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Civics Sunday: Interview with Select Board Chair Mark Ahronian

by The Publishers
June 30, 2019

You, dear readers, voiced an interest in a more personal look at our town government boards and committees.  We created a set of questions that we’re asking a member of elected committees and boards. 

Today we bring you the Select Board, through the voice of Mark Ahronian, Chair.  We hope you enjoy these insights into this segment of your town government.

Publishers Note: The official title of this board is the Board of Selectmen as stipulated in our town by-laws.  Recently, the name has unofficially morphed to the more inclusive Select Board.  Perhaps Holliston will join many other Massachusetts towns and officially change the name at a future Town Meeting.  We will use Select Board in this interview.

You, dear readers, voiced an interest in a more personal look at our town government boards and committees.  We created a set of questions that we’re asking a member of elected committees and boards.  Today we bring you the Select Board, through the voice of Mark Ahronian, Chair.  We hope you enjoy these insights into this segment of your town government.

Mark Ahronian was born and raised in Holliston.  He moved to Natick with his parents when he was a sophomore in high school, but he and his wife Linda moved back to Holliston when they married.  He has served on the Select Board for 3 years, this year he serves as its Chair.  He served on the Council on Aging for 5 years, was co-chair of Holliston in Bloom for a couple of years, and Tree Warden for 5.  He has been a member of the Holliston Lions’ Club for 30 years and served as its president. 

1.      How does the Select Board develop its agenda for each meeting?

The town administrator and the Board chair discuss the agenda – basically four inputs: the time of year – budget review/prep for town meetings; projects / issues underway; input from other boards, citizen input, and emergency issues.  There are some fixed items on each agenda such as: public comment (when citizens can present any topic, idea, problem); weekly warrants (funds paid each week to cover all payroll, benefits, and materials); Board business (approve minutes, make decisions, hold Public Hearings).  Otherwise, each agenda is custom-made for that particular meeting.

As an example, Mr. Ahronian pointed to last week’s agenda.  The end of June is the end of Holliston’s Fiscal Year.  Given the time of the year, the agenda included approving the transfer of monies from the reserve fund to cover some budget shortfalls.  "I was glad that there were funds available," he shared – so are we.

Each member is a liaison to other committees and board.  He said, "staying in contact this way moves concerns and information to and from the Board."  Each Select Board member may, in their liaison role, invite committees or their chair to attend a Board meeting in order to make an informed decision.

2.      How does the Select Board make informed decisions that are the best for our community?  Please tell us of one recent decision made by the Select Board as an example. 

Mr. Ahronian started his answer by saying, "suppose we have idea or project we want to implement."  The Select Board may be expert or not on the topic.  Typically, the Board’s decision process involves input from experts.  The experts may be consultants or more often forming a committee of citizens.  As an example, Mr. Ahronian highlighted the Blair Square committee’s work on the Rail Trail between Central and Church Streets.  "The work is a priority due to the safety concerns when there are trail users, cars transiting from one street to another, cars parking, and commercial access using the same space without any demarkations."

The first step is to determine the type of expertise and stakeholders needed on the committee.  The number of members on the committee – always an odd number – usually 5 or 7 depending on the scope of the committee’s work.  The Board gives the committee a charge.  In this example, Ahronian enumerated the scope of the committee’s charge: "delineation, accessibility, know where borders are, and a plan."  What follows is a summary of the steps outlined by Mr. Ahronian.

“It takes a village” describes overall how the committee accomplished its work.  First, GLM Engineering donated their time to complete a survey. The DPW will provide paving and granite curbing. Casey’s Crossing granted an easement to the town to create a cleaner flow for the rail trail.  Ahronian Landscaping will donate landscaping.  These demonstrations of “community spirit” will save the town about $30,000. 

The public safety departments were engaged to consult on how the design would improve safety.  Neighboring property owners worked with the committee to find alternative routes so the traffic and trail will not be disrupted by commercial vehicle access.

The last step, the plan: a one-way traffic lane from Central to Church street will run along the chain link fence bounding the property; diagonal parking slots will be accessible from that travel lane; the rail trail will be separated from the parked vehicles by guardrails and run right behind Casey’s; additional parking will be available on the current gravel covered lots along Railroad Street.

The next hurdle the committee addressed was funding. The committee, with assistance from Town Planner Karen Sherman, submitted a grant proposal to the State.  The grant request was for about $92,000. 

