ALL SIX CANDIDATES running for the Board of Selectmen in the July 19 Special Election took part in a live televised debate last night at the WCAT studios. From left, Phyllis Hull, Allyson Houghton, Christopher Callanan, Nathaniel Gayman, Daniel Benjamin and Mehreen Butt. (Mark Sardella Photo) 

ALL SIX CANDIDATES running for the Board of Selectmen in the July 19 Special Election took part in a live televised debate last night at the WCAT studios. From left, Phyllis Hull, Allyson Houghton, Christopher Callanan, Nathaniel Gayman, Daniel Benjamin and Mehreen Butt. (Mark Sardella Photo)

Published in the June 9, 2016 edition.


WAKEFIELD — Six residents who want to be the seventh selectman met in a cable TV forum last night and spoke of a more vibrant business environment in town, of whether a special election should be held for the empty board seat, why Wakefield should have a new high school, municipal government transparency, the MBTA, the tax burden borne by residents and businesses and, in one case, the need for more friendship and brotherly love here.

WCAT hosted the event at its studio at Wakefield Memorial High. The special election to fill out the remaining months of a term left vacant when Selectman Betsy Sheeran was elected Town Clerk last April is scheduled for Tuesday, July 19.

Running for the seat are Dan Benjamin, Mehreen Butt, Chris Callanan, Nate Gayman, Allyson Houghton and Phyllis Hull.

The hopefuls were asked if a special election was needed. Hull, a former selectman and longtime community volunteer, successfully petitioned the selectmen to hold a special election to fill the open position.

Benjamin, who with Hull ran unsuccessfully for one of two seats up for election a month and a half ago, said he felt it would be “easier for the town if (the special election) were held in September or November,” when primary and general elections are scheduled. He said with this many people running for the open selectman’s seat and with the special election being in the middle of the summer, only 400 to 500 votes would be enough to win. He argued that in a town of 25,000, that is too small a number.

Mehreen Butt, a Greenwood resident and attorney who works for a non-profit in Boston, said she planned to run for selectman in April 2017 anyway, and that the special election was simply “speeding up” her intentions.

Callanan, a lifelong resident and longtime School Committee member who owns a business in Wakefield, said he would have waited until the September primary to hold the special election but defended Hull’s right to call for the election. In the summer, he explained, the selectmen only have a couple of meetings with very few critical issues discussed. He felt waiting would have caused no harm.

Gayman, a salesman who also has his own business, said he felt the special election and the number of candidates interested in the seat (originally, there were eight) has given a new sense of importance to the community.

Houghton, a mother, product of Wakefield schools and currently manager of the downtown branch of The Savings Bank, said she would have waited to hold the special election, arguing that the voter turnout would be higher in September or November.

Hull argued that only in the case of an emergency should there be six selectmen. “We should always have a full board,” she said, believing the same of the School Committee.

Some have been critical of Hull for calling the special election, saying it is costing money needlessly. “Democracy comes at a price,” she said. “And this is a small price to pay,” especially when the town approves a spending package worth $80 million a year. “Look what we have spent on feasibility studies” in town, Hull continued.

The candidates were asked why they are running for selectman.

Butt said she loves Wakefield and wants to help create an even better town.

Callanan, an elected official for the past 11 years, said the selectman’s seat “is the next step for me.” He said there are a lot of good things happening in Wakefield and he wants to be part of doing even more.

Gayman said he wants to make downtown Wakefield “great again.” He also made a reference to the anger he sees on the town’s community Facebook page and wants to put an end to it so neighbors will want to “acknowledge one another in public” again.

Houghton said she wants to see the downtown improve and would like to be part of new plans put in place to accomplish that end.

For the past two and half decades, Hull said, she has been involved in many aspects of the town, as an advocate for lower taxes, a civic volunteer and as an appointed and an elected official. She and many others “have done a tremendous amount of work” in that time “trying to revitalize Wakefield.”

Hull served as a selectman from 2013 to this past April.

“What we’ve done is great,” she said. “But there is always room for improvement.”

Benjamin, who was the first runner up in the race for one of two selectmen’s seats last April, said people urged him to run again. He too wants to make Wakefield a better place.

Benjamin also volunteers on many local committees, including the Boys and Girls Club of Stoneham and Wakefield. He said the local branch, at the Americal Civic Center, is now bigger than the one in Stoneham.

Callanan was asked if the fact that he is the brother-in-law of Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio would affect his ability to adequately serve as a selectman. He said it would not, adding that Town Counsel Thomas Mullen has ruled there is no conflict in Callanan serving as a selectman.

Hull was the only other candidate to speak to the issue, saying any qualified person should be allowed to run for the board.

The candidates were asked about improving economic opportunities in town.

Houghton spoke of the many great businesses in Wakefield, as well as the variety of events held in the downtown or nearby. She singled out the Farmers Market at Hall Park, which starts up again for the season next weekend.

Houghton explained that officials must figure out how to bring people who attend events at Lake Quannapowitt into the downtown and must work with landlords to make their building more appealing to the eye and to prospective tenants.

Hull expressed disappointment in landlords who have not taken advantage of various incentives available to them but explained that officials are, in her opinion, doing a good job with what they have to work with. Turning the old light department building on Albion Street into a place for the arts and culture has worked out well, for example, she said.

Benjamin said the problem is absentee landlords who don’t care about what the downtown looks like, as long as they collect their rent. He said he would support a bylaw calling for drapes in storefront windows within 90 days of a tenant moving out.

Butt said there are so many people coming to Lake Quannapowitt that there must be ways to get them into the downtown and into the other business districts in town, like the Four Corners in the North Ward and into Greenwood.

Callanan suggested business employee park their cars somewhere other than right in front of the companies they work for, which makes it difficult for paying customers to find a place to park.

Gayman suggested getting a group of tradesmen together to work on some of the buildings downtown to make them more appealing.

Every candidate felt officials should do everything possible to make it easier for senior citizens to continue to live in Wakefield.

They also felt the MBTA could be more reliable.

More parking is needed downtown. Several of the candidates, including Hull and Benjamin, said the town had a great opportunity to have a parking garage in the middle of the Square but Town Meeting and voters at the polls shot it down.

All candidates — even those who own businesses — agreed that residents should be given the biggest tax break possible each year.

Hull was the only office hopeful who did not support building a new high school.

In their closing statements, the candidates spelled out reasons why they deserve to be elected.

Hull mentioned her service to the town in all kinds of capacities, explaining she would continue to do the best job for residents that she could possibly do.

Houghton spoke about the need to revitalize the town’s business environment and get young families to want to move to town.

Gayman said arguing over various issues is getting the town nowhere. He said there needs to be more “friendship and brotherly love” among neighbors.

Callanan said he wants to continue to improve the town he’s lived in his whole life.

Butt said she wants to be part of making a great town better, explaining the need for a more diversity on the Board of Selectmen.

Benjamin said that just as the town once “Galvinized” to build a new middle school, the time has come for it to “Memorialize” for a new high school.