“It’s a great community. And people’s lives are so much better if they get involved.”
Town Moderator Catherine Cordes reflected on 44 years of continuous involvement as she and her husband Ronald prepare to move to the Philadelphia area, close to their three grandchildren, ages 11, 9, and almost 3.
“Someone told me, ‘Bedford is going to miss you,’ and I thought, ‘Really? Me?’” said Ron, an elected assessor since 2012. “It makes me feel good that we had such an impact just by being involved,” Cathy observed.
Ron’s term expired on Election Day, March 13, and Cathy has submitted her resignation as moderator, effective March 31. They expect to relocate before the end of the month.
Their most recent offices only scratch the surface of the breadth and depth of the Cordeses’ connection to town government at every level over more than four decades.
When asked about their most meaningful impact, each cited collaborative efforts that literally enhanced Bedford’s public facilities and resources for generations.
Cathy’s memory is clear on the events that culminated with Bedford’s decision to lead all cities and towns in adopting the state Community Preservation Act. The CPA enables a property tax surcharge of up to 3 percent, with the receipts – matched by state funds – used for projects and services in three categories: historic preservation, affordable housing, and recreation.
Cathy said she first learned of the possibilities from Ron when he was a member of the Affordable Housing Committee and following the proposal’s progress through the Legislature.
In January 2000 she was appointed a Selectman, filling an unexpired term. Working with Housing Committee member Gene Clerkin, they built a coalition of local CPA advocates, including historian Don Corey, the former Selectman and Planning Board member, to lay the groundwork in Bedford. “That was one of the hardest-working committees I have ever seen,” Cathy recalled. “Everybody carefully read the law.”
The CPA became law in September 2000, and a few weeks later, Cathy said, she saw an opportunity. Regional advocacy groups had successfully petitioned for a January 2001 special town meeting to act on resolutions connected to Hanscom Field.
Cathy realized that by including an article to formally embrace CPA on the special warrant, the proposal, if endorsed, would be eligible for the required town election approval less than two months later. And Bedford would be ahead of everyone collecting the matching funds.
“There were 700 people there and we got overwhelming support,” she said. “I still marvel at how naïve I was. It was the most exciting thing I have ever done in politics.”.
Since that landmark vote, Bedford has received close to $10.8 million in state matching funds. Among the dizzying array of projects enacted were the renovation of Old Town Hall, land acquisition, trail and sports field improvements, sustaining affordable units at Bedford Village, Town Center and Town Hall betterments and renovations, and restoration of Fawn Lake.
Ron feels his landmark achievement was working with a small core of residents to successfully advance the concept that became Town Center — “saving that building and turning it into something useful. I’m not sure what Bedford would be like today without it.”
After Center Elementary School was closed in 1978, Ron recalled, neither the School Committee nor the Selectmen had a plan for the empty complex (today’s Town Center and Town Hall).
So a group of citizens stepped up. Ron said he joined Cal Carpenter, Judith McConnell, Bill Moonan, and the late Mickey Webber, and they developed a proposal for a new roof and ventilation so the historic yellow building could be reopened. The Finance Committee and Selectmen were unanimously opposed, Ron said, but 80 percent of the voters at a town meeting session approved the repairs.
He subsequently served on the Town Center Board until 2004. “The best thing we ever did was hire Fay Russo,” he said of the current and only Town Center administrator. Town Center today is the home of the Council on Aging, the Health and Human Services Department, and Kids’ Club child-care program, as well as rooms that generate revenue through rentals.
Both Cordes partners could have chosen other highlights from their decades of participation and leadership.
The family settled in Bedford in January 1976. Two months later they attended their first town meeting “and I got bit by the democracy bug,” Cathy remembered.
One major article was the purchase by the town of Fawn Lake. “They argued about that for an hour,” Ron said. Afterward, he reflected that “when we were in Louisiana we were living in an unincorporated area. Then we came here — to a different country.”
Cathy’s first volunteer affiliation followed a common trajectory for young families: with the Davis School Parent-Teacher Organization. She also served as a volunteer for a new computer curriculum engineered by former Davis Principal Ralph Hammond, and after earning a master’s degree, she worked as a technology teacher and coordinator in Bedford schools until 1994, when she joined Ron in a new business venture.
The late 1970s was a period of shrinking student population, and Ron served on an ad hoc committee evaluating potential school closings. His campaign for School Committee in 1981 was not successful, as he lost to Buzz Moran, ironically a fellow member of the study group. But in the ensuing years, Ron became known more for his success in engineering others’ local and regional campaigns for office.
Following his 20 years on the Town Center Board, he represented the Cable Television Committee in the formation of a non-profit corporation to manage local access, today known as Bedford TV. He coordinated the studio’s move from Bedford High School to its current location in Old Town Hall.
After serving on the Capital Expenditure Committee, Cathy joined the Finance Committee in 1994 and continued for six years, when she was recruited to the Board of Selectmen by her former FinCom colleague, Shelly Moll. She served the unexpired year plus four three-year terms.
As they prepare for departure, Cathy and Ron shared some thoughts about the past and the future.
“I would hate to see us stop having town meeting,” Cathy declared. Although there hasn’t been a noticeable lack of interest – including a virus-inspired annual meeting on the synthetic turf of Sabourin Field at BHS in June – the moderator is troubled by an age imbalance.
“I hear from so many people: will the next generation remain committed. It worried me,” she said, noting that members of the Massachusetts Moderators Association “talk about it all the time.” Town meeting, she asserted, must continue to be “vital, fresh and active.”
Meanwhile, Ron still hasn’t come to terms with the legislation known as Proposition 2 ½, which was enacted 40 years ago. The law limits annual property tax increases to no more than 2.5 percent, excluding new growth. Increases above that ceiling must be approved by voters.
“I think this was totally unnecessary in a place like Bedford and an impediment toward doing what we need to do,” he declared. “As long as you have open town meeting, people can decide what to spend. This is an unnecessary albatross.”
Bedford has never had a general override of Proposition 2 ½. There have been a few debt- exclusion votes to accommodate additional debt from major bonded projects outside the 2.5 percent ceiling.
Ron also favors retaining assessor as an elected municipal office – a status that was ratified when the Select Board last week voted 3-2 against charter and bylaw amendments that would lead to appointing the position.
He explained that appointed assessors, under the umbrella of the town Finance Department, could be in a position to make decisions based on budget considerations.
The assessors have a quasi-judicial function when it comes to property tax abatement requests, and decisions should be independent of any outside influence, he said. “It’s a check and balance.”
The Cordeses have two sons, both BHS graduates. Dr. Erik Cordes, a biology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, is a leading undersea researcher. Carrying on the Cordes line in greater Boston will be his younger brother Ben, a senior software engineer.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763