2012-10-25 / News

Council hopefuls speak out

10 candidates participate in forum sponsored by JSA
BY MARGO SULLIVAN

At a forum on Oct. 18 for the Town Council candidates, the future of Fort Getty and issues about community policing sparked discussion among the 10 people running for five seats.

The Jamestown Shores Association sponsored the forum, which drew a packed house. Jamestowner Marisa Quinn was the moderator. The field included two Republicans, five Democrats and three Independents.

The Republicans, Paul Sprague and Blake Dickinson, started the first segment of the program by providing 90-second speeches about why they are running.

Sprague is a businessman who currently owns Island Scoop, an ice cream shop and cafĂ©, and Island Energy. If elected, he promised to bring a “business perspective to the table.” Among his accomplishments, Sprague revived Jamestown’s ferry service, a business he has since sold.

Dickinson decided in 2008 to become politically active. The catalyst was receiving his first water bill. “And I said I need to do something,” he said. Dickinson lived most of his life in Jamestown, but left for a period of time due to job assignments in Europe. He is a software engineer.

Kristine Trocki, a Democrat, is a lawyer and mediator who decided to run because she recently became an empty nester. She sees her potential role as “getting the community involved.” She wants to listen to the views of residents, and use her training and skills to take a leadership role.

Dan Capuano, an Independent, said he prizes the “history and culture of this town” and will work to maintain both. Capuano said the town “is running pretty good now,” and added the outgoing council kept taxes in check. As a businessman, he feels the council needs someone with a business background. “We don’t need people who have an agenda,” he said.

Ellen Winsor, the incumbent and an Independent, said James- town’s people remain its greatest asset. The residents are “all of different means and at different stages of life,” she said, and will keep that in mind when she deliberates. She hopes to serve as a voice of reason in the middle and advocate for collaborative solutions.

George Levesque, a Democrat, said he hopes to deal with the lack of affordable housing on the island so today’s children may be able to stay here. Levesque, a former state representative, grew up in Portsmouth but fell in love with Jamestown when he used to bunk school to ride the ferry over to the island.

Democrat Thomas Tighe, the former police chief, recited his experience, which included a stint as acting town administrator. He said his goals would be to see Fort Getty managed properly, to complete the landfill closing, and to deal with maintenance of town buildings.

William Harsch, an Independent, said he decided to run because the current council has lost the confidence of the community. Harsch said he has the background to restore faith in the Town Council due to his work with the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., and with the state Public Utilities Commission. “The issue of Fort Getty broke the camel’s back,” he said.

Mary Meagher, a Democrat, said her priorities will be planning and affordable housing for people who work and volunteer in town. Meagher owns an architectural design business and served on the Fort Getty Master Plan Committee. She has also served on the facilities committee, which recently reported on the dilapidated golf course building. Planning and design, she said, are issues close to her heart.

“Most important,” she said, “we have volunteers and people who work here who can’t afford to live here.”

Eugene Mihaly, a Democrat, said Jamestown is a wonderful town. “The challenge is to keep it that way in an environment that is troubled,” he said. He sees economic threats coming from the State House and nationally, and suggested the Town Council become adept planners. “Consensus building is going to be the real challenge we face,” he said. He emphasized that he has those skills due to his background and work experience as a Navy officer and collegiate business professor.

The round of questions started with Fort Getty. Quinn asked for specifics about the future of the trailer park. “What is your vision?” she asked.

Tighe came out against scrapping the RV park. He said that would end a municipal government revenue stream and hurt local businesses that serve the trailer park residents. Tighe said Fort Getty has been mismanaged.

Mihaly favored cutting back the size of the park to about 75 trailers and raising the fees so the move will be revenue neutral. “We need a plan that does two things: make it accessible to everyone in the community year-round ... and make it fair to the campers.” He said one option might be to offer passes that “break the year up,” instead of one seasonal pass. He also said the council should install professional management for the Fort Getty trailer park.