“Timing is everything,” is also a popular expression.  In this case, the grant awards would not be made until AFTER our Town Meeting.  Also, the type of grant is a reimbursement.  First the town spends the money and then the State reimburses.  This presented a new challenge for the committee.  With just a short time before the Town Meeting, the committee went to the Finance Committee following the proscribed process.  The FinCom did not add the expense to the FY 2020 budget.  The Select Board felt strongly that this project should be funded this year.  They partnered with the committee to approach the Community Preservation Committee to provide the ‘seed money’ for the project until the State sends the reimbursement.  The CPC held a special meeting to consider the request.  At Town Meeting, those present approved the CPC support of the project.

Holliston was informed recently that the grant was awarded!  The construction is being organized now so that work can be done during the summer months.  The number of expert contributors helps to get a larger project done.  Patience and persistence are also key. 

Mr. Ahronian explained that, "processes like this take a very long time and when it is done, perhaps we’ll have a ribbon cutting." 

Working with a wide range of stakeholders and ideas seems to be key to successful decision-making by the Board.

3.      How does the Select Board interact with other boards and committees on a recurring basis?  Do you have any views concerning the frequency of these interactions?

“We are liaisons to other boards and committees, and we invite other [board and committee members] to our meetings.  After discussion with them, these liaisons help us to make decisions.  We find out what they are working on.”  Additionally, Mr. Ahronian said, “During new business or public comment, when others are ready, they’ll come to our board meeting to discuss.  We also have joint meetings with FinCom when we are close to the time of the Town Meeting.  Do they need more information?  The budget time is seasonal, otherwise, we interact with them as needed.  Sometimes through email.”

Mr. Ahronian said that some board and committee members may not need the Select Board to go to meetings, but they do reach out.  As an example, he cited a time when Mark Frank, Director of Recreation, set up a meeting with those representing numerous town boards.  “Mark needed to improve the condition and quality of our town playing fields.  The town and school joined the meeting.  People had suggestions.  Mark took in all the information and plans a follow-up. 

“How would we approach this?  What is the process?  I suggested the establishment of a Friends of Park Dept. for field renovation work.  That would be a way residents could contribute to be part of the solution.  It would be set up as 501(c)3…This is a time consuming but helpful process.  Many people attended: Keith Buday, me, someone from Medway parks, FinCom.  It was helpful.  You can email or telephone, but a meeting is better.”

4.      How do you see the Select Board being more effective for our community?

Mr. Ahronian began, “The more communication, the better. There is no need to fear the Select Board. It’s okay to tell us.  At some point, everyone will need the help of town government.  Keep us informed.  Invite us.  We’re all on same team.”  He emphasized the need for the public to share with those who are elected. 

5.  What are the best ways for residents to provide input to the Select Board?

“The best is to come to the Select Board meetings,” Mr. Ahronian said.  “During public comment, tell us what’s on your mind:  an idea, a suggestion, something we don’t know about.  Come and see us. We don’t bite.  Some people are intimidated by the television.  I understand that concerns them.  Just state your name and address.  But some won’t come.  We need to hear your story.  E-mails, phone calls are not as effective.  Come to our meetings.”

6.       Currently, what is the main priority for our town?  (In general, not necessarily related to the Select Board.)

Mr. Ahronian quickly replied, “Water infrastructure.”  He continued, “Water pipes should have been changed 20 years ago.  We have leaks all over town.  Some are corroded.  We just had one leak at the Mobile station [on Washington Street].  It costs in the area of $17,000 to fix a leak.  We are spending a lot of money.”  He went on to explain, “We don’t know what’s under there.  A machine or a crew finds it and judges the break.  They might have to go back further [in the road] to replace more. There may be a valve replacement needed.  Each leak is different.”

“Holliston has brown water in some areas. I’m trying to convince people that this should be our number one concern.  It’s not a sexy thing, but it’s important.”

Replacement of the water pipes “costs $1million a mile, and we have 50 more miles to go.  We  have done some.  The water infrastrucure fee you pay is enough to do 1 mile a year.  It will take 50 years at this rate.  That’s not good enough.  We need to do 3 miles year.  That would be very helpful.”

Ahronian concluded, “We need to do better than we’re doing now.  This affects every single resident... We’ve got to take care of ourselves.”

Many thanks to Mark Ahronian for his time and his willingness to respond to the publishers.



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Comments (1)

It is good to see the workings of our town government. It is also good to have the town calendar to know what the town and the organizations in it are doing as well.

- JEAN MORRISSEY | 6/30/19 12:54 PM



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