By Bill Kirk
---- — After 12 years, Mary Lyman’s had enough.
The tone of political discourse in this country has taken an ugly turn, even in the comfy confines of a leafy little suburb like Andover, said the outgoing selectman.
Lyman said while she’ll miss many of the good things that she helped accomplish in town, she won’t miss the late-night meetings and the sometimes-contentious nature of the new civic dialogue.
“The tone people treat each other with is part of the reason I’m leaving,” said Lyman, who stepped down this week after more than 12 years on the board.
“It’s people not treating people with respect. It’s one of the biggest problems.”
During a recent public hearing on a health insurance plan change for retirees, for example, she said one of the people affected confronted the selectmen “and began yelling at us.”
One day, while grocery shopping, a resident who had a beef with the town tried to push his shopping cart into her path as she entered the store.
She said a local attorney once attempted to bribe her after she reviewed the controversial plans of one of his clients.
And at least one resident “says he’s going to sue me” every time he sees her.
Then, last week, she got an email from a resident who had been friendly with her husband. But instead of seeking a solution to his problem in a nice way, he took on a hostile tone, essentially calling her and all elected officials “idiots.”
Lyman, who has volunteered countless hours as a selectman, said most people are cordial in public. But behind the scenes, via emails and phone calls, people get nasty, she said. And not just with her. Nearly every day, Lyman said, she observes town workers doing their best to respectfully serve the public. Residents should offer the same treatment in return, she said.
“Everyone there (Town Hall) works very hard,” she said. “Buzz (Stapczynski, the town manager) sets the tone from the top. He’s around all the time. He shows up for Saturday morning coffees (at Old Town Hall).
“Andover residents get a lot of bang for the buck. We have more talented people than I’ve ever seen working for this town. We are not above the average in taxes. We have a good education system, better roads than most towns and we deliver good services. We are trying hard to do everything well.”
Couple her recent acceptance of a full-time role as a fundraising coordinator at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center with the growing contentiousness and Lyman said her decision not to seek a fifth term became clear. She joined the Board of Selectmen in 2001, after having completed a stint on the School Committee from 1992 to 1995.
The 53-year-old said she’s proud of the work she’s done, particularly with the Commission on Disabilities, which spearheaded an effort she supported to hand out bracelets to elderly wanderers with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
She credited the commission, under the leadership of Maddy St. Amand, with pursuing the program, which enables people suffering from memory loss and similar diseases to keep living in their homes. For the cost of about 1 1/2 days in a nursing home, the $350 device allows wearers to be easily tracked and returned home if they wander off.
“We were one of the first towns to have that,” she said. “The (commission) found out about it, came up with the program and worked with the Police Department to implement it.”
But Lyman was disappointed that her efforts to get a new senior center built in town failed by just 16 votes. The center, which was to be located near Doherty Middle School, would have been built close to the site of the Cormier Youth Center, which she said ultimately won approval by many of the same people who helped torpedo the senior center at Town Meeting.
“I tried really hard on the senior center,” she said. “That was a huge loss. The effort went on for years. We researched and did all these things. But the neighbors were brutal — they wanted tissue paper wrapped around the roots of the trees. We took care of every single concern.”
Among her accomplishments, Lyman pointed to a successful initiative to reduce the number of take-home vehicles used by town officials, a perk that had received considerable criticism. She worked with selectmen Chairman Alex Vispoli on a study identifying employees who had a town vehicle and then developed a plan to eliminate the perk for the next hires. Now, vehicles are provided to only a handful of town employees, such as the police and fire chiefs who are required by law to have them.
She’s also proud of former Finance Director Anthony Torrisi’s achievement securing a AAA bond rating for Andover 15 or so years ago. “Every time we go out to bond, we get very good rates,” she said. “He worked hard to get us that status.”
Right up until her last meeting Monday night, Lyman continued pushing for responsible town government. During recent budget meetings, she has tried to drive home the point that hiring new employees makes it very hard on taxpayers, particularly in the face of cutbacks and economies occurring in the private sector.
That approach has surprised department heads when they have gone before the selectmen to present their budgets. Already, selectmen have lopped $600,00 from the budget, essentially eliminating the plan by the town and School Department to add a combined 14 full-time-equivalent employees next fiscal year.
In one case, selectmen rejected Police Chief Patrick Keefe’s proposal to expand a part-time clerk’s post to full time to process a recent influx in gun license requests, saying the departments combine existing positions to handle the workload.
“I don’t think they knew what we were coming up with,” Lyman said of the department heads. “The board has to take the official position that we are not going to authorize new positions. It’s hard, but they have got to figure out how to get it done within the existing budget.”