Capuano said he didn’t want to lose the revenue from the trailer park and would like to improve the facilities “and make it look like something.” He also said the council ought to raise the cost of using the park, hire a manager and tighten up regulations.

Meagher favors a “two-tier” approach that would deal with the issues over the short term and also produce a long-term plan. Initially, she would halve the number of trailers and raise the rates, bringing the fees in line with nearby communities like Middletown. She also favors hiring a campground manager. Meagher said the infrastructure needs to be rebuilt.

Sprague opposes reducing the campground. “Why would we want to take revenue out of the town?” he asked. He realizes islanders will not support increasing the size of the park, he said, but he does feel the council should bring the facilities up to standard and look for ways to enhance revenues, such as installing electric meters for the campers.

Harsch said the current council “micromanaged” Fort Getty and dismissed good ideas too quickly. He suggested the new council should review “all the work that’s been done” before making a decision.

Trocki said she sees Fort Getty as a potential “win-win” situation, but added she does not have all the answers. She is leaning towards reducing the number of trailers, but not reducing the revenue stream. She also favors bringing on a professional manager for the campground.

Levesque repeated a joke about Fort Getty: “A peninsula surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth side by a revenue stream.” He said the goal would be to keep the revenue stream and make the park more accessible to the people of Jamestown. Levesque said it wasn’t the current council’s fault, but everyone’s fault that the trailer park has been “allowed to spread out like an amoeba.” He said the town has not taken care of the park, and he could not recall when anyone planted a tree at Fort Getty.

Winsor cautioned everyone to keep the facts in view and realize the trailer park generates $450,000 gross, not net. “And then there are expenses,” she said. According to Winsor, one frustration about the entire Fort Getty debate has been due to the fact no one seems to know the actual net revenues. The new council should insist on getting the facts, she said.

Winsor also mentioned the problems with infrastructure at the campground. The repairs have been estimated around $1 million. She suggested a plan for Fort Getty should analyze the costs of operating a trailer park and also evaluate other revenue sources. In the meantime, Winsor said the council should change the park’s fee structure and the reservation structure. Because the trailer park is located in an environmentally sensitive area, she added, she would favor reducing the number of trailers.

Dickinson questioned whether long-term Jamestown should be “in the campground business.” He advocated for allowing the rec department the opportunity to manage the campground, rather than hiring a professional.

“We don’t need to spend $40,000 to collect $10,000,” he said. Long-term, Dickinson believes the council needs to establish the actual costs of running the trailer park.

“We need to fix the facilities, and we need real numbers,” he said.

The focus then turned to the police image in town and to criticism the police are writing too many tickets. Quinn asked if policing should reflect community values.

Meagher said “yes,” they should. Except for the chief, Meagher said, police officers do not live in town, perhaps because they cannot afford housing.

“It’s important that police offi cers know this community,” she said. Meagher suggested that the council find ways to connect the police and the community. For example, by bringing the police into the schools, holding a social event or organizing meetings. She also noted the value when offi- cers “walk the beat, not just drive around.”

Mihaly said he sees a problem if the officers cannot afford to live in town. “There are things we can do,” he said. According to Mihaly, the town could increase the stock of affordable housing, such as changing the accessory-apartments ordinance. But he also said he is not convinced the police are being too harsh on residents out of resentment.

“I hear a lot of carping, and I think it is unfair,” he said. “Nobody likes to get a ticket.”

Capuano said Jamestown police “are getting a bad name” for stopping people too often for speeding or not buckling up.

“The police are just not policefriendly,” he said. Capuano then turned to Police Chief Ed Mello. “Sorry to say that, chief, but that’s what I hear.”

Tighe said the officers must become involved with community. Officers used to organize youth events, such as a bonfire at the school. He said when he became chief, he and his wife had to find an apartment in town or he would lose his job. “That’s a good thing,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve gotten to the point they can’t afford to live here.” He suggested looking at tax abatements and other creative solutions to help the police afford to live on the island. But Tighe also said the officers are doing their job when they write tickets.

“If you’re speeding, you’re speeding,” he said. “It’s against the law. They’re out there to protect you.”

