to recent presentations by the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the general consensus is that the anticipated governor’s budget will leave state aid flat for 2020. If that is the case, this flat funding, along with the steps taken already in our budgeting process, prepares us well for the 2020 budget cycle. We should anticipate challenges in fiscal 2021.
Structurally, 87% of Wellesley’s assessed property valuation is residential (source: MA Dept ofRevenue). This gives us stability in our main source of funds, as real estate taxes make up close to 70% of the Town’s revenue. We need to monitor ongoing tax collections and projections for state aid in 2021. We do expect some growth in real estate taxes as approved 40B and 40 housing projects move into the development stage. Other, non real estate tax revenue sources (like parking fees, excise fees and meals taxes) will need careful analysis as we make 2021 budget projections. Our larger town departments, especially schools, need more specificity on expected operational costs which can only be gained as we gather experience this fall. When these numbers are known with more clarity, the process of sharing resources between our town departments can really be sharpened. Our robust capital improvement plan will take a strong commitment from Town Meeting and town residents to pass required debt exclusions.
In the most basic terms, we have to identify the “must have” versus “nice to have” services we can fund with the income we have. Making this judgement requires the BOS to understand what services residents most want the town to continue to provide. As much as possible, we should continue to offer the high level of services our residents have come to value and expect. We must continue to employ good financial practices, matching one-off funding with one-off expenses wherever possible (like using CARES Act funds to cover COVID-specific expenses). We should also lobby for remaining CARES Act funds to be allowed as income replacement, as happened with similar aid after the financial crash in 2008. Overall, this challenge must be met by working collaboratively across all town boards, and engaging in strong financial management practices.
SR: How should voters reach you if they want more information?
Colette Aufranc: Voters can reach me at [email protected] and I would be happy to have a conversation by phone or a (socially distant) in person meeting. I have found these opportunities to engage with town residents, business owners, board members and department heads have been immensely helpful in preparing to run for this election, and, ultimately, for the job as selectperson, should I be elected. At last count I have had over 150 in depth conversations with voters about what matters in Wellesley and what people are looking for in a BOS member. I look forward to continuing those conversations and I encourage residents to reach out to me.