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Balance of power may shift
New selectmen could change goals of board
January 30, 2005
Lisa Kocian 508-820-4231 The Boston Globe West
By Lisa Kocian, Globe Staff | January 30, 2005 Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or lkocian@globe.com. Ginger Esty might be getting some company.  The election for the Framingham Board of Selectmen this spring could change the balance of power on a board on which Esty often has been the lone dissenting voice.

Seven candidates are running for two open seats.  And several of them, like Esty, hold more conservative views on issues such as illegal immigration and affordable housing than the current four-member majority.

Selectwoman Katie Murphy said anything could happen in the race.

"If thoughtful, progressive voters stay home, I could end up in the minority," she said.  "And since I think I have a thoughtful, progressive vision for Framingham, I think that would be a shame."

Town Clerk Valerie Mulvey, a former selectwoman, said it is likely that someone with name recognition will win the most votes and lock in one of the seats, but the second chair really is up for grabs.

With Esty battling the others, the board has been referred to as the "four-to-one" board.  The majority is losing two members because Christopher Ross and Esther Hopkins decided not to run for reelection.

Regardless of who wins, Mulvey said it is likely there will be a change in the direction of the board.  Not one of the candidates strikes her as automatically in line with the current majority.

There are no parties in town politics.  But both Esty and Murphy, who are Democrats, see a "liberal-conservative" split on the board.

That divide has been illustrated in two contentious issues that selectmen have considered in the past year.

The majority supported a draft plan highlighting a need for more affordable housing in town, while Esty lambasted it.  She ultimately won that round because Town Meeting members were incensed they had not played a larger role in drafting that plan, and many argued Framingham already does its fair share in providing low-cost housing.  Selectmen backpedaled and tabled the plan, which is to be redrafted with more community input.

The other issue was a proclamation that talked about the town's immigrant heritage and the importance of tolerance for all residents.  Framingham in recent years has seen an influx of immigrants from Brazil and other countries who are changing the face of the community.

Esty sparked a controversy when she refused to sign the proclamation unless it was amended to welcome "law-abiding" citizens only.

Three of the seven candidates have made a point of criticizing illegal immigration to the town -- Jeffrey Buck, cofounder of the group Concerned Citizens and Friends of Illegal Immigration Law Enforcement; Jim Rizoli, a Town Meeting member; and Harold Wolfe, who has also lobbied against tax increases.

Other candidates are Town Meeting member Ellen LaRose; Dennis Giombetti, a Finance Committee member; and Dennis Paulsen, a political newcomer who is best known for a dispute he had with the town over a no-parking sign that went up in front of his house.

Steven Hakar said last week that he intends to pull out of the race to focus on an effort to protect town water wells and to win more benefits for town workers serving in the military.

Of all the candidates, John Stasik, a former Planning Board member and former state representative, likely has the best name recognition.

Esty, who is supporting LaRose's candidacy, said she could see this election giving her a majority on the board.  In the last election, she noted, she outpolled Charles Sisitsky, part of the majority, and another candidate to win a selectmen's seat.  She won 2,739 votes to Sisitsky's 2,185.

Another factor is Town Meeting.  The 178 elected members can be influential in their neighborhoods, and they have tended to be conservative.

The philosophical gulf between selectmen and Town Meeting has widened in recent years, say local political observers.  Esty often sides with Town Meeting in disputes, as she did with the draft housing plan.

Esty said the divide is widening between the two governing bodies because the majority of selectmen are ceding too much authority to Town Manager George P. King Jr.

Murphy denied that.  She said the majority tell King what they want and he comes back with ways to accomplish their goals.

Former Town Meeting moderator Jerry Desilets said the friction between selectmen and Town Meeting has become more pronounced since the Town Manager Act was adopted in 1996, which increased the number of selectmen from three to five and gave the town manager more power.

"There are some in town who think the current board has not been strong in terms of setting its own agenda," said Desilets.  "There's a sense of a lack of leadership on the Board of Selectmen."

Not everyone thinks "conservative" and "liberal" are the right words to use in local politics.  Former selectman John Kahn said Framingham politics are personality-driven, and he particularly criticized the use of the word "conservative" to describe Esty.  He said the word does not go far enough.

"I think when you call Ginger Esty a conservative, you are libeling the notion of conservatism," said Kahn, who supports Stasik and Giombetti.  "The polar opposite of liberal is really reactionary, and I would put her at that end of the spectrum."

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