BENNINGTON -- On March 4 voters will choose two people to serve three-year terms on the Select Board. The Banner sat down with each candidate last week and asked each a set of questions. Below is each question with the candidates response. They are printed largely verbatim, but have been edited for space and clarity. The candidates are: Mike Bethel, Peter Brady Sr., Justin Corcoran, Frank Dawson, Rachael Fields, and Michael Keane. Banner: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Where have you worked, and have you had experience serving in government before?
Bethel: I'm an artist by trade, so I'm kinda self-employed. I live on a disability check also, but I do some artwork once in a while.
Brady: I grew up here in this town, went to school here on Beech Street, Molly Stark, Catamount, and through the (Mount Anthony Union) system. I have had some experience, I've served as justice of the peace in the past, the Board of Civil Authority, I was the Mount Anthony and (Bennington School District) moderator, and I served two terms in the House of Representatives. I also went to the community college here and got an associate's degree in business.
Corcoran (incumbent): I've lived in Bennington my entire life. I currently work in sales at Bennington Subaru. Experience in government, I've had three years on the Select Board. I served five years on the Career Development Center board. I think we were able to work and turn that center into something very productive in the five years I was there. That's something I've very proud of and my time on the Select Board has been very productive also.
Dawson: I've never worked in government before, but I was a Boy Scout, Cub Scout, I worked construction at Vermont Yankee, I worked a lot in Massachusetts construction, worked retail in the Bennington area, but the money wasn't here so I had to go on the road to make the money.
Fields: I'm a state employee, I work at the Vermont Veterans Home and I've been there for nine years in March. For over a decade I've been an LNA and doing private duty home health and facilities. I grew up in Bennington, I've been here since elementary school, so I've pretty much had all of my firsts here. I serve on the Board of Trustees for the Vermont State Employees Association, I'm also on the executive committee for the narrow management unit, which is 4,500 state employees I believe.
Keane: We're in Bennington since 2006, my wife and I. Both of us have academic backgrounds. I spent 15 years teaching here and Europe, and then I switched into the business world for a financial services firm. I worked for a major global management consulting firm, and as a result have lived and worked, I've lived in about five countries, lived in six states, probably worked in 35 states. I had some brief assignments in Canada, one of the arms of the Ontario government. I've done a lot of work otherwise in Canada with major insurance companies, and did some work with the workman's compensation authority in the province of Quebec. And when I lived in Norway I did work for the government of the Kingdom of Norway in what we would call the department of education.
Banner: Why do you want to be on the Select Board?
Bethel: I think you need to change the way we think in this town about growing the economy. I'm disappointed in the people that are on there. I like Justin Corcoran, I hope he gets reelected, and John McFadden has done a good job, but the majority is totally out to lunch. They don't get it, they don't understand that Bennington is hurting. I lived here as a kid, I know what it was like. I came back 17 years ago and it's gone downhill over the last several years because they haven't pushed the economy. If I get on the board you'll know every meeting that we need to concentrate on recruiting business to Bennington. No more studies, no more excuses, get the staff to do what they are being paid to do.
Brady: I think Bennington is at a crucial point economically and with this drug epidemic that's going on. I think there's some common sense solutions we could be doing and haven't been done in the past, and I'd like to help with that.
Corcoran: I want to continue to try and make Bennington a better place to live, work, and play. There's things I think we need to do to move forward and make Bennington a better place. I just want to be a part of that.
Dawson: I had problems with the Select Board before, and the town, and nobody gets back to you. The problem is the Select Board doesn't listen to everybody, it's only the select few that get to be heard. I think everybody, I don't care if you're a voter, you're a taxpayer, you got a say. I want to hear everybody's opinion.
Fields: Taking care of the veterans for the last nine years has really inspired me to want to serve my community and I think it's really important people want to step up. I see a lot of the issues around, I hear people complaining about serious problems that we have and I kind of take the stance that if you're going to complain about something, do something to fix it, to improve it. I also feel that it's really important for women to become involved in their local communities, their local government boards.
