Dear Candidate: Please Answer these Four Questions. Part 2: Friedrichs

On behalf of Acton Forum, I contacted the candidates running for office in the upcoming election (June 2, 2020) and asked them each four questions on topics many voters believe are important. I received two replies by candidates for Board of Selectmen and I thank them for their participation. The questions were carefully worded to avoid introducing bias. There are many more questions that could be asked, but to increase the likelihood of participation, I wanted to keep it brief.

1. Please introduce yourself and explain what makes you qualified to serve in the elected position you are seeking to hold?

My name is Terra Friedrichs. My experience as a Selectman, along with my experience starting and running small and large businesses and non-profits, as well as my direct personal experience with vulnerable people all qualify me to serve on the Board of Selectman. My skills and experience will be especially important during this very difficult time as the town recovers from the pandemic, and will help the town develop policies to ensure that town services remain excellent and small local businesses gain back their viability. I grew up in Acton and attended Acton schools, which gives me a unique perspective that is important when collaborating with school officials to ensure that Acton's schools remain excellent. My direct experience as a Selectman during the 2008 recession is particularly applicable during this challenging time. During my tenure, we sought cost savings and were able to weather the recession with no staff layoffs. I have a Masters in Finance, a Bachelors in Engineering and almost 40 years in business, including my own company which affords me the time and resources to allow me to devote a lot of time to the town.

2. After elected, what will be is your top priority and explain the regulatory process that must be negotiated to follow through on the objectives.

My top priority is to help our town recover from the pandemic and remain fiscally sustainable and affordable while maintaining excellent town social services.

This includes a relief program for small businesses which have been left without revenues, and a rental assistance program for very low income workers left without work because we closed businesses due to the unforeseen health emergency. It includes finding ways to be flexible with businesses to allow them to open sooner than later. For example, I offered the idea to leverage the authority implied by the Governor's state-of-emergency order, to allow businesses to use parking spaces lawns, and anywhere that wouldn't sacrifice safety/access.

It would cost the town dearly to lose its economic base and its workers, and based on the numbers I'm looking at, I believe it's worth it to engage in a small business relief program and an individual rent assistant program, for our minimum wage workers, too, who have been shut out of their jobs. We don't want to lose them or the businesses they work for. According to my analysis, to suffer large scale homelessness will be more expensive for Acton than to help these workers.

I am mindful, however, not to advocate for the town to engage in “corporate welfare”. If households do not get relief from their local property taxes, then I don't believe that businesses should either. HOWEVER, there are millions of dollars in federal grants that can be specifically used for local business relief. And I believe the town should pursue those funds aggressively.

As a last bullet point in my “top priority” of recovering from Covid 19 I believe we need to assess our town services and determine what has worked well and what needs to be improved/changed given “the new normal”.

Regulatory process

Some of the economic assistance that can be offered will be “easy” in that it would come from grants and/or would require only a simple majority vote of the Board of Selectmen from existing funds set aside for such purposes. Some items will be more difficult, and will require a Town Meeting vote, and perhaps even a Home Rule decision. The easy items include relief-from/rebates-for licenses/fees for business services that could not be rendered due to a forced shut down. Examples of the easier items, include relief from proprietors licenses, or alcohol licenses. Another “easy” form of relief would be relief from locally imposed rules/regulations regarding operating requirements, such as the idea I mentioned above, allowing them to operate their stores/businesses out of doors.

The more substantial/difficult tax relief may require a Town Meeting vote or Home Rule decision. The more difficult items include rent assistance for low wage workers, using local tax revenues. Either way, there is a town meeting coming up in June and if elected, and if the town attorney believes that such relief is defensible and could occur with a Town meeting vote, I plan to propose an emergency spending article to be added to the Town Meeting warrant. The Board of Selectmen have the power to do add items to the warrant with a simple majority vote.

The second part of this first priority is assessing the town's budgets and determining whether we want to keep the same budget as what was developed for an April 2020 Town Meeting, or whether we want to make adjustments for the ultimate vote on the budget now planned for late June. The town has, wisely, enforced a hiring and spending freeze. It's quite possible that we can leverage opportunities such as retirement bonuses for long term employees who might want to retire earlier than later.

3. On difficult issues like opening public schools, how can we know your decisions are based on facts, data and careful analysis and not influenced by emotional outcries based on bad arguments and inductive reasoning?

