Dems discuss major issues facing Jamestown
Renewable energy, affordable housing and Fort Getty were among the biggest concerns presented to eight of the nine Democratic Town Council candidates during a light-hearted forum Monday night at the library.
On hand to take part in the discussion, which took place at the Jamestown Philomenian Library in front of a standing-roomonly crowd, were incumbents Bob Bowen, Bill Murphy, Mike Schnack and Mike White, as well as challengers Mary Meagher, Gene Mihaly, Tom Tighe and Kristine Trocki. A ninth candidate – George Levesque – was on vacation with his family in Ireland and unable to attend. Moderating the event was local attorney John Murphy.
Registered voters in Jamestown will be asked to choose five Democrats in the Sept. 11 primary. The top five vote getters will advance to November’s general election where they will face four Independents (Dan Capuano, William Harsch, Evan Katz and Ellen Winsor) and two Republicans (Blake Dickinson and Paul Sprague).
The first question of the night touched on economic diversity on the island. Mihaly opened up candidate comments by saying that Jamestown is not doing enough to reach the state’s mandate that 10 percent of each municipality’s homes should qualify as affordable housing. “I think that affordable housing is a huge issue,” the retired professor said. “I think its one of the two main issues, the other being the quality and amount of water on the northern part of the island. The question is how do we get more affordable housing? What I would do in this case is launch a very systematic approach. What kind of financial instruments are out there? Where do we want to build?”
Schnack agreed. “Economic diversity is one of the reasons I moved to Jamestown because at the time it wasn’t all $1 million homes on the water.”
Schnack, a negotiator for Veolia Water, said the current council – which he presides over – has worked to increase affordable housing. He cited examples, pointing to three Swinburne Street units that the council helped build this past year by working closely with Church Community Housing Corporation.
“Also, the council has put aside money in every annual budget that the voters passed,” Schnack said. “This is one of the only cities and towns in Rhode Island to do that.”
Trocki used her law practice as an illustration of how economic diversity is important in Jamestown. “I work with everyone from fishermen, to down-and-out folks who are really squeezing tight, to multimillion dollar property owners. I see the diversity on this island, but at the same time, I think the biggest complaint is that we’re getting priced out. I know for myself, I couldn’t afford to buy my house today if I had to. I am very concerned that my son, who just went off to college a couple of weeks ago, will not be able to move back onto this island.”
Trocki said that she doesn’t think Jamestown is looking to build “projects,” but said there are ways that town property could be utilized. She added that the town’s zoning laws should offer tax breaks or incentives for property owners to build accessory dwellings on their land.
Trocki and Mihaly both agreed that it’s a problem that police offi- cers, teachers and firefighters who work on the island can’t afford to live on it. Currently, she said, the only Police Department employee that lives on the island is Chief Ed Mello.
Meagher later hit on the point, saying that Jamestown needs to form a housing trust. “They have a housing trust on Block Island and they have a housing trust on Martha’s Vineyard. You don’t need a ferry to get to our island, but we might need a trust so that policeman, teachers, the bastards of the middle class, can afford to live here. As Kristine [Trocki] said, right now I can’t afford to live here.”
The next question asked councilors to look into the future: It’s 2022 – what actions has the Town Council taken to reach your vision of Jamestown?
“I hope in 10 years that we’ll walk onto Fort Getty and feel at ease there,” said Meagher, an architectural designer with an office in town. “Regardless of how you feel about the campground, I think right now we know that Fort Getty needs some help.”
Murphy followed up by saying that keeping Jamestown affordable is a priority, and he added that he would like to see an expanded Parks and Recreation Department come to fruition in the next decade. “We still need to increase the rec department. I think the rec facility needs some help, and we are struggling with whether we should enlarge that building, create another building, or do something else. That’s going to have to be addressed over the next few years. The next thing we need to do, I’d like to see a brand new golf course building.”
Murphy continued by saying that in 2022, he’d like to make sure that the Fire Department is still a volunteer venture. “I’m not worried about the police and the teachers. Quite honestly, I’m worried about the people in the Fire Department. We have a lot of young kids – 17, 18, 19, 20 years old – who’d like to make as much money as our police officers and teachers. They can’t. ... We need these people here. They need be on our Fire Department so we don’t have to go with a paid department. You would not believe what that costs. You don’t want to see that happen.”
White mentioned that while Jamestown has its problems, they are trivial compared to other municipalities in the state. He would like it stay that way over the next 10 years. “We are privileged here, living in Jamestown. Many of the difficulties that we have seem to be monumental, when in fact we’re a town that has done well all along. ... The idea is, the plans that we have should continue. We should continue to make it a better place, or keep it as good as it already is, actually.”
Other candidates who were asked the question about Jamestown in 2022 included Bowen, who said he’d like to see the town install renewable-energy systems in Jamestown where appropriate; Tighe, who said he’d like to see a restricted account set up so the town can maintain its buildings instead of waiting for them to be in disrepair; Trocki, who said that she’d like to see Jamestown affordable enough so her son is back living on the island; Schnack, who said he wants to see infrastructure intact, taxes still low, and not talking about Fort Getty; and Mihaly, who said he wants to make sure Jamestown doesn’t become like a California town he used to live in, where shops became more expensive, taxes went up, people were forced to move away, and the whole demographic changed. “It’s a lovely town, but that’s exactly what I don’t want to see here,” he said.