Keane: When we moved here, we moved here because we fell in love with Bennington, and the longer we've been here the more in love we've been with its people, with what can happen in Bennington, and we've continually tried to find ways to be involved on the civic level in this town, and to improve it. We've always felt it's important to give back to the community and one of the ways you give back to the community I think is to sacrifice a bit of your time, offer your talent and your background to something like the Select Board.
Banner: What is the biggest challenge facing Bennington today and how should the board approach it?
Bethel: Growing the grand list. The taxes are getting so high, fees are getting so high, and the water fees are getting so high, you're pushing the elderly right our of their homes. I had a guy call me today and say he's not going to vote for that (Water bond). "I can't afford it anymore, and I'll be pushed right out of Bennington." You gotta take that serious, and they just don't seem to do it seriously. They allocate everything to the administration, they don't tell the administration, "This is what we want you to do." And the administration does or doesn't do some of these things. Or community development director, you look at his job description, number five or number seven is job recruitment. That should be number one.
Brady: I think it's two-pronged, one is economic development and the other is the drug situation in the town. I have a friend who is in the process of writing a grant and we're going to work to see if we can get rehab in this town. I think the police are doing a great job but if you don't start treating these people you're just going to fight the same battle over and over again. I also think there needs to be an approach where there's some education in the school system.Then economically I think we need to diversify a little. Right now there seems to be a mentality of Main Street versus Northside Drive, and I think they could grow together beautifully. If you could get one or two anchor stores in Northside Drive you'll see a lot of the other stores that build around them.
Corcoran: The board is focused a lot on economic development in the last year, year and a half. That's probably the largest challenge that Bennington faces. We've had a lot of meetings, had a lot of discussion, had a lot of good ideas. I think we fall short on implementing them. I'd like to see our community development director mainly on business recruitment for Bennington.
Dawson: I think we're still on the hook for the $4 million, for the river cleanup. In my opinion, seven people on the board and (Town Manager) Stuart Hurd should not have made a decision that affects everybody in the town that's that much money. It should have been put out for a vote, or to the bare minimum necessary. Don't put the people on the hook, because taxes and the way the town surfaces are, it's killing the people.
Fields: I think another huge problem, obviously, is our economy. I know it's tough times for everybody. I would certainly support business coming in to Bennington that pay a livable wage. I would be much more inclined to support Costco coming in that would pay a livable wage as opposed to expanding a Walmart that's not going to pay a livable wage and not going to have full time hours for people. The average person that's working part-time is not a teenager anymore, it's a 35-year-old in Vermont. So, I think one way to address it is to get those business to come in, but unfortunately I think we also need to create a desire for those business to come in so we need to continue to work on our infrastructure.
Keane: The biggest challenge I see, and I think it's a challenge that underlies a number of issues the town has, the biggest challenge is to have a robust economy. The improvements we have in Internet functionality, also the transportation improvements we have, make it very feasible for me to be here one day, be seven states away the next day. That's the way we can work, I think that's the way we have to also populate and make Bennington attractive to other people. This is a great place to live, it's a great place to work, it's got to be a better place for people who need to work here, and that's one of the challenges that faces Bennington.
Banner: The possibility of merging the Bennington Fire Department and the Bennington Rural Fire Department has been discussed recently. How should the board approach this issue?
Bethel: I think they should leave it up to the fire departments. Other than that, have a vote. There's nothing the Select Board can do without that. There's bigger issues on our plate than whether the fire departments get merged or not. I don't see where the big savings are.
Brady: I wouldn't push it towards consolidation. You look in towns where they did, and what they wind up with is a paid fire department. Right now I think we get a pretty good bang for the buck. I think between the two of them it's a half million dollars we're paying. I think with the new fire chief that was just elected for the rural I think you're going to see a lot of changes coming and you're going to see it clean up its act. I don't favor consolidating the two of them.
Corcoran: I do think it's a discussion that could be had. I wouldn't say that I'm completely against it. I think there's a possibility to save some significant tax dollars through equipment, infrastructure, and things of that nature, but the town board that runs he Bennington Fire Department, and the Bennington Rural Fire Department (Prudential Board) need to be involved in that from step one.