First of all, I am a strong advocate for transparency. So I want you to be able to see the same information that I am using to make my decisions. Secondly, I am a data-driven person. I rely on expert analysis. Thirdly, I want to know how you feel about the data that I'm looking at. I believe we can do a much better job at asking questions of the public and correlating/analyzing the answers. My business is called “Stakeholder Interviews”. I make my living assessing what people want and helping businesses and non-profits integrate what their stakeholders want into policies and organizational direction. With my strategic planning background, I understand how to use affordable/free data-driven tools, to help organizations get to decisions that reflect the needs of the most people possible. So far, relative to the schools specifically, I have been watching and listening to Peter Light, and I like what I've heard relative to his plans. Based on my observations of his values, I have a lot of faith in how he is handling things. His decisions seem to be in line with the data and expert opinions that I expose myself to daily. Relative to the rest of the town, I have been following the Board of Health's discussions and currently, I am in agreement with them to take our time, and let the data show us how our strategies are working. But I also believe that when we “take our time”, that we owe it to ourselves, to help small businesses get through this with a small business relief package, and to be flexible on operating regulations to allow them to open as soon as possible, without sacrificing the health of the public.

4. Besides COVID 19 related topics, what other items do you consider important to address after elected to office? Explain how you will approach each topic.

While Covid 19 does not change my priority to ensure that Acton remains “sustainable” from a fiscal, environmental, and social perspective, the “other” items that I think of when reading this question are all wound up in that same goal. That goal is: to meet our social obligation for excellent schools and town services, while remaining affordable, maintaining our town character and eco-systems. To me, the goals haven't changed, but the conditions in which we are operating have changed. With that in mind, while Covid 19 has increased the pressures and the costs, it is also forcing us to prioritize, and to get more organized. Covid 19 has not changed my belief that Acton's public policy decision making process has far too many “silos” where departments and/or committees make decisions without examining the entire impact to the town. Covid 19 and the pressures that have come with it have magnified these problems. If all decisions are not considered in terms of fiscal, environmental, and/or social impacts to the entire town, we end up with results that serve a distinct few. If we do not fix this, special interests will be able to further their aims too easily. For example, developers.

A vast majority of [the thousands of] people who answered the last Master Planning survey wanted to stop/slow growth. And yet little has been done to affect that goal. In that light, I want to slow/stop growth that does not pay for itself, or does not meet a community need. I do not want to allow environmental destruction, the destruction of town character, and the use of precious water, road/school capacity for no purpose other than private gain. Too often, Town Hall is reactive to private developers. Too often, we wait for developers to decide what growth happens. This does not serve us well.

I want to put process in place which measures the % of destruction each year to precious environmental assets. And as we begin to measure the impact to water, road capacity, etc, it'll be easier to understand how to limit that destruction. I want to create processes and bylaws which take that control back from developers, and preserve these precious resources at little or no cost to the town.

This can not be done in a vacuum, because if we slow development, we must be careful to ensure that we meet our societal obligation to provide affordable housing for the most vulnerable. We must be proactive.

I believe that the most expedient and affordable way to ensure housing for the most vulnerable households is to engage in a major rehab program to buy up and rehabilitate existing housing units from the thousands of condos/apartments in Acton that are “naturally affordable”. To keep them affordable, we need to “deed restrict” these housing units. Such a program may take years. But I believe it's doable. I believe it's affordable. And I believe we must do it, if we are to meet our affordable housing goals AND preserve town character and the health of our water.

To this end, I have been working with local retired real estate professionals on what looks to be a very affordable, and mostly fiscally self-sustaining program to accomplish this goal. To me this is a small investment for a very large return. If we can meet our social obligations in an affordable way which does not cause additional large-scale costs to the town, why aren't we doing that already?

If we continue to be reactive, we will use up all of the water and road capacity, while not solving any of our existing social problems and end up with even worse and new problems. If we continue to allow developers to decide what our land use policies are, they will build until all available land is built upon, which burdens our town services, destroys the environment, adds traffic, and uses up water that is needed to keep our eco-system healthy.

We need to plan better if we are to be sustainable, affordable and be a socially just society.

To do that, we need a more holistic, voter-centric/resident-centric process by which we include stakeholders at all steps of the process, and ensure that their wants and needs for the town are incorporated before it's too late for residents to change the course of events.

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