On May 29, the four registered candidates for two seats on the New Gloucester Board of Selectmen participated in a live televised Candidates Forum, hosted by the New Gloucester Cable TV Committee, and moderated by Beverly Caddigan. All questions from the public, both submitted in advance to the Cable TV Committee, and asked live at the event, were answered by each candidate in turn.
The questions concerned:
- the greatest issues confronting the town;
- positions regarding the eradication of the personal income tax by the state, and how it would impact the town;
- whether or not the voters should be given the opportunity to increase the dollar amount of individual articles presented a town meeting, and not just (as now) decrease;
- why the townspeople passed a recall ordinance last year, and why it has not been used as yet;
- whether our volunteer firefighters should be paid more, and if so, where the money would come from;
- proposals for improving relations between the town and school district
- when it is appropriate for a selectman to abstain from voting;
- whether the town should consider a dedicated police department; and
- whether all selectmen are equal, if they should all get information at the same time, and what their role is.
In order to give a better idea of who voters are deciding between, this summary of answers is grouped by candidate, rather than by question.
Kathleen Potter cited before issues of revenue and taxes, a lack of trust as the major issue facing the town. “The selectmen don’t trust each other, the public doesn’t trust the selectmen, the school board doesn’t trust the selectmen… people are unhappy here,” she said. “Enough of the pettiness.”
Potter agreed with other candidates that the question about the abolishment of state income tax was “hypothetical,” but said “It would not be a pretty picture if it passes – it would be devastating.”
Potter supported the idea of returning the ability to raise dollar amounts on articles at town meeting to the town meeting voters. “I trust the voters… I do not see a problem in having an open budget,” she said, adding “It’s your responsibility to go to Town Meeting.”
With regard to the Recall Ordinance enacted in 2013, Potter says it passed because it was “sound and legal,” and has not been used yet “because no one has found any [behavior] meeting the criteria for it to be used – and that’s admirable.”
Potter argued that property-owners in New Gloucester would see better insurance rates if the town had a full-time fire department. She called the current firefighters’ stipend “shameful,” and said “we should pay them.”
Regarding relations with the school department, Potter, who has served on the SAD 15 Board of Directors, said the town should appoint a liaison to SAD 15 with the charge of staying in regular communication through the year.
Potter cited Maine Municipal Association guidelines regarding selectmen abstaining from votes in matters where there may be a conflict of interest, personal or fiduciary. In all other instances, said Potter, “It is your duty as selectman to be involved, up to date, aware and appropriately educated on every subject.”
It was Potter’s opinion that “as the town grows, New Gloucester will be looking at creating a town police department,” not least because of the “town’s proximity to the turnpike and out of state drug traffic,” which, she said, is already accounting for frequent drug busts.
Potter emphasized that the Board of the Selectmen should be a collaborative body of equal members who receive all the same information at the same time with regard to town business, with the duty to “administrate the business of the community,” and look out for its “safety and well-being.”
Describing himself as “a proud townie,” Hathorne said the major problem facing the town now is the division that has developed. “We need to find common ground, middle ground, to get trust in our leaders back.”
Hathorne said he would “abstain” from answering the question about abolishment of the state income tax as it was “a hypothetical.”
As for allowing voters to raise dollar amounts on articles at town meeting, Hathorne was adamantly in favor of returning to that format. “The taxpayer has one day to say yes or no to what the town is doing. It’s their say, it’s their day.” He added that he would also like to see the town meeting return to the full community gathering it once was, on a Saturday, with time for a meal served by a community organization so people could “break bread, and build community.”
Hathorne said he’d been involved in the citizen’s Recall Ordinance effort as well as on the ad hoc committee appointed to create a version for the selectmen to submit, because “we needed a tool.” He noted that the citizens version “passed by overwhelming majority.” As for it not being employed to date, he compared it to “the spatula in the drawer,” and how “you’d smarten up” once “Mother” took it out.
“We’ve had free services since 1929,” Hathorne said about town firefighters. “It’s time we talked about paying some hourly rate for training.” He added later in the forum that the retirement of the debt for the new fire station in 2018 will likely be eaten up immediately by a new town garage, so shouldn’t be dangled as a time of easy funding for a fire department or police. In regard to that town garage and possible development of the Upper Village, he said that the garage should stay “where it is: we’ve polluted the water, we own it,” and should not risk polluting the other site being talked about, behind Memorial School on Rowe Station Road, or beside the new fire station, which he says is “the Ft. Knox of clean water” for New Gloucester.
