Whitman hopefuls meet the press
WHITMAN — Candidates for seats on the Board of Selectmen and W-H School Committee [see related story, page 8] fielded questions Thursday, May 4 — and some in uncontested races made brief presentations — during a forum co-sponsored by the Whitman Democratic and Republican town committees.
Incumbent Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski and challengers Laura Howe, Finance Committee member Randy LaMattina and Nita Sault fielded questions ranging from the town’s financial future to the ongoing opioid crisis and town building needs, among others. Each gave a brief opening statement before the questions began.
All except Sault said they would consider supporting an operational override to fund the municipal budget.
The session, held in the Selectmen’s meeting room of Whitman Town Hall, was broadcast live and will be rebroadcast on WHCA-TV Channel 9 over the next two weeks. This writer, and WHCA-TV Access Operations Coordinator Kevin Tocci presented questions. Republican Committee Chairman Brian Bezanson and Democratic Chairman Larry Roache moderated. WHCA-TV Executive Director Eric Dresser served as timekeeper.
“It is strictly a nonpartisan event,” Roache stressed. “We’re here as citizens of Whitman, and hopefully we’ll get a better understanding at the conclusion of tonight’s forum where we’ll be going forward.”
All four selectmen candidates stressed their ties to Whitman: born in town, Howe described herself as “the only Whitmanite” in the race; Sault was raised in town until her family moved to California and began the process of moving back about five years ago; LaMattina was also raised in town and Kowalski and his wife moved to town in 1972.
“We have lost our voice in this town,” Howe said of her campaign based on accountability, transparency and approachability. “We did not lose it yesterday, we did not lose it last year, we may not have even lost it 20 years ago.”
Kowalski agreed that being a Whitmanite is important, but said he has learned to love the town and wants to continue working see it improve. He said he wants to continue working to support the town he has grown to love.
Kowalski, seeking re-election, said, “if anything is going to hurt Whitman, it would be division.” “I don’t think it’s a Whitman problem,” he said. “It’s a statewide problem, it’s a national problem, it’s a global problem.” He lauded Howe’s impulse to bring people together.
LaMattina said he and his wife were dedicated to living in Whitman when they married and the former firefighter stressed he wants to put to work what he has learned on the Finance Committee and “move those ideas up to the Board of Selectmen.” His candidacy is motivated by the “vanilla reason” — care about the quality of life for all town residents.
“You can only do so much work on a recommending board” such as the Finance Committee and that he wants to explore ideas for the town on a policy-setting board. Howe, meanwhile, wants to be a voice of the people and is also running because the town is being lost to division.
Sault, meanwhile, noted she has become active in town activities since returning as a “full-time” resident last year. She said she does not believe it is necessary to continue discussing divisions because she does not believe the problems are insurmountable.
“I want to get on the board so I can help going forward,” she said, noting the other candidates also have a lot to offer. “What’s happened in the past … can only serve as a lesson.”
In view of the upcoming June 12 joint budget meeting between town and school representatives regarding the fiscal 2019 budget, candidates agreed a Proposition 2 ½ override may be necessary, while stressing that a lot of work lies ahead. Howe has proposed the possibility of giving tax breaks to seniors or exempt them from a Prop 2 ½ override as a way to pass an override.
“We have to stop this pitting people against people,” Howe said, denying she is anti-school. “It is not the elderly’s desire to see children fail, it is not young people’s desire to see elderly go without ambulance service. We are a community.”
Kowalski said if an override is a way to get the school district out of the bottom 10 in per-pupil spending “I think we need to take it seriously.”
A former longtime member of the School Committee, Kowalski said he has never felt that the elderly have been dissatisfied with the school, but the education budget has reached the point where it needs more funding.
Sault said Prop 2 ½ has not kept up with needs over many years, comparing it to the Prop 13 measure in California, where she lived for a time that inspired 2 ½.
“Everything seemed great at first,” she said. “Everyone got tax benefits. Then suddenly there was no money, or less money, for the schools, fire, infrastructure.” That led to school bonds, which became a fixture of “every single election.”
LaMattina, meanwhile said Prop 2 ½ is an “excellent firewall between municipal spending and the taxpayer” as well as an extra layer of protection for those on fixed incomes. “I do not know if it will be possible next year to fund the schools without an override, though,” he said about his experience on the Finance Committee.
Opioid addiction, the candidates agreed, is one of the biggest problems facing the community and nation today.
Kowalski, whose wife is the director of the Highpoint Treatment Center in Brockton, is also a member of the grant-funded Whitman-Hanson WILL program.
“We live the opioid crisis all the time,” he said. “It’s not a problem that’s going to be solved overnight at all.” He outlined how the towns’ police and fire departments and schools have been supportive of the effort, adding that parents and friends of addicts must become more involved in combating the problem.
LaMattina said programs require start-up funding through grants or town funding.
“You see how this affects people,” the former firefighter said. “It’s not going away.”
