Orange candidates debate issues facing town
ORANGE — Despite the inclement weather a large crowd of residents made it out to the Pioneer Junior Women’s Club’s “Candidate’s Night” at the armory Thursday night.
Unlike the recent presidential elections, the atmosphere of the debate was light-hearted, with the candidates Richard Kwiatkowski, Ryan Mailloux and Bob Stack remaining cordial despite some slight ribbing to each other throughout. All three agreed that the town is in a time of transition and it is time for someone new to take up the reins to steer the town in the right direction.
The hearing opened with town moderator Christopher Woodcock’s usual levity, this time bringing out a small potted plant to aide those present in knowing the difference between the moderator and a potted plant, a reference to the statement Fox News pundit Chris Wallace made during the third presidential debate recently. It was a reference to the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings in which Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North’s defense attorney Brendan Sullivan shouted “I’m not a potted plant. I’m here as the lawyer. That’s my job,” in response to inappropriate questions leveled at his client.
In their opening statements the three touted the reason to vote for them and all three thanked the PJWC for hosting the event. Kwiatkowski was especially thankful because they had agreed to move the debate up a week so that he would be able to attend, though he noted that he was now skipping out on his adult daughter’s birthday. He touted his reputation both behind the scenes and in front during his decade-long tenure as town administrator which saw the building of the Tully Fire Station, the 15 successful years of the food-a-thon, the building of the Veterans’ Monument, the use of the town hall auditorium for concerts, the Celebrate the Harvest festival and the building of the Riverfront Park.
Ryan Mailloux, a newcomer to town government, touted himself as the face of change and a new generation that is ready to take on leadership roles in their community after thanking the other two candidates for their years of service to the community. He noted that the town is lucky to be able to attend an event where there are three people competing to serve on the board of selectman. “We are blessed to live in such a beautiful and close-knit town that has never been more ready for further growth and development,” he said, adding that his plan is to focus on improving the school system, improving town employee accountability, to bolster his generation’s involvement in town government, and in a reference to his own background in banking, to increase the town’s bottom line through smart investing.
Stack touted his reputation as the chair of the finance committee, with which he has been involved since May, 2012. Most recently he ushering a $19.2 million budget through town meeting with very little discussion or opposition. He also touted the increased revenue the town is now seeing through the regional ambulance service the town operates. In FY16 Orange was receiving a total of $40,000 combined payments from the four towns serviced by the Orange Ambulance’s 24/7 paramedic service. In FY17 that will increase to $70,00 and in FY18 it will increase to $125,000. FY19 is still negotiable but he said he can ensure that if he is on the board of selectman it will be more than $125,000. “They need to pay for their service,” he said. Stack added that his education includes a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in criminal justice. “I will use both of those degrees to enhance the position of selectman,” he said.
Stack’s goals for the selectboard are to get the senior population more involved with town meetings by increasing transportation to town meetings. He said he would also like to involve the youth of the community. “A number of times people will ask me what my vision of Orange is in 25 years and I’m a realist. I know that I won’t be sitting on a board of selectman in 25 years and I may not be here but what I do know is that those in the schools today will be,” he said, explaining that he has already started a program with the schools where he will visit and speak with juniors and seniors to hear their opinions on which direction the town should be moving.
The questions leveled at the candidates from both the moderator and the public included their opinions on the town’s financial situation, the Honey Farms project and its impact, the current makeup of the selectboard, how to address voter apathy, improving the transparency of the town meeting process, the proposed sewer upgrades needed, the former Putnam Hall property and other vacant town buildings, the future of economic development in town and their opinions on the need for an economic development director and his performance, and what personal qualities they possess that they would call upon as a selectman.
All three candidates agreed that the town is in much better financial shape now than they have been in past years. Mailloux said he has no intentions of raising taxes and repeated his plan to invest some town finances. Kwiatkowski said he would look into possibly changing the management structure of the town. Stack took his time to thank the new financial team for their hard work correcting the town’s financial records and would consider changing the selectboard to a five member board.
Again, all three candidates were in agreement, only this time on the notion that, since the project has been approved by the planning board then there was no point in having an opinion on the project at this point. Kwiatkowski said that it might not be the best use of the property across from the post office but it now comes down to the town trying to make the best of it. He added that part of the problem is that there was never a clear discussion as to what the town specifically wanted with the empty lot. He also said that when the Riverfront Park was created it was not part of their vision to see a gas station across the street. “We cleaned up the gas station that was there to create the park only for another gas station to go in across the street,” he said.
Stack said that it now comes down to the town to take advantage of the project by using it to funnel both foot and car traffic to local businesses in the downtown area.
Mailloux said that it is important that the town stand by their elected officials’ decisions in a show of solidarity. “We should be proud that an existing business in town wants to continue to do business with us,” he said, noting that the Honey Farms officials were willing to make many changes to their original plan to accommodate the wishes of residents despite the mixed messages the town sent them.
