NORTH ATTLEBORO — There were almost as many candidates for town council as attendees at Tuesday’s political forum at the Amvet Boulevard School.
Eighteen of the 19 candidates for the nine council seats up for grabs in Tuesday’s special election participated in the event, squeezing onto the school stage and sitting on uncomfortable looking, straight wooden children’s chairs.
The candidates were piled up three rows deep, with those in the back straining their necks to see their families in the audience.
It was stuffy and warm in the cinder-block auditorium and candidates used their cardboard seat numbers to fan themselves.
“It’s a little toasty in here,” said moderator Peter Gay, executive director of North TV.
Gay took a page from Henry Ford and designed an assembly line system of keeping the forum going over more than two hours.
He had two candidates at a time stand at microphones with each being replaced immediately after answering their questions. The result was one candidate was always talking while two other candidates were changing places.
To keep things moving there could be no Lincoln-Douglas-style, one-on-one exchanges and no rebuttals. There were only 90-second answers to questions from panelists Mike Kirby and Max Bowen, and then it was on to the next candidate.
Gay also asked the audience not to slow things down by clapping for their favorite candidate’s answer.
“This night is going to be long enough as it is,” he said.
This is the first election for town council in North Attleboro history, as a charter adopted by voters in April created the council to replace representative town meeting.
The charter also creates a strong town manager position to run town government.
The election has attracted a large field of candidates. So large, in fact, that at times it was difficult to distinguished how the candidates differed on issues during the forum.
For example, every candidate responded to a question about openness by saying the council should be transparent and accessible.
In response to a question about passing a tax increase if school buildings need to be replaced or renovated, several candidates said it is too early to tell, more information is needed, and a tax increase should be a last resort.
There was a lot of talk about living within the town’s means and seeking alternative sources of revenue.
Candidates Michael Bedard, Shea Kiley, and Jack Tragni were the most emphatic about opposing a tax increase, be it through an override or debt exclusion, for school buildings.
In fact, Tragni was the most outspoken on nearly every subject. In his opening statement he said he would go into the job with “uncorrupted eyes” and would oppose “political porkery.”
While Tragni had the most memorable line of the night, Jo Ann Cathcart had the funniest.
During a discussion of the “Afghans” painting that was moved from the Community School to storage and then to the police station, she said she had to look at the “incredibly ugly” painting for four years in school.
“It was a monstrosity on a wall,” she said.
Candidate Michael Thompson quipped that when he went to Community School, which was the former high school, boys used the painting as a target for spit balls.
Some of the less experienced candidates, however, said they were not familiar with the details of the long, drawn-out saga over what to do with the painting.
Throughout the night the other candidates got their messages out, too.
Benjamin Whitney said he wanted to restore trust in town government, Gregory St. Lawrence said he has served on town committees and is “a big fan of transparency, school committee member Adam Scanlon said he has worked to restore educational programs, and Kathleen Prescott said it would be “scary” to talk about a tax override so close to the last one.
Selectman Justin Pare said he wants to hire a town manager with a master’s degree in public administration and financial experience.
Darius Gregory said his strength is he is not a politician. Julie Boyce, on the other hand, said she has experience serving on representative town meeting and the planning board.
Candidate Daniel Donovan said he wants to hire a town manager with experience in managing change, and selectmen Chairman Michael Lennox said his priority will be to establish a good foundation for the new town government.
Bruce Pearson said he would look for grants and green energy funding to help pay for school improvements, while John Simmons said the new form of government must prove it can live within its means.
Candidate Greg Weishaar said he has 20 years experience in corporate recruiting, so hiring a town manager would be right in his “sweet spot.” Andrew Shahan said hiring the town manager is the “most critical issue” facing the council.
The 19th candidate in the race, Selectman Keith Lapointe, sent his regrets over missing the forum, explaining he was out of town on business.