Howe, who worked in high-risk child-care for eight years, said opioid addiction is only one social problem impacting such children.
“The number one solution is building strong families,” she said. “You do not build strong families tearing apart people on social media … by finding issue with each other — commonality and finding ways to work together.”
Sault said people need to realize that relapse is a big part of recovery from any addiction.
The candidates said they were interested in an exploration of whether the balance of police station debt — financed within the levy limit — should be shifted to an override. LaMattina said he has raised the issue with the Finance Committee and Sault said she would want to make sure that move would free up funds for schools and. They agreed the need for a new DPW building and that increasing the tax base will take creative approaches.
“We’re not a town that’s easy to expand,” Kowalski said.
“We have to look into ways of spending money to make money,” Sault said, suggesting solar or geothermal power for town buildings.
LaMattina said the town has already explored solar opportunities, but said new ideas must be explored while reviewing spending in a town with little room for growth.
“We do not have a spending problem in this town,” he cautioned, however. “We have a revenue problem.”
Howe said tighter budgeting is a place to start, noting she had to face such a situation at a time when she was homeless.
“That’s when you really figure out your budget,” she said. “No one here seems to know what a real tight budget is, because I did not see it on Town Hall floor [at Town Meeting].”
She said there is also a need for more community-based programs, such as farmer’s markets and outreach programs, to support residents in need.
Kowalski summed up the town’s most pressing problems as support for the schools as well as the opioid crisis, but added there are creative ways to look at problems.
“When you have a failure, wipe it off your face as fast as you can,” he said. “Put it behind you, start working on making things better. When you succeed, wear that. … There are a lot of things in this town we do well — wear it.”
Sault said she does not view Whitman as a Dickensian village with dark problems, either.
“There are issues, and they have happened over a long period of time — sidewalks, streets,” Sault said. “ I think those need to be worked on. Infrastructure. Schools. I don’t think they are unresolveable.”
LaMattina said while the town has financial challenges, he does not feel they are insurmountable either, but said the opioid crisis is far more serious because it affects kids.
All four candidates supported new DPW building, with Sault suggesting that alternative energy such as solar power panels could help finance it while LaMattina, Howe and Kowalski favor a debt exclusion for funding, but Kowalski also said he found merit in alternative energy savings. They also agreed on the need to maintain a single tax rate for residents and businesses to attract and keep new business in town.
None see the need for prior municipal experience before running for office.
“These people have obviously made a case that they care about Whitman,” Roache said. “They want to see Whitman continue to improve.”
Bezanson expressed pride in the forum, as well.
“No matter what happens on [May] 20, Whitman’s got a bright future with these kinds of candidates running for these positions,” he said. “Whether you win or you lose, you’re making Whitman a better place.”
Selectmen candidates meet in Hanson forum
HANSON — Economic concerns, town government practices and the future of th town highway barn and Plymouth County Hospital sites as well as Camp Kiwanee were discussed by the four candidates running for two seats on the Hanson Board of Selectmen Sunday, May 7.
Incumbent Selectman Bill Scott, Community Preservation Committee Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett, former Recreation Commission Chairman Jim Hickey and former Selectman Jim Egan met in a candidate’s forum co-sponsored by the town’s Democratic and Republican town Committees. The quartet fielded questions from the audience for more than an hour.
One-to-three minute opening and closing remarks were included in the program, moderated by Bob Hayes and broadcast over Whitman-Hanson Community Access TV. Members of the audience were asked to pose questions that all four could answer.
“It’s great that we have four candidates for two seats — there’s been years when there’s been one candidate for one seat or no one wants to run,” Hayes said.
A financial services professional for 30 years and Hanson resident for 20, FitzGerald-Kemmett said she is running because “it’s time to recognize that the same old-same old isn’t going to work anymore,” and pointed to her experience with community programs as qualities that will help her work toward finding common ground. She is a board member of the Hanson Food Pantry, a co-founder of the Hanson Business Network and has been president of the Panther Education Trust.
“We really need people that are going to be on the Board of Selectmen who can work with everybody in the town, who are going to listen to what the voters want and are going to check their egos at the door and be here for the right reason — to be a public servant,” she said.
Hickey said he is running to foster Hanson’s strength — it’s small-town sense of community. He has been a youth softball coach and Camp Kiwanee volunteer.
“There’s a danger in being an elected official,” Hickey said. “The danger is one of attitude sitting on this side of the table — ‘I know what’s best for the town.’ … I will be your best and most attentive listener.”
Egan, who served on the Board of Selectmen for nine years before being unseated in a recall three years ago, is a retired English teacher at Silver Lake Regional School District, where he also served as a union negotiator and on several curriculum and other educational development committees. He has lived in Hanson since 1973.
“I am familiar with working together as a team to get things done,” he said, stressing the town must make maintenance of town-owned properties and funding requirements for future budget needs are key. “I do not have an agenda. I offer only experience and a hard-working ethic to get problems solved.”