The next question asked what potential councilors would consider their top budget priorities over the next two years. “My top priority here is to maintain the schools that we have, and the safety that we have,” said Bowen, an IT manager at the University of Rhode Island. “I think education is really important. You can see what happens out there in the real world when kids aren’t educated. That isn’t a good thing for any of us.”
Retired Jamestown Police Chief Tom Tighe echoed Bowen’s remarks, saying that he would like to see an emphasis put on education and safety. “We constantly need to be training police, fire and EMS personnel. We need to be able to get our EMS to a higher standard.”
The next question touched on one of the controversies in Jamestown: expectations of community policing.
“I think that resident expectations is that they be treated with courtesy, that they be treated with respect, and maybe that they be treated with some familiarity,” said Meagher. “We have a difficulty because many of our police don’t live here. That is a problem with the notion that the police are part of the community. I think the council needs to work with integrating the police, and trying to create some way so that the police and the community can get to know each other better.”
Murphy, a former Jamestown police officer “in the dark ages” who is now a senior loan officer at Citizens Bank, was the next to field the question.
“In the old days, we used to get out and walk up and down [Narragansett] Avenue every night and early in the morning. We used to park the cruisers even up in the shores area and walk around Head’s Beach. Community police is actually getting better. What I do know is that Chief Mello is getting guys out of the cruisers more so they can meet with the public. ... Believe it or not, some people are complaining that there isn’t enough enforcement. I had five people on my street on Hamilton Avenue complaining about the speeders.”
Murphy said that after hearing complaints from his neighbors, he spoke with Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, who in turn spoke with Mello.
“Then the police are out there, they put up their signs, and then start issuing tickets. You’re meeting your needs. That’s what it’s all about.”
White, who is retired from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, said he has also noticed more officers patrolling on foot since Mello took office. “I live right down there on the corner of Conanicus Avenue, and this summer I’ve noticed, almost every night, police park their car, walk up the street, and I see them talking with residents. I know that some of them would like to live here, but they just can’t afford to do that. The other night there was a concert down at the green. I stopped and talked to Lt. Deneault, who is a very friendly person, and she said she would never miss the town band’s concert down there.”
The next topic was the muchanticipated Fort Getty question regarding management of the park. “This is an issue where we are clearly divided as a town,” said Mihaly. “We are going to have to come together around a solution, which I think Mike [Schnack] was nibbling at during the last council meeting. Namely, a reduction in the number of RVs, and an increase in fees to compensate.”
Mihaly also brought up the point that there is no management at the park and rules aren’t followed. “It’s helter-skelter,” he said. Mihaly continued by saying the town needs a clear business plan for the park, and a ranger needs to be on site to enforce rules. “We need to make it a place that the town can use. Right now, essentially five months a year the town doesn’t have access.”
Schnack followed, saying the current council has been looking at the situation for the last three years. He was critical of the council he sits on. “I think one of the problems with management of the park is that town employees haven’t had enough direction from the council on what to do there because we’re sitting on a plan, and it hasn’t been implemented.”
Schnack said up until now, it’s been managed laissez-faire because campers have managed it themselves. “That’s no way really to run the park. Over the years they have become somewhat entitled to the park and they feel that it’s their park. It’s not their park. They’re guests in town. And we need to set the rules for it.”
Trocki said that while it is the responsibility of the Town Council to come to decisions regarding the park, she doesn’t think that it’s the charge of the councilors to come up with their own plan on how to micromanage Fort Getty. “[Councilors] should in no way suggest that they are camping experts, or design experts, or that they know how to build a parking lot or where it should be.”
Trocki’s opinions were similar to Mihaly, saying that the number of RVs sites should be reduced, but the price of each site should be increased.
“We want a balance here. We want to respect the town’s competing interest to have a beautiful, lovely park, where people don’t have to feel like they’re in somebody’s backyard. That said, the campers are a wonderful community who support our local businesses, and we want to maintain that, as well.” Trocki recommended reducing the sites by one-third, then raising the prices to make it market competitive. She would like to see an overall plan, not one that is piecemeal.
“How can we make more parking? How can we make it the best possible campground so that campers themselves can enjoy it more. Maybe we can put more trees and coverage so it doesn’t feel like it’s all in this helter-skelter space. Maybe we can protect the CRMC waters that are pristine and natural. Maybe we can get the boat trailers to the front where the gate is. There is no reason for parking all along that front structure. I think there is a win-win solution here. It’s just a matter of working together.”
In the matter of alternative energy, Schnack said prices are coming down in solar energy, making it a good investment. He also said that if residents have enough space and money, they might want to look into geothermal. “I think one of the first things that we need to do is make sure that we all conserve. We need to conserve before we start using more and more energy.”
Schnack added that if the town is really committed to going green, there are companies such as National Grid that have programs where towns can buy only alternative energy. “It costs a little bit more, but if we are really committed to it, that could be something we could bring to the voters.”