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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Brattleboro candidates spar in forum

BRATTLEBORO—With the days ticking down to the March 1 town election, the eight Selectboard candidates answered questions from the public at last week’s WTSA candidate’s forum.

Competing for the one three-year seat are Spoon Agave and Kenneth Schneck.

The six candidates competing for two one-year seats — Joe Bushey, Christopher G. Chapman, Hilary Cooke, David Gartenstein, Kathryn Turnas II, and John Wilmerding — also made their cases for serving on the board.

The winners will fill the seats being vacated by Jesse Corum, Martha O’Connor, and Daryl Pillsbury.

WTSA News Director Tim Johnson moderated the forum, taking questions from voters present in the audience and via e-mail.

“It’s very important that we all take part in this thing called democracy,” said Johnson in his introduction.

First up, candidates answered why citizens should vote for them.

The candidates cited their wealth of experience and commitment to Brattleboro.

“I feel I am the candidate for the future,” said Agave.

Agave unsuccessfully ran for Selectboard last year. He has served on the Selectboard in the past and currently serves as chairman of the town Charter Review Commssion.

He said that Brattleboro had to glean information from the past and present to evaluate its progress and where the town was headed. He also said that the town couldn’t rely on Montpelier and the federal government to solve its problems.

When the economy and tax base are down, it’s our problem, he said.

“I will bring a new energy to the Selectboard,” said first-time candidate Ken Schneck, dean of students at Marlboro College and host of This Show is So Gay, a nationally syndicated radio program that originates from WVEW in Brattleboro.

“I’m committed to this community and want to mirror my commitment with this three-year term,” he said.

Schneck said he would bring a positive outlook, a dedication to listening, and creative problem solving to his work on the Selectboard.

Cooke said he viewed part of a Selectboard member’s role as being “a diligent custodian” of taxpayers’ dollars. 

Cooke, who ran for state senate last November, said that he would support the work of standing organizations like Building a Better Brattleboro and the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.

“I like the kind of community I live in and will continue to call home,” Cooke said.

However, he said that he would also recognize the opportunity to shape the future by working with newer organizations like Post Oil Solutions and Transition Towns.

“There are more issues that unite us than divide us,” said Cooke.

Turnas said that she would represent an unrepresented part of the community. She is a retired senior citizen who lives on Social Security and sometimes receives food from the local food shelf.

Turnas also listed her service on numerous town boards, such as the Development Review Board and BCTV. She said that she is an avid recycler.

“It’s my responsibility as a citizen of Brattleboro to be part of the decision making that happens in this community,” Turnas said, adding that she wishes there were more women running.

A member of the Safe & Green Campaign, Turnas said of Vermont Yankee, “It’s got to be shut down.”

Bushey, a lifelong Brattleboro resident, kept his comments short and sweet, saying that the Selectboard needs “a common man and a little common sense.”

“I want to serve on the Selectboard to sound a different voice and to raise issues people don’t want to talk about,” said Wilmerding, the former director of the Brattleboro Music Center.

Wilmerding said that his skills as a trained mediator and originator or Windham County’s reparative probation panels would help him get to a “yes” outcome in conflicts.

Wilmerding said that he does not support Vermont Yankee and that Vermont’s status as one of the whitest states in the nation is “nothing to be proud of.” 

Gartenstein highlighted his experience with budgets. As a Brattleboro Union High School board member, he said that he helped turn in responsible school budgets that also preserved educational programs.

Gartenstein added that he was no stranger to navigating difficult issues like the transition of the Canal Street School from a neighborhood school to the home of Head Start and the Windham County Child Care Evening Care program.

As a nine-year member of the DRB, Gartenstein said he had experience listening to all voices involved in an issue.

“I felt this was a good time to step up. I’m a big fan of citizen government,” said Chapman, who has spent time lobbying in Montpelier for issues close to his heart.

If elected he plans to serve with all he has, said Chapman. Using the analogy of Brattleboro as an airplane, he said that he believes in innovation, but it’s just as important for a Selectboard to keep the plane flying straight than doing barrel rolls.

“We’re at the edge of the envelope where needs meet resources. [But] things sparkle at the edges,” said Chapman of the economic challenges facing Brattleboro.

One question posed to the candidates was how the Selectboard could make Brattleboro more affordable, especially for low- to middle-income households?