A lifelong Hanson resident and a retired police chief, Scott said he is seeking re-election because, while the board members should agree on goals, some disagreement is healthy.
“I vote my conscience and I vote what I think is best for the townspeople,” he said. His police career spanned departments in Hanson, Hanover and Halifax and he is now a cranberry grower.
Candidates were asked about the difference in a $1.5 million vote to build a new highway barn at the LiteControl property, which is now quoted at $4.5 million including cleanup at the current highway barn site.
Scott said the buildings left behind when LiteControl relocated were offered to the town, which was the reason the Highway Building Committee was founded once Town Meeting accepted the gift. The parent company spent $4 to $5 million on cleanup at that site, he said.
“We are moving forward, and the environmental concerns are all being addressed by DEP, Army Corps of Engineers — it’s not just a he said-she said type of thing,” Scott said. “Cleanup up at the old facility, we’re told by the engineers they can clean that facility and cap it, and it will be safe for young people, but all sorts of studies will be done to assure that that is a safe site.”
Egan said the appropriate research has not yet been done at the old site to determine what needs to be done to make it useable for any other purpose and noted the price tag has gone up “significantly” since the Town Meeting vote on accepting the land. Hickey said the site cleanup could easily increase to $6 million, and without an engineering study the financial risk is too great for the town to bear. FitzGerald-Kemmett also expressed concern about the higher price tag and the need for transparency, but that the issue is ultimately up to the voters.
Selectmen Bruce Young asked about how a $1 million indemnification clause in former Town Administrator Ron San Angelo’s contract could have been allowed and prevented in the future.
“Thanks for that question,” Hickey said sarcastically, as the query was aimed at Egan, who had served on the board that hired San Angelo. Hickey said he would not let that happen in a contract.
FitzGerald-Kemmett, who negotiates contracts in her professional life, suggested a “punch list” of provisions that must be either included or barred from contracts. “We’re in this role to protect the town,” she said.
Scott said he would defer to town by-laws as indemnification is common to municipal contracts, but said it appeared that the contract in question “far extended that.”
Egan said the board at the time sought town counsel input on the contract, which counsel approved.
“It was on his recommendation that we signed that contract,” Egan said.
The candidates were also asked about attracting and retaining businesses to support the tax base.
FitzGerald-Kemmett, a small business owner, pointed to her work with the Hanson Business network, but added Main Street is the “elephant in the room.” She also advocated a Community Development Committee to help write grants to help with the issue. Hickey agreed Main Street is a problem, but pointed to Hanson’s access limitations compared to Whitman’s access to Route 18 as well as Hanson’s need for a business strategy.
Egan noted that the Main Street property in question is privately owned and limited by its proximity to wetlands. He said the town could — and should — work to streamline the permitting process for all individuals. Scott agreed that the private property in question presents an issue and that the town has a history of not being business-friendly. He also supported the town’s tradition of a single tax rate.
Egan said the town still has to resolve its student location plans, as in closing the Maquan School; work would still need to be done to prepare Indian Head and Whitman Middle schools for additional children.
FitzGerald-Kemmett also pointed to Maquan, as well as to the persistent budget gap with the schools, noting the need to “have conversations early” and to be in tune with one another to be more efficient as a school district and town.
Scott said the schools were an area on which all four could find agreement — at least as an area of concern.
“The funding aspects that come up every year are unsustainable,” he said. “We cannot continue to reach to the taxpayers to fund this.” He also said the failed new school project three years ago created a lack of trust among Hanson residents, which he volunteered to help bridge.
Hickey said education has to be the most important issue.
The candidates pledged to work to move the town past recent divisions.
Passive recreation proposals were preferred as future Plymouth County Hospital site uses by Egan, but Hickey and Scott said some development should be considered and the public should have input, Hickey said. Scott said the DEP has previously ruled a septic system is not viable due to the nature of the soil, but added that the hospital had operated with a sewage treatment plant, and suggested that might be an option. FitzGerald-Kemmett said she would like to see the PCH committee’s recommendations placed before voters, but wants to see some form of park and doubts much development is possible there. She suggested, however, that a solar farm might be possible.
At Camp Kiwanee, the candidates envision a range of uses. FitzGerald-Kemmett suggested four to five communitywide events could be held there, Scott said the new recreation director should be able to help with that. Egan, meanwhile, said a performance pavilion at the PCH site could be run in conjunction with Kiwanee.
“That might be a way to make Camp Kiwanee a little bit more accessible to the types of events most townspeople seem to be interested in,” Egan said.
Hickey said his involvement at Kiwanee was the first town activities he became involved in 20 years ago.
Scott and Egan, who also has served on the Board of Selectmen, said they are aware and committed to devoting the hours needed to do the job. FitzGerald-Kemmett said she is aware of the time commitment required, has considered it at length, and is fully prepared to do what is needed to get the job done.
“Whatever it takes,” said Hickey, who said his commitment to the job would follow that for his family and job.