KENNEBUNK, Maine – How’s the Kennebunk Select Board doing?
A diverse field of nine select board candidates – two incumbents among them – weighed in with their opinions when moderator Durward Parkinson asked them if they had any constructive criticism for the board during a virtual Q&A forum on Thursday, May 13.
Incumbent selectperson Shiloh Schulte took the question first, stating that he wanted to make sure residents can address the select board with the understanding that they will be heard – something he said he does not believe always happens.
“I would like to keep improving the response to that from the board,” he said.
Schulte, fellow incumbent selectperson Wayne Berry and challengers John Costin, Kortney Nedeau, Gwen Page, Lisa Pratt and Kyle Roberts all took part in the forum in their bids for one of the three three-year seats available on the select board during the annual town meeting on Tuesday, June 8. An eighth candidate, Anthony Michaud, delivered an opening statement at the forum but then bowed out to tend to a prior commitment.
Candidates Sally Carpenter and Thomas Wellman participated, as well, in their bids for the last two years of an unfinished term, vacated by Selectperson Peter Brewitt in March.
When asked if he had any constructive criticism, Costin said the select board “falls down in similar places, whoever is there,” and suggested the reason is a lack of documented policies guiding its actions.
“I think that’s where it tends to get into the most trouble,” Costin said.
Nedeau said small business owners, taxpayers, and parents want to be heard, and stated that sometimes the board’s responses to the public are rote or standard.
Berry said it would help if the select board had a more streamlined process, one in which committees are centralized and input is received in a more timely manner.
“We struggle with the cumbersome process of government,” Berry said.
Berry added that the current select board is accessible, able to be reached by residents through emails, meetings and public outreach sessions.
Wellman said it was “hard to criticize seven volunteers who give up so much time,” but suggested the board needs to create a more open feeling for people to come forward to be heard. Carpenter similarly resisted the urge to criticize, noting selectpersons are “doing their best,” but did say she would like to see “new energy” on the board.
Roberts said he sees a problem with the core structure of how government is run.
“A really good, hard look at who represents this town, and how it works, is needed,” he said.
Page said the board should limit the duration of its meetings, while Pratt called for more communication – more ways to involve others and make sure they feel heard.
Regarding town finances
Parkinson asked the candidates about their familiarity with town finances and whether they consider any “course corrections” to be necessary.
Carpenter said the select board is good at informing residents on how the town’s money will be spent in the budget each year. She said that “as a person on the outside,” she feels that the town’s finances are accessible to the public.
Costin noted that he has served 13 years on the town’s budget board and is currently its vice chair. He said there are talented employees at the town hall – he referred to Finance Director Joel Downs – but added that the town too often has to decide matters during budget time that could be anticipated better and have policies in place for. He said transparency, engagement and accountability are needed more in the budgeting process.
“There’s room to grow here,” he said.
Schulte said he spends a “sizable fraction” of his time as a selectperson thinking about town finances. He named capital expenses and debt service as the biggest issues the board is facing. He referred to a “push,” around 2008 or so, in which flat-budgeting was favored, leading to a later time when “bills came due, all at once.” The town then had to spend “a lot of money” to improve roads, purchase equipment that had not been upgraded when needed, and so on.
“Now we’re dealing with a large bubble of debt that we’re having to manage over time,” said Schulte, also noting additional large expenses that the town will be facing in the future.
Berry said he too is concerned about long-term debt.
“Long-term debt is going to continue to be a big part of our budget for years to come,” he said. “As everybody knows in their everyday life, nothing’s getting cheaper. We have to look forward with long-term planning … A course correction? Probably not. But a little more pain coming up? Yeah, you bet.”
Nedeau said she understands her tax bill, researches the town’s finances, and agreeds with Costin about the need for transparency and accountability. She said, as a business person, she understands fiscal responsibility and describes herself as fiscally conservative. She added that she knows “taxes are always the number-one concern.”
Page said that she has not followed town finances but is concerned about the “substantial” bonds that have been issued and about budgeting that “forces new growth” for the purpose of expanding the tax base.
Pratt said she is responsible for her family’s budget at home and does a good job with it. She added that the town is transparent about its budgeting, particularly with the meetings and workshops that are held.
Roberts noted that Kennebunk is experiencing a lot of growth and that people are noticing that certain expenditures are coming up. He mentioned the land at 15 Portland Road, which the town bought to help meet growing municipal space needs, and referred to other anticipated expenses.
“There’s a lot more at play that needs to be addressed,” he said.
Wellman, a former selectperson, said he is “fairly familiar” with local finances and added that the community is fortunate to have Downs at town hall. But he did say that there is one thing that the town needs to be doing.
“We need to think years down the road,” he said, referring to the need to keep the tax rate down but still address all that needs to be done.
Is the town doing enough for diversity, equity and inclusion?
Costin said he sees “huge growth potential” for the town when it comes to creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community. He said the key idea is to bring in every voice, make sure everyone is served to the best of the town’s ability, and attempt to meet needs. He praised RSU 21 for “setting a great path” when it comes to DEI and noted the district’s new plan on the issue.
“RSU 21 is really rolling up their sleeves,” Costin said. “We could really use that as a model.”
Nedeau noted that Kennebunk has become more socially diverse, adding that the community has welcomed her and her wife warmly.
“I’m proud of my town and how far we’ve come,” Nedeau said. “I think diversity is what makes us stronger, personally … We’re on the right path.”