Dawson: I'd really have to see the beneficial points of it, if it would save money overall. It's all volunteer, I appreciate all these gentlemen giving their time to the people in Bennington, it's unbelievable the amount of time they end up dedicating to the people in town to help them. I want everybody to be treated fairly, to see that everything is going to be fair, and we should have coverage for everybody.
Fields: I realize that money is tight and people want to consolidate and make things run more smoothly together and that makes sense to me, but on the other hand you have somebody who is an expert, like a police chief, they're an expert in one field and then you have a fire chief who is an expert in that field, and sometimes I think maybe you shouldn't try to fix something that's not broken. I think that the board should probably look into it more and seek input from the people that will be affected.
Keane: I think it should listen to both the fire departments and it should listen to the public. If it wants to put a referendum out there to find out whether the public thinks they should be merged, then it's really the public's choice. You've really got to find out what people want and investigate it far enough so people say, "Yeah, this is what I want, this is what I don't want," and they've got to decide.
Banner: What should the board's role be in addressing drug abuse and mental health treatment in Bennington?
Bethel: It is a huge issue, not only in Vermont but all over. I don't know, that I'd leave up to (Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette) and the state, and do everything we can to encourage young people not to do drugs. They're fooling with something, they commit suicide, it's crazy, but when you live in a depressed area a lot of people go to booze and drugs and they don't feel they have any hope of getting out of their financial woes.
Brady: There's a few things we should be doing to address it, and I think it's a three-pronged approach. One, we do need a rehab in the area to help all these people who are addicted. It's terrible, and there's not one person I know that does not know someone affected by it. So, we need to make sure the police have the tools they need to stay on top of people; there's a lot of people coming in from the cities bringing large amounts of heroin and crack cocaine and we definitely need to stop that. The third, the education part and the rehab part. Another thing I think we need to do, which Senator (Dick) Sears was on top of, is a doctor shopping bill. Governor Shumlin had vetoed it because of some security issues. I think we as a board need to push Senator Sears to get that going again and amended to the way other states are doing it.
Corcoran: I don't know what we could do at the local level other than play a supportive role to what comes down from the state. I know the governor's office is really pushing some drug treatment, some potential programs to try and combat the epidemics going on in the state right now.
Dawson: I think the governor is addressing a lot of that, because his initiative he started in Rutland, but I don't feel, my opinion, I've never used drugs or anything, I think they shouldn't be lenient on it. You get nailed, prosecute. Put them in jail. Why should we sent them to rehab, like the governor's attitude, on our dime? What's the percentage that have to go back to rehab again?
Fields: A big part of the problem is there's not the mental health resources that we need. If we could have a treatment center in Bennington I think that would be extremely helpful. Just about everybody in Bennington knows somebody affected by opiate addition. It's chronic, it doesn't go away, so we can throw them in jail but it's not going to fix heir problem, and I think it's important we get something locally.
Keane: But I think in terms of the Select Board itself, it can lead, but there levels of government, there are levels of local organizations that already work for that. For the Select Board to put its two cents in and say, "You've got to do this, you've got to do that," when you've already got the expertise there working in different areas of the town, let that expertise do best.
Banner: What could the board be doing to encourage job growth?
Bethel: Job growth, to me, what we can control is things like Johnson Controls. The owner of Johnson Controls wants to change the zoning to bring in jobs, money, tax revenues, that type of thing we can do. Industry type jobs are tougher because everything is going to China. There's not going to be many big industries coming to the northeast in the near future unfortunately, because number one, the weather. Taxes, the weather, transportation. You look at how much it costs to run your house in this climate compared to a southern climate. It's just another fee these companies don't need to deal with. What we can control is our commercial sector. We can grow Northside Drive, Johnson Controls. They're not the jobs that, supposedly, some people want for a career but they are jobs.
Brady: I came home from a forum last year, and the head of the (Better Bennington Corporation) and the (economic and community development director), the two of them were hosting a show from the senior citizen meal site on how good lunch was, and those are the two people in charge of economic development in Bennington. I think the Select Board and the town manager need to come up with a set of directives for them.
