EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 5, 2014

Atkinson candidates peppered with questions

Discussion nearly canceled after citizen concerns

By Alex Lippa

---- — ATKINSON — Residents peppered candidates with questions in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the town’s annual candidates’ night.

The majority of the questions were directed at the candidates for the two selectmen’s races. Former police Chief Philip Consentino and incumbent Selectmen’s Chairman William Friel are vying for a one-year term.

Budget Committee members Harold Morse and Craig Schuster, as well as Scott Mitchell, are seeking a three-year term. Morse was not in attendance last night.

Consentino was asked by several residents about his dismissal as police chief last year, but he deflected the question.

“I am here tonight to answer any questions that anybody has pertaining to the present way that the Board of Selectmen are being run and how it should be run in the future,” Consentino said. “I’m not going to get into a discussion about things that have happened in the past.”

Mitchell and Schuster also were asked about circumstances related to Consentino’s dismissal, but the questions were not allowed by Jim Garrity, who was moderating the discussion.

At the beginning of the meeting, Garrity explained to the 50 residents in attendance that the event almost was canceled. Garrity said a resident had called Town Hall and alleged the event was a form of electioneering. After the Attorney General’s Office was consulted, the meeting was deemed legal because it was being hosted by the Atkinson Woman’s Civics Club, not the town.

“All the candidates were invited,” Garrity said. “It’s a nonprofit organization that is running it. All the candidates are running it and it’s absolutely legal.”

After consulting with Town Administrator Bill Innes, Garrity said, he decided to change the method of how the questions would be presented to the candidates. The original [plan called for all questions to be submitted to Garrity beforehand. But he allowed residents address the candidates directly.

“People had accused me of possibly censoring questions,” he said.

Resident Robert Clark asked Schuster and Mitchell their positions on a commuter rail station coming to Plaistow.

“I am very much against it,” Schuster said. “I think the (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) should stay out of New Hampshire.”

Mitchell said the prospect of the commuter rail nearby interested him, but not a layover station.

“I think a train system where our citizens and residents could go on the train and go to Boston is a great thing,” he said. “I’m for a train station in vicinity, but absolutely not a (layover) station.”

Consentino and Friel were asked about the selectmen’s decision to move the town’s elder services department to the community center from the police station.

“If it goes to the community center, people would only answer the phones from 8:30 to noon,” Consentino said. “You’re going to lose that contact with the dispatchers on a regular basis. A lot of times, they’re going to get an answering machine. When seniors get an answering machine, I doubt they’re going to call back again.”

Friel said they were advised to move elder services out of the police station.

“There is a police legality issue about having members other than police officers in the police department,” Friel said. “The Attorney General’s Office authorized in 2008 that we could no longer cross fees between the two departments. We have police dispatchers answering phones instead of dispatching, which is in direct violation of the Attorney General’s Office.”

Mitchell and Schuster each gave a short speech about why they wanted to be a selectman.

“I will fight to keep the integrity of the town intact,” Mitchell said. “I was pleased to hear that the families with contaminated wells were being taken care of. But I was disappointed that it took so long.”

Schuster said this is his third time running for selectman.

“We need a transparent local government,” he said. “In the past, we could have done better at that.”

Residents will vote Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Atkinson Community Center.