Incumbent selectmen Brian Bezanson, from left, and Scott Lambiase and challengers Christopher DiOrio and Justin Evans, who are currently members of the Whitman Finance Committee, met in a candidates’ forum on Tuesday, April 23. (Photo by Tracy Seelye)
WHITMAN — The four candidates vying for two seats on the board of Selectmen in the Saturday, May 18 Town Election fielded questions from the Express and Kevin Tocci, access operations coordinator of Whitman-Hanson Community Access TV, in a forum at the Selectmen’s meeting room in Town Hall on Tuesday, April 23. Tocci moderated the forum.
Following opening statements, questions ranged from the state of the town budget to the divided state of politics, and other issues facing the town.
Challenger Christopher DiOrio, a practicing trial attorney and law professor, launched the opening remarks by outlining his 30 years of professional experience solving problems for clients with NGOs and nonprofits, he is hoping to bring a common-sense compassionate brand of leadership to serve Whitman.
“I know full well that I’m not from here,” he said. “I didn’t grow up in Whitman so I may not have the deep, generational roots that some people may think is important, but I chose to live in this community. I want to be here.”
DiOrio said he is interested in making the town stronger for his children.
“Their future is our future,” he said in his opening statement. “Whitman has finally started to answer an important question: What kind of town do we want to live in? … We cannot be afraid to take the steps necessary to sustain our future with a solid financial and capital plan — not just for next year, but for the next five years or 10 years to prepare for our future needs.”
A resident for nearly 60 years, incumbent Brian Bezanson said he was first elected Selectmen in 2004 after running on the idea that he could make a difference in his community.
“That’s exactly how I ran every year — and how I did business every year — it’s all about making the lives of the citizens, taxpayers, seniors, veterans and families the best it can be in Whitman,” he said in his opening statement, noting Whitman is not alone in Massachusetts in dealing with financial hardship. He pointed to Franklin, where a $2.5 million cut has been made in that town’s school budget.
“It’s happening everywhere,” he said. “I do not bring politics into this building. This is about the citizens and the community and what’s best for everyone — and that’s exactly how I will continue to operate.”
Incumbent Scott Lambiase, who has lived in Whitman for about 20 years, has worked as Duxbury’s director of municipal services for about 15 years where he conducts all the procurement in town and oversees all special projects, as well as serving as the liaison for the town manager to most committees — I oversee all the licensing, permitting, inspections and the Affordable Housing Trust. He has also served as a Whitman Auxiliary Police officer.
“I’ve been a member of the Board of Selectmen for the last seven years and I feel very privileged to have been allowed to be on this board and a steward on this committee. We have done some good work over the years,” Lambiase said in his opening remarks. “We do apply the best financial management tools and practices [in Duxbury] and I hope to apply them here and I hope you’ll remember that on Election Day.”
Finance Committee member Justin Evans, who works as a natural gas pipeline safety engineer for the state, rounds out the field of candidates. Evans, who grew up in town, thanked his fellow candidates for their service to the town of Whitman. He and his wife decided to stay in Whitman to raise their future family and feels the town has much to offer.
“We have a loving, caring community. We have one of the nicest town centers on the South Shore and what I would call the nicest park on the South Shore,” he said in his opening statement. “I’m tired of hearing, ‘We’re too far from the highway,’ as an excuse not to take chances to develop for the future. I don’t like hearing that we don’t have enough revenue to justify a long-term financial plan. I’m sick of excuses not to adapt. We need to embrace what we have to offer and develop a future of Whitman around that.”
Politics of division
Asked how they would help heal the social, political and cultural rifts facing the nation and community, the candidates agreed the problem is real and aggravated by social media, but argued a change in policy for the board was preferable to a bylaw change to address town officials’ use of social media.
“Whitman has all the pieces that we need to try and close that gap, but I think one of the things that drives it further is the way people act on social media,” said Evans, who has been on Facebook since he was 15 and was on MySpace before that. “We need to focus on just how to treat people in person and online and I think Whitman would be a good place to start — get to know your neighbors and don’t belittle people when you don’t see them.”
DiOrio agreed in part.
“There is a great deal of strength that comes from anonymity or the ability to speak from behind a screen,” he said. “One of the biggest problems that we have is that we hear, but we don’t listen.”
He said that sitting down and listening to each other would reveal that “different paths don’t mean the destination is wrong.”
Bezanson said the problem trickles down from Washington to local communities like Whitman.
“We need to put our partisan and religious and social issues aside and come together for common-sense solutions for the citizens of the community which you are working for,” he said. “All that is just distractions.”
Lambiase agreed more dialogue is needed.
“There’s always going to be extremists on either side,” he said. “But I think we will find that the majority of us have more in common than we don’t and — obviously — what’s best for the town lies somewhere in the middle.”
Source of the town’s budget problem
Bezanson said the legislature is the root of the problem.