Levesque said years ago when Jamestown’s first highway was completed, residents repeatedly asked him two questions: Why are we allowing people to speed across our island, and why are the police setting up speed traps. Levesque said the police force is young, and there is a possibility some officers resent the wealth in the community, although he does not know that for a fact.

“I honestly don’t know the answer,” Winsor said. She considered speaking to traffic court judges to try to determine if the Jamestown police had been overzealous with enforcement, but to date she has not been able to decide how much of the issue is perception, and how much is reality.

She said Mello gave a report and statistics show the level of enforcement has not changed. However, she said, the housing is an issue. Jamestown now ranks in the top 10 of U.S. communities for second homes, and she would like to see more primary homes in town. The council might look at transportation initiatives underway to help more people live in town and commute to work, she said.

In the past, Dickinson said, police “were easy to deal with.” They knew you and your parents, he said. The job of officers is still to enforce the law, but without creating a “perception” about the relationship with the community has changed.

“I think the Town Council should take a role in trying to heal this,” he said. “Most of it’s a perception, but perception drives people’s behavior.”

Harsch blamed “mandates” from the state General Assembly for ending the residence requirements, but he also noted many young officers might not want to settle here.

“A lot of officers have ambitions,” he said. “They don’t want to be an officer in Jamestown forever.”

Trocki said the police enforcement should reflect community values, but she added, “We can’t ask our officers to not enforce the law. That’s a liability issue we don’t want to go anywhere near.” She suggested community involvement to mend the perception issue and noted the police have already established a Juvenile Hearing Board to help youngsters at risk.

Sprague said when he was growing up, all the kids knew all the officers by name.

“They’d walk down Narragansett Avenue and check every single doorknob and make sure you didn’t leave your door unlocked,” he said. According to Sprague, police today have a public relations problem. “We have a bad perception of police,” he said. Sprague says he thinks the issue hurts local businesses, and if elected, he would expect the police chief to come up with a plan.

“I am looking for the chief to come to the council and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do to bring us all back together again,’” he said.

The discussion turned to fi- nances. Quinn asked candidates to state the top budget concerns or interests.

Dickinson said he wants to see “accountability, transparency and respect” during the Jamestown budget process. During the past three years, however, as he has tracked the budget with the Taxpayers Association of Jamestown, at least one of the three ingredients has been missing.

Harsch said he would like to preserve the Financial Town Meeting and make it more workable, such as allowing people to vote on line items and introduce floor amendments.

Winsor wants the council to establish a finance committee charged with building the budget and solving the $13 million unfunded retirement liability. She would also like to see a new water and sewer panel tasked with studying rates and infrastructure costs. Winsor mentioned other ways to maximize revenues and assets, such as re-evaluating the leases on town property.

Mihaly suggested the town side of government should consider zero-based budgeting. He also said the public should have access to better information about town finances.

Capuano said the residents should elect councilors able to “handle Jamestown’s $22 million budget” and deal with the unions.

Trocki said she is concerned about unfunded health and retirement benefits, and about water and sewer infrastructure repairs. She assessed the upcoming costs as “all problems that can be solved,” but added the solutions require skills.

Levesque called the Financial Town Meeting “a wonderful idea, but you can’t run a town that way.” He said residents should elect five councilors to “come up with a budget” and then let the people “vote it up or down.”

Meagher said Dickinson’s three budget principles are “a given.” She also liked Mihaly’s suggestion of going to zero-based budgeting. She favors keeping taxes low, and said overall the town has been well managed. However, she said the golf course building will have to be replaced. She also said the Town Council should use professional finance experts when putting the landfill closure out to bond.

Sprague said Jamestown has been blessed for many years fi- nancially, but the council has not developed a maintenance plan. He would like to see a plan. He also wants the council to start saving for major expenses. Sprague favors a paper ballot at the Financial Town Meeting.

On rebuttal, Dickinson said he has “a real serious issue with baseline budgeting” because he feels it takes power away from the voters.

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