Five people are running for two selectmen seats in Cohasset in what’s shaping up to be a referendum on the current direction of the board and the acting town manager.
While many other communities struggle to find local candidates for elected office, this is the third year in a row that Cohasset has had contested seats for selectmen, according to Town Clerk Carol St. Pierre. The election is May 11.
Two of the candidates — former selectwoman Karen Quigley and Community Preservation Committee chairman J. Russell Bonetti — say they’re running because the current five-member board is ignoring both the public and municipal employees. One of the first things Quigley and Bonetti said they’d do if elected is begin a search for a permanent town manager.
Two others — incumbent Leland Jenkins and Cohasset Triathlon organizer William Burnett Jr. — say they support acting town manager Michael Milanoski and would stay on course.
Then there’s Stephen Gaumer, chairman of the town’s Capital Budget Committee, who frames his candidacy in different terms — saying selectmen need to be clearer in setting policies. He also said he thinks Milanoski should finish his year-long contract before the board looks for a permanent town manager.
“I don’t see myself as allied with anyone, or in opposition [to] anyone,” Gaumer said.
Board chairman Paul Carlson has decided not to seek a third term — honoring a promise he made to his wife. A staunch Milanoski supporter, Carlson said he would remain neutral in the election.
The board also includes Diane Kennedy, Fred Koed, and 84-year-old Martha Gjesteby, who was elected last year on a platform to bring more openness to town government.
In the past month, Koed has joined Gjesteby in complaining that the board isn’t involved early enough in making key decisions. He was particularly upset about Milanoski’s proposed changes to the police and fire departments. “I feel like a potted plant,” Koed said at a recent meeting.
Koed, a selectman since 1999, said he’s never endorsed a candidate before, but “we are, unfortunately, in extraordinary times in Cohasset today. I will be guided not by what I’ve done before, but by what I think is best for Cohasset,”
Carlson defended the board and Milanoski. “My recollection is we talked about a lot of these issues in the past,” he said.
Jenkins also praised Milanoski and said he’s running “to safeguard the progress we have made and to initiate the improvements with the ultimate goal of financial health of the town.”
“I have been selectman three years, and three years is enough. But this thing could collapse and all the work we’ve done could go down the tubes if we don’t have candidates who keep it going,” Jenkins said.
Quigley, on the other hand, said she’s running “because I believe the voters deserve clear alternatives to the status quo.”
“There is a lot of anger in the town about the actions of our town leaders, selectmen, and others,” she added. “Personally, I’m just stunned and appalled at their behavior and at their decisions. They continue to act in a way that has produced nothing but discord and turmoil and fear and litigation against the town.”
The litigation includes a whistleblower suit filed by fired town manager Michael Coughlin, who is trying to get back the job he held for less than six months. Another fired town employee has filed an age discrimination suit.
Quigley, a selectwoman from 2008 to 2011, said the board needs a new town manager who, unlike Milanoski, meets the criteria set by the local Town Manager Act. A Special Town Meeting voted in December 2012 not to change those criteria — which include having previous town manager experience and not sitting on town boards for a year.
Milanoski, who chaired the search committee that found Coughlin, replaced him in February 2012, and his $150,000 contract runs through 2013.
Bonetti said he also favors conducting a search for a permanent town manager, “to stop giving the impression that this was a setup job, at least for the sake of transparency.”
“Mike seems to be a nice guy,” Bonetti said. “But he’s making a lot of mistakes you would expect from someone who has never been in that position or worked as an assistant town manager.”
And, Bonetti said, “there are an awful lot of people in town — town employees and townies in general — who feel the Board of Selectmen is not listening to them.”
Bonetti said he got into the race because of what he saw as the board’s interference in his Community Preservation Committee — and a recent request for $450,000 in Community Preservation money for architectural drawings to renovate Town Hall. The amount “seemed extremely high, and no one in town had seen these plans,” he said. “There are very, very few people involved as far as making these decisions.”
Burnett, who started the popular Cohasset Triathlon, supports Milanoski and the moves he’s made to make the town more financially sound.
“I think Mike is doing an awesome job and getting us in the right direction,” Burnett said. “He is working super hard. I want the town to be more positive, to bring back that positive vibe.”
Gaumer said he couldn’t judge whether Milanoski was doing a good job since he wasn’t on the Board of Selectmen. “But as chairman of the Capital Budget Committee, I’ve had a very productive relationship working with him and his department heads,” Gaumer said.
Cohasset has a history of fielding multiple candidates for selectmen seats, including a 2003 three-way race in which current Republican Senate hopeful Gabriel Gomez failed to win the single seat. There was a three-year lull from 2007 through 2009 when candidates ran unopposed, but since then all selectmen races have been competitions.