“They’re not fulfilling their obligations they’ve set forth over the years on what they would pay for, how they would pay it and when they would pay it,” he said. “At this level, we have to find a way to increase revenues, cut costs, while maintaining services.”
Lambiase agreed there is shared responsibility on the state and local levels, noting that land leases such as cell tower and solar panel deals have proven effective in Duxbury.
Evans also pointed to both parties, especially in view of the incentive promised for school regionalization.
“In 2010 they changed the rules and we haven’t responded in kind to the dwindling state money coming our way,” he said. “There’s still the unfunded mandates from the state and, ultimately, I think that will have to be the solution, but the town last year chose to pull money out of savings, rather than fix the problem and this year we’re looking at laying off some school employees instead of trying to find new revenue.”
DiOrio also responded that “the local and state [governments] have their hands in it,” pointing, in part to unfunded education mandates.
“We can’t continue as a town and as a local board to leave money on the table,” he said. “We’re not necessarily doing all that we can to maintain the tax base … and we’re not doing enough to bring revenue in.”
Operational or school override?
DiOrio said it is imprudent to “turn up your nose at any possible solution to the problem.”
He said an operational override needs to be investigated and should have been looked into before now to be included in the May Town Meeting and Town Election.
Bezanson, however, is not in favor of an override in May because the plan to go with a debt exclusion can “get us to a place that’s as painless as possible” while looking at a comprehensive plan for the fall.
“In the short-term, it’s going to be painful,” he said. “But in the long-term it could help us get out of a situation and move on [to] where we can have some sustainability for the next five years.”
Lambiase said he was not opposed to an override, but said the town is not ready for it.
“In order to do it, we need to do a long-term analysis,” Lambiase said. “We need to adopt a lot of policies [and say] if we’re going to do this, we won’t have to do it again in two years.”
Evans said he would be in favor of a fall operational budget to help develop a sustainable budget, noting this would be the third debt exclusion or override placed before the voters in the past four years.
“We can’t continue doing that over and over,” he said. “We need to get all our ducks in a row and fix the problem once.”
Selling it to voters
Evans said officials have to do their homework and show what an override would fund and why it can’t be done right now within the confines of Proposition 2 ½.
DiOrio agreed that education is vital.
“Part of that education also has to be letting them know that, here in this community, we are surrounded by other communities that are having their own problems, but they are still taxed at a higher rate than we are,” he said.
Bezanson also said education was the key, citing information gleaned from the Community Assessment Survey, which noted that residents oppose overrides 2-to-1.
Lambiase said education must be paired with evidence that town officials have a level of confidence in what they are doing.
A difficult vote you have taken
Lambiase said he did not recall an example.
“A lot of the votes are difficult votes, especially when it comes down to the budget,” he said. But he pointed to a businessman who wanted to put the number of liquor licenses available in town before Town Meeting. While some members of the Board of Selectmen agreed, Lambiase said he did not because, as elected officials, they should uphold the state requirement.
Evans said as Finance Committee put forth a balanced budget last year, he voted in favor of taking $800,000 from capital stabilization in order to do that.
“We knew fiscal 2020 would be hurt by doing that in 2019,” he said. “It was a difficult vote but I still believed I did the right thing.”
DiOrio cited the same vote.
“Having to come to that decision was extremely difficult,” he said. “It’s why long-term planning is important.”
Bezanson also pointed to that budget issue.
“As painful as it was going to be, it was the right thing to do because the schools needed the money.”
Other major issues in town
Bezanson said roads are in tough shape and that there has to be some way to add funds to Chapter 90 to repair them. Lambiase said the town needs a long-term capital plan that addresses the needs of the DPW building. Evans, meanwhile said the opioid problem, and the number of improperly discarded needles that are found around town, points to a need to maintain funding for Whitman-Hanson WILL and the Whitman Counseling Center. DiOrio said the schools should be the top priority as a way to tackle the problems of crime and drug abuse.
Single or split tax rate?
DiOrio said a split tax rate is something that needs to be investigated, but hard numbers are needed to make a decision. Bezanson said he doesn’t favor it, because there are not enough businesses in town to support it. Lambiase agreed that businesses don’t make up a large enough portion of the town and the best way to attract more business is to keep tax rates favorable. Evans, too, was opposed to a split tax rate.
The candidates were also asked about whether they favored a new DPW building, the value of the Community Assessment Survey, what assets they bring to the office, and how to prevent inter-departmental fighting over budget cuts.
A lightning round of questions ranged from the candidates’ favorite restaurant in town to whether they would consider revisiting the retail marijuana sales ban — DiOrio “absolutely” supported reconsideration and Evans supported it, while Bezanson said he was against it, Lambiase said it could be reconsidered if there was interest. The forum can be seen on WHCA-TV and its YouTube site.