Schneck said that Brattleboro had to remember it’s not the “one and only,” and reach beyond the town limits. He felt the Selectboard could advocate for the town by going after opportunities such as the numerous proposals offered by the Shumlin administration.

The Selectboard could do more to stimulate the local economy in part by attracting new business, said Schneck, a fan of tax stabilization deals.

Cooke agreed, saying that he supports commerce and said the town should try to find more jobs for higher and moderate-income earners. Regarding affordable housing, he said the town should be cognizant about the tax base by maintaining a balance between public and private housing.

“We are responsible as citizens to communicate to who we elect,” said Turnas.

She cited the often-empty public seating at Selectboard meetings as an example of dropped communication. She also said the Selectboard must “walk the community.”

She said that citizens should also care for each other, and that it wasn’t the Selectboard’s responsibility to take care of everybody.

But, she added, if she were elected, she would change the Selectboard’s current attitude of “this is how it’s always been done.” Things change and Brattleboro must change with them, she added.

Bushey said that maintaining an affordable housing stock was important to keeping Brattleboro affordable. He also thought the town should focus on green jobs, like the Carbon Harvest Energy project at the Windham Solid Waste Management District.

A return to farming would also bring jobs and a more stable food stock to Brattleboro, he added.

Wilmerding said that Brattleboro needed to evaluate how it assesses housing values for tax purposes. The town needed a professional assessors department so assessors will listen to everyone not just to those with money or the legal know-how to mount an appeal.

Gartenstein said that responsible job growth, affordable housing, and a strong educational system would serve the town well. Part of responsible development in a town included keeping the taxes down and keeping services in line with the existing tax base.

“There’s only so much the Selectboard can do to take on such a complex challenge,” said Chapman.

He said that keeping the town open for business and keeping the budget tamed were the Selectboard’s main jobs.

“What is affordability?” Agave asked.

He said that  getting on the same page would be the first thing any Selectboard first action. He wanted the town to find ways to be more self-reliant, and not continue assuming it could rely on Montpelier or Washington.

All the candidates agreed that Vermont Yankee’s closing was inevitable.

“The closing of VY will have a profound effect,” said Cooke, adding the area should have started planning a long time ago for the shut down.

Cooke supported the continued operation during his State Senate campaign against Jeanette White and Peter Galbraith who opposed the nuclear plant. He said if the election’s result equated to a referendum then voters wanted the plant closed and the community needed to engage with this reality.

Turnas characterized the discussion around Vermont Yankee’s closure as a “panic,” and seemed people had fallen for “propaganda” that renewable forms of energy like solar and wind were new technologies.

“Yes, it will have an impact but we will handle it,” she said.

Bushey expressed concern about the loss of high-earning jobs. He said Brattleboro would have to balance this void somehow with other forms of energy generation.

“I think we’re okay here. I think we’ve made the right decision to close Vermont Yankee,” said self-proclaimed anti-nuclear activist Wilmerding.

Gartenstein favored closing the plant in 2012 as an all-around good move. He hoped some workers would find jobs at the site during decommissioning process. He also favored investing in green jobs.

Chapman said when Vermont Yankee closes, the shift in tax revenue will deal the Selectboard a new hand of cards. The board will have to play that hand when it comes.

“I’m honestly not sure what we’ll do. Brattleboro is a lot like a deer in the headlights,” said Chapman.

“I’m not sure [it will affect Brattleboro] nearly so much as people think,” said Agave.

Schneck said that the nonprofit sector will feel Vermont Yankee’s closing. The Selectboard will have to step up, and work with the nonprofits feeling the loss of the plant’s charitable contributions.

Johnson asked what the candidates would do regarding the facility upgrades needed for the police and fire departments?

The candidates agreed that the police and fire departments were core to the community’s safety and deserved the best facilities. But, none of the candidates believed building better facilities financially possible at this time.

Voting will take place at the BUHS gym on March 1. Polls open at 9 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

In addition to electing town officials, voters will also vote on three referendum questions. The first two entail expanding the Selectboard and changing the board’s terms of service. The third asks whether the Selectboard should sign a letter of concern on Vermont Yankee that is being circulated by the Safe & Green Campaign.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #89 (Wednesday, February 23, 2011).

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