Bennington Select Board candidates meet again to talk issues
BENNINGTON — Education, downtown redevelopment and the town's form of government were topics of discussion at another Select Board candidate forum on Friday.
Mike Bethel, Chad E. Gordon, Michael Keane, Vickie A. Lampron and Carson A. Thurber attended the forum broadcast and hosted by Catamount Access Television. Those five candidates, as well as Tracy Kramer, are running for two three-year seats. They are currently held by Keane and Justin Corcoran, who is not seeking reelection. Serving as moderator was Eric Peterson, producing artistic director for Oldcastle Theatre.
The following is a sampling of the questions asked and each participating candidate's response.
Question: How would you work with School Boards to improve our schools and improve their reputation?
Gordon, a math teacher at Mount Anthony Union High School, said students get a "bad rap" because of standardized test scores. But he noted MAU is one of six schools in Vermont on the AP honor roll. "We have more students dual enrolled in high school and college than any other high school in the state." Recent graduates work at Google, Facebook and Buzzfeed, he said, and those success stories must be promoted more. "I don't think that things are as bad as people think they are."
Keane said, because of a perception over the town's schools, some people relocating to the area for work tend to choose to live in Manchester or Williamstown, Mass. over Bennington. "I think the reason is because we aren't strong about talking about our high achieving students." He said key actions should be retaining teachers, principals and school administrators. The town should also promote partnerships with the five higher education institutions.
Lampron said her two sons went through local schools and her four granddaughters are now in school. She spoke of programs that help them thrive, like the Strings Program. "We aren't focused on things that help students become rounded, that give them good experiences."
Thurber, who worked as a high school administrator for eight years before taking a job with Southwestern Vermont Health Care, said families looking to relocate look at local schools, education, art and cultural institutions and more. "We want make sure as we recruit.... in all areas, we put our best foot forward." The Select Board is a key component of that, but he added that "all hands are on deck." He added: "If we don't all beat the drum for Bennington... we'll struggle to bring in young families, the working professional, the blue or white collar workers."
Bethel said the current board has used schools' performance as a scapegoat and that others in town have unfairly criticized the schools. While schools could improve in some areas, he said, the town needs to "stop beating itself up." "People read the paper and say, 'Well, Bennington doesn't even like itself.' If I get on the board, I guarantee you the attitude of that board will change."
Question: The Bennington Redevelopmnent Group (BRG)'s purchase of the Putnam Block, if successful, would be the largest downtown development in Bennington's history. Should the board work with the BRG? And, do you favor a TIF program (tax increment financing district)?
Keane called the project a "tremendous opportunity" and said the board should do all it can to facilitate, not hinder, redevelopment efforts. The board was a "key instrument" in helping projects move forward in Barre, South Burlington and St. Albans, he said. He said he supported a TIF and working with legislators to raise the cap, now set at 11. According to Keane, other communities have seen success with TIF: He said St. Albans leveraged $8 million to gain $45 million from private investment.
Lampron said the project would bring more foot traffic to Main Street. A grocer, affordable housing -- along with a downtown hotel which would be a separate project --- "all of those things would make Bennington more appealing." But she said people must be educated about what a TIF is and how the program works.
Thurber said he and his wife chose to purchase a building on Main Street in part because of the proposed redevelopment. "If that enthusiasm was there, we might have looked to invest elsewhere." He said he'd work with BRG and also would support a TIF, calling the project "a great opportunity."
Bethel said he has a lot of questions about the project. "Everyone wants to see downtown revitalized. But I'd like to see it done with private money." He said the project would be designed around grants awarded to it, not what's good for Bennington. He called for renegotiation with the Greenberg family and expressed concern about the purchase price and cost of cleaning up contamination at the site, and also said the BRG members should be "more candid."
Gordon said that "any investment into downtown is a good one" and he would work with group to help them. He said he would support a TIF district based on research he's done.
Question: Do you favor a strong mayor, or town manager system?
Bethel, who has been a vocal proponent of a strong mayor system, said he's leery of the charter review process. "Everything the board does has to have a study, a committee. That's not leadership.... And they could be stacking the committee to get what they want. I just have no faith in them." Bethel said a mayor with a vision could be elected and, if voters don't like them, could vote them out.
Gordon said he's in favor of a charter commission bringing a ballot item to voters next year. He said he's concerned about electing a mayor who starts initiatives, but then is voted out. "We may not see some projects through to the end."
Keane said he's "agnostic" as to whether the town have a mayor or town manager. The current system isn't set in stone, he said, but the town needs a process to determine the future. "To say, 'this is what I want,' without having proven it, doing the research and [the committee] making a recommendation doesn't make a lot of sense to me." Changing the charter would need legislative approval, he noted.
Lampron spoke about her uncle, longtime mayor of Cambridge, N.Y. Electing a mayor "will give folks more control who's representing them." She said if a mayoral system is ever adopted, it should include one person elected each of the town's seven wards.
Thurber said he looked forward to learning more about the issue, adding "the conversation isn't going away." He applauded work by hired town staff, especially during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. A committee to approach the question "is a safe way to do it."
The forum was broadcast live on Cat-TV's website and Facebook page and will be re-aired on Channel 17.
Reach staff writer Edward Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111 or @edamon_banner.
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