On the evening of February 16, six Waitsfield Select Board candidates gathered over Zoom to answer questions in a candidate forum hosted by The Valley Reporter and Mad River Valley Television. There are currently two contested races for Waitsfield Select Board this year. One is a three-way race for a two-year seat on the Waitsfield Select Board currently held by Kellee Mazer who is not running for reelection. The three contestants for this seat are George Carpenter Jr., Sal Spinosa and Christine Sullivan.
Additionally, board chair Paul Hartshorn is seeking reelection to a three-year seat and he is being challenged by Fred Messer who is running as a write-in candidate.
Finally, Jordan Gonda is seeking reelection to the last year of a three-year term vacated by Darryl Forrest. The select board appointed her to that seat in December to serve through Town Meeting Day on March 2.
At the forum, candidates discussed affordable housing, recreation, preservation of historic buildings, maintenance of town infrastructure, board diversity and citizen protection.
Regarding recreation, Gonda pointed out that while the town has done a lot in terms of trails, recreation and opportunities for youth, it can do more. Recreation promotes the local economy, but also overlaps and coincides with the town’s land conservation goals and goals to protect natural resources and viewsheds.
Addressing the affordable housing crisis was one of the biggest concerns shared by all candidates. Regarding the affordable housing debate, Messer said, "I don't know how young people can do it these days.” Sullivan added, "We don't have a single-family home on the market under $400,000 in Waitsfield." Carpenter told a story about his great nephew, who is having a hard time affording a place in Waitsfield and has been forced to rely on family support to get settled in his home. Carpenter was adamant that there needs to be another way for young people to get housing “other than family members helping them.”
Hartshorn suggested the Mad River Housing Coalition would help provide answers to the affordable housing crisis. "Hopefully out of this coalition, we will get some answers,” he said. While Sullivan supports the work of the Mad River Housing Coalition, she warned that the select board must be sure of where its money is going when it gives them financial support. "My concern is that there's not clarity about what the money is going to be used for," said Sullivan about the $4,000 proposed to support the Housing Coalition this year. Messer, on the other hand, said he believes money going to support the housing coalition is money well spent.
At the forum, candidates also discussed the preservation of the General Wait House, one of Waitsfield’s oldest and most historic buildings. "The Wait House must be preserved, it's part of our history," said Messer. Carpenter reminisced on exploring the Wait House as a kid and agreed that the town should strive to protect the building that is in need of repair and renovation. Sullivan said that the town can prevent the degradation of important buildings by creating a maintenance plan for all buildings.
Other buildings other than the Wait House need attention too. "We have a problem with the town garage. It's time we took care of that,” said Hartshorn. "There's no other employees in the town that would work in the condition that these guys are working in," said Hartshorn about the Waitsfield road crew members who work in the town garage.
"As far as the town garage is concerned, we need to rebuild or add on,” added Spinosa. Sullivan agreed that the town garage needs work. "We need to upgrade our infrastructure," said Sullivan.
Turning to the topic of board diversity, the two female candidates were vocal about their potential contributions. "We have many more women on the school boards than we have on our select boards," noted Sullivan, who is a current member of the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board. Sullivan wants to change the demographic of the Waitsfield Select Board with an added female presence. She said that she would bring “a feminist viewpoint” to the Waitsfield Select Board.
Gonda advocated for the fresh perspective she would bring both as a woman and as a young person under 40. She said diverse viewpoints are important in shaping the future of the town.
Messer noted that it’s hard to bring diversity to a select board in an aging white town. "Our demographic is older and it's white. We don't have much of a pool to draw from,” he said. “I am happy to see more women on the select board," he added. “But I don't see how a younger person trying to make ends meet has time to be on a select board.”
PROTECTION OF RESIDENTS
Regarding protection of Waitsfield residents, candidates discussed enhancing pedestrian safety and adding a constable to the roster of town employees. Hartshorn said finding a constable to patrol all three towns would be helpful. "We definitely need more police protection, especially if we get into cannabis sales,” he said.
Sullivan supported the idea of hiring a town constable, but said the town needs to be specific about what the constable would do.
Both Gonda and Messer were in favor of protecting residents by making the town more accessible and safer for pedestrians. "We had an individual killed here in a crosswalk. We need to identify ways to make pedestrians safer, so this doesn't happen again," says Messer.
The forum can be viewed at mrvtv.com and individual candidate press releases are on The Valley Reporter website at valleyreporter.com.