Corcoran: We should absolutely be recruiting businesses to come to Bennington, no question. We know there's areas we can grow. I've seen them myself through discussions with (Bennington County Regional Commission), discussions with the community development director, we have industry studies that show where we're leaking dollars to New York State. So, we need to look at those, find out what those things are, which we're already doing now, and create a plan to be actively contacting different companies to come in and fill that void. We also need to watch how restrictive we are, and I've pushed changing the Johnson Controls zoning before.
Dawson: I'm really not sure on that yet, because you have Dollar General that came in. I wasn't pleased with the placement because of the zoning restrictions the town has on other businesses that want to do stuff. If it's the town doing it, the town says it's all hunky dory, like the old police station, they put a cell tower on it, it's a historic site. Who is benefiting from it? What do we get back as taxpayers for the use of that cell tower? I don't know what we could do to attract other things to Bennington. I'd have to see what proposals or suggestions other people may come out and say. "Hey, Frank, I think this looks good. What do you think?"
Fields: It's probably going to be a combination of things. We now have a marketing employee on staff and I think the economic strategy plan is really good, and we need to make sure we continue with, change it, tweak it when it needs to be tweaked, but I think it's going to be a combination of industries, seeking out industries, working on how we can best attract industries to come to Bennington. Maybe there's some property we could rent to small start up companies at a discount price, because it's very expensive to rent in town as well.
Keane: There are tools available through the state that the town can use, and the board will lead by encouraging the town to market these tools, and the existence of these tools a lot more, and to get out there. Here's one of the things we in the Bennington Economic Development Partnership put together, we've put together a strategic plan for Bennington that the Select Board had approved. One of the key things in that plan is for us to understand what kind of industries are going to be growth industries not this year, not next year, but five to 10 years hence.
Banner: What would you like the voters to know about you?
Bethel: I'm like a dog with a bone with an issue. That I did get a group to help light the monument, that I was the one who started the petitions so Walmart could come here and build a bigger store. I'm for pro-growth on Northside Drive and in the smart-growth areas of Bennington. I think the zoning needs to be looked at. We're stifling our own growth in Bennington.
Brady: I have two children and it breaks my heart that they have both left this area in order to make a living. My grandchildren all went with them, they're all in Texas now. I'd like to be able to start turning Bennington around. I think we lose a lot of the youth around here. The army has proposed trading the armory over here on South Street for the Jard property that's contaminated. We could also use it as a community center.
Corcoran: I just want the voters to know I've worked hard for them the last three years and I'm going to go back to work for them for another three years and really see what we can try and get done for this town. We can grow our downtown, we can grow our commercial district at the same time. They don't need to fight against each other, it's not a battle.
Dawson: I'm a straight shooter, I'm going to say it as it is. I'm not going to sugar coat to get a vote. I'm not going to tell you I'll get something done for you and turn my back after. I'm going to look at all aspects of a problem, but I'm not just going to be a yes-man behind every vote and say, "Oh, we need new vehicles for the police department. Yes." There's a lot of ways to save money. The town sends out all their vehicles, the police cruisers, I think Carbone works on them. Why don't we have a mechanic? We got all this machinery, all these trucks, everything. I know it's adding another position that's going to cost the taxpayers, but I think in the long run its going to save money.
Fields: If I want the voters to know anything about me it's that I really care about this town. I fought really hard when the Veterans Home was having some issues. I fought really hard to keep it open, not just because it's my job but it's 200 people's jobs, and it's a lot to this economy. I really care about the working people and I think they need to have a voice.
Keane: I was past grand marshal in the St. Patrick's Day Parade. I'm very accessible, I'm very easy to talk with. The one thing I prefer not to do is have these kinds of conversations, because they leave us, the candidates, doing all the talking, and what I've been trying to do in all the time I've been here in Bennington, and even now in this campaign, I'm trying to listen. I want to know what people have on their minds.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @kwhitcombjr