With regard to relations between the Board of Selectmen and the School Board, Hathorne said he had seen “something said” at a selectmens’ meeting,” from behind the desk” that contributed to bad feelings, and admonished that selectmens’ meetings “were not the proper place to air grievances.”
Re abstaining from a vote, Hathorne said a selectman should abstain for conflicts of interest, and should give the reason for abstaining at the time of the vote.
Hathorne suggested that hiring a town constable might be a feasible way for the town to provide residents with some protection against break-ins during regular working hours, and to nab speeders on certain stretches in town.
“The eyes, the ears, and the father of the community, ” is how Hathorne described the role of selectman. “You need to take care of the people who put you there, openly and honestly.” With regard to equality among the selectmen, Hathorne says “We should definitely be equal, whether they have been there 1 year or 3 years – anyone who thinks differently probably shouldn’t be sitting with us…”
Couturier cited “transparency in government” and preserving a low property tax as the major issues facing the town.
Calling any indication of position regarding the abolishment of personal income taxes “political,” Couturier said he preferred to address the question as to what the town’s options would be if any revenue sources were discontinued, and said that the town would have to decide between difficult options like cutting staff, cutting services, and raising taxes.
Letting individuals increase the dollar figures of articles at town meeting would be “dangerous,” according to Couturier. A member of several town committees involved with budgeting and planning, he defended the current process that results in the figures set on the town warrant.
Regarding the Citizen’s Recall Ordinance, Couturier said it had “put the selectmen on notice that the people would not accept real or perceived improprieties,” and that since adoption, the people had not “seen actions meeting the threshold.”
Couturier said he thought it would be appropriate for the town to make “a small increase” to firefighters stipends, paid through taxation, in the short term; and that a committee should be appointed to look at the possibility of instituting salaries, and the implication for the town budget. He suggested that it might be feasible financially to take some action after 2018, when the debt on the new fire station is retired.
Couturier recommended that the town formalize regular reports to the selectmen all liaisons and committees, and suggested that the selectmen should participate more in all municipal and district events.
Conflating “recusing” and “abstaining” from votes, Couturier suggested that the town should develop an ordinance that enumerates the reasons that a selectperson could or should not vote on issues before the BOS.
Noting that the town “is struggling to put money in capital accounts,” and may face the problems raised by abolishment of the state income tax, Couturier said it would be difficult to think about establishing a police department at this time, especially with the costs of start-up; but agreed with Steve Hathorne who suggested that creating a town constable position might be more appropriate.
Linda Chase (incumbent)
Unlike the other candidates, Chase did not agree that any division among the NG community, or voter distrust of town government, was a major issue. She suggested that any sense of distrust was the result of people not knowing enough about what was going on, not asking enough questions – or not actually about town government at all. “Sometimes they’re just not happy with what’s going on in their life and are looking for a way to fix it.” Her main focus, she said, was not having property taxes go up.
Regarding the elimination of personal income tax, Chase said “It’s way too early to tell,” and that she hoped that the impact on the town would be considered before action was taken.
Chase was opposed to returning to the past practice of allowing voters at town meeting to raise the dollar amount of any articles, arguing that the majority of the voters who do not attend town meeting are in favor of the budget as presented, and would not get say in the discussion.
Chase’s explanation for the success of the Citizens Recall Ordinance last year was “it passed because of the will of the people,” and she assumed that it wasn’t used because “the people are not dissatisfied with what is happening.”
Chase said she was in favor of increasing the hourly wage of firefighters by way of a “well-thought -0ut plan” that would be the result of input from many parties, and “well-vetted.”
Regarding improving relations between the town and the school district, Chase disagreed with the characterization of it as “adversarial,” asserted that regular communication takes place between the BOS and SAD 15 leadership, and advised voters to “go to the meetings.”
Chase asserted that selectmen can abstain from voting “if they don’t have all the facts.”
Chase indicated that while the town is “moving in the direction” of a dedicated police station, “at this point it makes more sense to have a paid fire/EMS” department.
“Each of the selectman are equal, and they should have the same information,” Chase stated, with the caveat that as a function of their positions, each selectman will know more about the committees with whom they are liaisons. Selectmen have equal responsibility toward town staff and the community, she said, and their role is “to listen, act, protect, and serve the community.”
A video of the complete 90 min. forum is available at http://newgloucester.pegcentral.com/player.php?video=f0f2a30a824b0521dfb555526f6be9d7