Resident Joe Young asked the candidates to expand upon their notion of increasing the size of the selectboard.
Mailloux said he is against it, noting the difficulty the town is having now with filling seats on the many boards and committees.
Kwiatkowski disagreed, stating that if the three candidates present were all added to the existing selectboard “what a dynamite board that would be.” He referenced his time on the Charlton Selectboard where he ushered in a change from a three member board to a five member board and the positive impact it had there.
Stack said he was also very much in favor of a five member board due to the additional opinions and expertise it would bring to the town’s government.
Kwiatkowski said he would improve communication with residents to find out what it is that they want. “We never seem to ask other people to tell us what they want us to do because we all believe we think we know what is best,” he said.
Stack said he doesn’t believe there to be voter apathy, noting the number of residents who have already participated in early voting. He blames the low turnout at town meetings to a “fear factor,” related to having to raise your hand at town meetings in a way that might seem unpopular.
Mailloux agreed that communication is key, adding that change is also needed. “Having people switch seats and jump around is not change,” he said in criticism of his opponents.
Resident Andrea Boyer complained that she is turned off by the town meeting process because the articles are too confusing to the average resident.
Woodcock said that that is his fault as moderator and apologized. Stack said her concern is a valid one and vowed to make things easier to understand through the use of more “plain English.”
Mailloux confessed that at the last town meeting his partner had leaned over and asked him how to vote based on what he wanted for certain articles. He suggested the use of projectors at future meetings to help explain the articles.
Kwiatkowski noted that when he was town administrator projectors were used and he is disappointed the town has moved away from that.
All three agreed that the sewer upgrade is needed but a better plan for paying for it is needed at this time. Mailloux said the town should have started saving for it a long time ago but now there is little choice but to drastically increase the sewer rates. Kwiatkowski noted that the town will have to pay for it soon because the alternative is the EPA coming in and forcing the town to raise taxes and do the upgrade, but would consider alternative ways to pay for it through a betterment program. “We have pushed it off down the road for too long. We can’t wait for tomorrow because tomorrow comes with the bill,” he said. Stack said that he is against making those with septic systems like himself help pay for the upgrade but that does not mean he isn’t open to hearing all suggestions.
Regarding the former Putnam Hall property that was demolished two years ago two of the candidates deflected the question. Kwiatkowski instead focused on the aspects that will bring about the town’s downfall, such as the lack of a bank or lawyers located in town. Stack voiced his opinion on the teen center and pocket park located downtown becoming hang out places for area youth at night. Mailloux noted that clearly knowledge on the topic is lacking, but that he was not going to take the question as a chance to talk ill of the teen center.
Regarding other properties in town Kwiatkowski was the only one to offer up his specific plans, which include moving the municipal offices to Butterfield School and converting the town hall into a full entertainment hub based around the Ruth. B. Smith Auditorium. Again he referenced his past experience in Charlton where he successfully converted a closed middle school into municipal offices.
Stack said he would work to bring in an outside company to do a full survey of the armory to determine its future usefulness and whether or not it was worth keeping or replacing.
Mailloux called economic development the town’s number one focus right now. He said that the idea of “downtown” has changed from a shopping center to a place of leisure featuring parks and attractions, which is why he believes the zoning change in the area around Exit 15 of Route 2 to be the most important change in a long time.
Stack said he would like more focus on the Rodney Hunt property. He was critical of the community development director’s performance as the town has failed to obtain community development block grants from the state three years in a row. He noted that the town was told this was because the state is not interested in funding infrastructure improvements but when he looked into other towns that received the grants many of them were for infrastructure projects. He also criticized the director’s handling of the Butterfield Park upgrade, stating that the director overspent on the project without permission and was unable to deliver on his promise with what the upgrade would include.
Kwiatkowski said the town needs to return to doing regular evaluation of all town employees’ performance, something that stopped when he retired from his role as town administrator.
Woodcock asked the candidates what their personal strengths and qualities were and how they would leverage those in the role of selectman.
Kwiatkowski noted that he is very arrogant, opinionated, hard to deal with, loud, forceful, and makes people uncomfortable sometimes. “But at the end of the day I can take a group of people and create something very successful,” he said. He referenced that a wheel is made up of many spokes but there needs to be someone at the middle who can hold it all together to make the project be successful.
Stack said that he is very research driven but also stubborn in that once he has researched a topic he will not change his vote just because it might be the unpopular one if he feels it is right for the town.
Mailloux said that he is extremely driven and confident, refusing to give up until a project is truly finished. That being said, in his closing remarks he referenced Donald Trump when he joked that he is willing to accept the results of the election if he loses.
Kwiatkowski closed with a statement that the best thing for the town would be to get Mailloux on a committee, keep Stack on the finance committee, and allow him to lead the town as a selectman.
In his closing Stack noted that, good or bad, there is always opportunity to be found. If elected he will work to make town employees more accountable and set individual goals for everyone to work to achieve for the betterment of the town.