Page said she is not sure that town government can do much about increasing and improving sensitivity and others, but added that the town should take action against discrimination and offer a means of registering complaints.
“The schools are very in tune to that, I think,” she said. “There is diversity in the schools, a lot more in the student body than there used to be when I was growing up here. They’re better, and churches would be better at raising sensitivity and understanding of the issues.”
Pratt said the town could do more for DEI and agreed with Costin that RSU 21 is setting a “great example.”
“I feel like they have embraced this idea, and they have set forth with their strategic plan, an amazing plan, to move forward to increase DEI in the school system,” she said.
Pratt added that DEI also includes improving accessibility to the town’s playgrounds, beaches and other places.
“The town could do more,” she said. “It’s about every single person having a voice in our town.”
Roberts said it’s important that the select board and the town always “strive to be better in all aspects, whether it be inclusion, or anything else.”
Schulte agreed that more could be done. He said the select board has worked with town departments, examined policies, and discussed what could be done differently to address DEI issues and incidents.
“It’s an ongoing element of how we handle our management of departments,” he said. “If you have the policies in place, then you have people who make sure they’re being followed.”
Schulte said the town could do better in setting conditions so that “voices can be heard.” He also advocated for the town to look at its zoning, affordable housing, and other aspects.
“Is there something that’s exclusionary, structurally, in our town that prevents a broader, diverse array of humans who are living here, or excludes people from being here in our town?” he asked.
Wellman sounded a similar theme, saying the town could do more to make sure there are not any “inbred biases” in the system and “weed out” anything that unintentionally causes people to be discriminated against.
Berry said the town could always try to do more, but noted that Kennebunk “does not object to or discriminate or discourage diversity.” He said the town’s policies and mission statement encourage diversity.
“We are, as a town, as a board, as a staff, working toward that goal,” he said. “We’re Mainers. As much as people like to say sometimes that we’re tough and standoffish, sometimes the simple kindness is to live and let live. That’s really what we’re trying to express here.”
Carpenter called DEI something that the town needs to “continually work at.”
“It’s something that needs to come from the top,” she said. “We have a (seven-member) select board that’s all men, and I think that we really have room to make some changes.”
Should taxpayers fund school resource officers?
Candidates were asked if they supported using taxpayer funds for School Resource Officers. It was a timely question, given that SRO funding was the only issue to generate discussion when voters attended RSU 21’s annual district budget meeting last week.
A few candidates – Wellman, Berry, and Carpenter – passed on the question, calling it one for the school board to address.
Costin, whose wife and daughter spoke against the funding at last week’s school district meeting, called the SRO program a “waste of money” and challenged the notion that SROs keep children safe. He said the community needs to reevaluate the program and ask “what’s the best way to protect kids.”
“The time has come to end the four elementary school resource officers,” Costin said.
Pratt disagreed with Costin, noting that she sees good relationships between SROs and students.
“I like knowing there’s a patrol car in front of the school,” she said. “It’s about building relationships.”
Nedeau said she supports the police department and said school resource officers are not “just armed people at the door.” They’re social workers and therapists who help guide youths, she added.
“There are a lot of kids who need one-on-one attention,” she said.
Nedeau said she favors taking a look at the district’s SRO program but feels SROs deserve better credit.
Roberts praised the SRO who served at his school while he was growing up, calling him someone to talk to, “a friendly face that wasn’t a teacher.” He too acknowledged that the school board has final say on the program, but added that “there is room to reconnect the bridge between the school board and the select board.”
Schulte stated that it had been the select board’s decision to involve the Kennebunk Police Department in the school district’s SRO program. He said Police Chief Robert MacKenzie has done an outstanding job in his role and has been responsible for who has filled the SRO roles at local schools.
“Ultimately, I think we’re on the right track at the moment,” Schulte said.
Schulte added that he would be open to the idea of redirecting SRO resources towards counselors and others who help students, but also noted that SROs “do a wide range of things that benefit students.”
Page said she see SROs at work when she substitute-teaches at local schools and added that the role they play in students’ lives is a “good one.”
Parkinson asked the candidates to describe the leadership style they would bring to the select board, if elected.
Costin said his style would reflect the idea that the best decisions are guided by inquiry, which he described as establishing good questions, seeking answers, asking and answering new questions as they arise, and “boiling down” answers into action.
“It’s that kind of thinking that we need to bring to the select board,” he said.
Nedeau said her style would be to have courage to bring honest and open plans to the table. She said more empathy is needed for different situations and opinions. She described her leadership philosophy as “make it happen.”
“Set a goal, delegate tasks, and get it done,” she said.
Roberts described himself as thoughtful when making decisions. He noted he needs to be who he is – and that he’s sometimes “abrasive and off-putting” – but felt he could conform to the board.
Pratt described herself as a democratic leader, a communicator, someone who believes information needs to be provided to stakeholders. Leadership, she said, involves finding out “who’s not at the table” and bringing them there.
Schulte said he strives to be as inclusive as possible and believes in achieving consensus whenever possible. He added that his style would involve listening to viewpoints and emphasizing collaboration.
In his answer, Wellman focused on teamwork and respect for the opinions of others.
“Be willing to give up something along the way, in order to help make the town better,” he said.
Berry described his style as collaborative, and Page said hers would involve representing the concerns of residents.
Carpenter said her style on the board would focus on cooperating, working collegiately, and not making differences of opinion personal. She emphasized listening and leading by example.
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