Wellesley’s Meet the Candidates Night is a civil get-together that mainly involves prepared remarks and taking turns answering questions rather than debate. The first in-person edition of the League of Women Voters of Wellesley‘s event since before the pandemic also introduces would-be office holders to the public and as always, delivers some takeaways (See Wellesley Media’s Feb. 15 recording).
Wellesley only has 3 contested townwide-wide races—Select Board, Planning Board, and Natural Resources Commission—and they got most of the attention at this well-attended event. But there’s no need to overlook the uncontested seats, and Meet the Candidates Night offered a good opportunity for people to familiarize themselves with those who will be serving vital roles in town.
For example, the first set of candidates introduced were all incumbents and running unopposed—KC Kato (Town Clerk), Mark Kaplan (Moderator), Arthur Garrity III (Board of Assessors).
But lest you take any of them for granted, they shared backgrounds worth noting. Kato, for example, might be known mainly as Town Clerk, a position she has held for the past 6 years, but she also served as a Town Meeting member for 12 years and a School Committee member for 6. Kaplan, the town’s moderator since 2019, is most visible presiding over Town Meeting, but significant other duties are appointing 34 members of 5 boards and committees such as the Advisory Committee. Garrity is part of a team that puts value each year on more than 8,000 residential parcels and 220 commercial parcels—properties that this fiscal year are worth $16.5B dollars.
Next up were 4 Select Board candidates for 2 available 3-year terms. Incumbents Colette Aufranc and Ann-Mara Lanza seek to keep their seats, while past member and chair Marjorie Freiman and current Wellesley Housing Authority Board Chair Odessa Sanchez are also competing for voters’ attention.
Aufranc emphasized her financial and transportation expertise; Lanza cited her work on housing issues, including accessory dwelling units, and said she listens to residents and makes decisions based on facts; Freiman noted her accomplishments during 2 terms on the Select Board and more recent activities involving housing and civil discourse; and Sanchez pointed to her track record as a volunteer and advocate for the community who can serve as a bridge between younger and older residents (her reference to “age strong” residents had legs and was revisited by others during the night).
The candidates answered questions on topics that included consensus building, supporting seniors, balancing housing and open space, migrant housing, and spending reserve funds. On consensus building, Aufranc said that sometimes what’s required is saying your piece but then voting with the Board to give the public a strong message even when you’re in the minority. Freiman said 1 of her approaches is working toward a decision that “might not be perfect but that everyone can accept,” and revisiting issues later to evaluate progress. Sanchez said 1 key is having an open mind to others’ thoughts in hopes that they will have the same for yours. Lanza stated that while she might have opinions on a subject she prefers working as part of a team since “diverse perspectives create better solutions.”
On the challenge of housing migrants here, candidates were generally in agreement that Wellesley isn’t the best place for this due to a lack of sites, and based on the state’s focus on housing migrants at shelters that can accommodate 100-plus families and have services up and running. However, candidates said the community can help financially and possibly by partnering with nearby communities that do have shelters. Sanchez urged the community in thinking about the migrant issue not to overlook those who are currently housing insecure in town.
It was then back to another uncontested race, Board of Trustees for Wellesley Free Library. Incumbents Maura Murphy and Diane Savage introduced themselves, then fielded questions. Among those: “Would you support broadcasting and/or recording of Trustees meetings to align with the other elected boards?” Most other elected boards have their meetings regularly recorded and posted on Wellesley Media’s site, though the last Trustees’ meeting posted was in May of 2022 (Board of Health meeting recordings have also become hard to come by). The most recent Library Board agenda included items ranging from a draft policy on unattended children to an enhanced patio project to Annual Town Meeting Article 33, which relates to the board’s aim to set the salary for the library director in a written contract (a similar article failed to pass at Special Town Meeting in the fall).
Neither candidate gave a strong “yes” to having the meetings recorded. Murphy said she doesn’t have a position on this yet, as the board hasn’t had a discussion on the topic and weighed pros and cons. She said she for sure would still wan’t the board to meet in person, and not go full Zoom. “I would not support it just for the purpose of aligning with other boards because I think every board is different…,” she said, adding that she’d want to learn about the experiences of other boards, including library boards. Savage agreed with Murphy on that last point in describing what she described as “a complex issue… I’ve read academic arguments on both sides.” While noting the board hasn’t discussed the topic, Savage said personally she would “err on the side of sunshine” if the board had to err on 1 side.
The Trustees meet regularly in person at the library, welcome public attendance and post timely and detailed minutes of their meetings.
One 5-year Planning Board seat is up for grabs, with incumbent Patty Mallett going up against Grant Pollock. Mallet highlighted her technical expertise as a registered civil engineer and her knowledge of the town’s zoning bylaws as a Planning Board member. Pollock shared his personal interest in planning, after rebuilding following a devastating fire, and he pledged to work toward an inclusive future for Wellesley through support of efforts such as the MBTA Communities law and working for affordable and senior housing.
Asked about the fluidity of zoning bylaws, Mallett pointed to residential incentive overlays that have been approved in recent years, and that through negotiations with developers, have resulted in more affordable units. Pollock said through his experiences with the town, he saw opportunities for “improved efficiencies and collaboration” across departments to address housing needs, and that bylaws that have become convoluted over time need to be untangled.
Planning candidates were followed by another panel of those in line to fill uncontested seats. This included incumbent Scott Bender (Board of Public Works), incumbent Marcia Testa Simonson (Board of Health), and School Committee candidates Niki Brinkman-Ofenloch and incumbent Linda Chow. As with others looking to fill uncontested seats, these candidates shed light on their backgrounds, such as Bender being involved early on with the MLP and founding Sustainable Wellesley, and Chow, who said her family largely moved here for the school system, and now she’s been on the School Committee for 6 years.
The night wrapped up with candidates for 2 seats on the Natural Resources Commission. Those competing for the seats are incumbent Bea Bezmalinovic, motivated in part by the fact that NRC properties are among many Wellesley residents’ favorite places in town; Steve Park from the Wellesley Trails Committee and Wellesley Conservation Land Trust; and attorney Kenneth Largess, who cites his efforts on the Fiske School Council and coaching youth sports.
They responded to questions about NRC priorities, tree stewardship, and recreational use of NRC properties.
Bezmalinovic acknowledged the tension around the use of some NRC land, such as Hunnewell field, used by some for organized sports, by others for more passive recreation. She said the NRC is one of the few such organization in the state responsible for recreation and conservation. “It is easy to say it is one of these at the expense of the other in the same way that people will say that housing comes at the expense of the environment. What I’ve strived to do on the NRC is find a balancing point where you try to protect the environment as much as possible, make the best use of the space available, and try to balance the needs of the vast and diverse users of the NRC spaces.” Largess agreed on balancing the community’s needs, and emphasized the need to support kids playing outside to help keep them off of electronics. “We can do that in a way that does not endanger the environment,” he said. Park commented that “Wellesley is very lucky to have a diverse set of open spaces” from Centennial Reservation to Morses Pond to the Brook Path. “As we move forward with management and enhancement of these spaces we should look to the character of these spaces as they’re intended,” he said, adding his support for new efforts to use data to help inform decision making.