Published in the April 3, 2017 edition.
WAKEFIELD — The six people running for two seats on the Board of Selectmen later this month answered a variety of questions during a televised forum on WCAT Wednesday, including why they are seeking office, what can be done to revitalize the town’s business districts and whether they endorse prohibiting recreational marijuana shops here.
Incumbent Phyllis Hull, Dan Benjamin, Mehreen Butt, Stefan Chase, Edward Dombroski and James Lapery fielded questions from the Daily Item’s Mark Sardella and Allie Houghton representing the Wakefield Observer. The forum will be rebroadcast several times through April 24.
The annual town election is April 25.
Lapery, a longtime Wakefield resident, said he is running to seek improvements in his town. He currently sits on the Permanent Building Committee, the CATV Advisory Committee and the Charter Review Committee. He has served as a member of Advisory Board of Public Works as well.
Hull, who has been an activist in Wakefield for 28 years, has always fought hard to keep taxes down, particularly for senior citizens, she said. However, she explained that as a selectman she does what she can for everyone in town, including veterans, whom she assisted in getting a new World War II Veterans Memorial on the Veterans Memorial Common.
Dombroski, an attorney who lives on Chestnut Street, said he spends his day problem solving. Currently on the Finance Committee, the Chestnut Street resident said he takes his public service very seriously and wants to make the downtown better, wants a fair tax base and wants to make sure programs and municipal services are totally supported.
Butt, an attorney who is director of Public Policy at Rosie’s Place, a women’s shelter in Boston, said she would bring a “new, diverse voice” to the Board of Selectmen. She explained that since moving to town four years ago, she has immersed herself into her community and serving as a selectman is one way of giving back.
Benjamin, Wakefield High graduate, veteran, supporter of the Boys & Girls Club and member of the Wakefield Independence Day Committee, also serves as chairman of the town’s Commission on Disability Issues. He said he is “well-rounded in all aspects” of life in his hometown.
Stefan Chase wants to provide the town with a predictable tax levy, making sure the taxpayers’ money is spent wisely. He also said he will bring new ideas to long running problems in Wakefield.
Recently the selectmen approved creating a stand alone position of Emergency Managment Director, a job historically held by the town’s fire chief. Both Fire Chief Michael Sullivan and Police Chief Rick Smith argued, however, that the duties of that particular job have become very complex in this day and age. The position will be funded at $40,000, and part of the salary is expected to be paid in grants generated by the person who becomes Wakefield’s Emergency Management Director.
The candidates were asked if the position needs to stand on its own.
Hull said she was the only
selectman to oppose the move. She said not enough thought was given to allocating $40,000 for a part-time position. She said she found that the stand along post “hasn’t worked out in many towns.” She suggested having certain officers in the Fire Department and Police Department work on emergencies and planning in their “down time” and give them the same money to do so.
Dombroski said dialogue about the position should continue. He said he had issues with the sustainability of the position as well as compensation and the impact on insurance. The person in that position should be able to get the bulk of the job’s salary through grants, but the town really doesn’t have a final resolution yet to lingering questions.
Butt said the post should be something the selectmen look at if it is going to bring money into municipal coffers.
Benjamin flat out supports the creation of the post. He said it is a “specialized” position, adding that with “terrorism and daily bombings” the who emergency management field has changed and in a way that police and fire chiefs are not really equipped to handle. Of the $40,000 allocation, Benjamin asked, “What is the price of one life?”
Chase backed the move as well. He said the next Emergency Management Director’s expertise would be shared with several towns; the person in that position would create an emergency management plan that would be a “very specialized resource.”
Lapery didn’t think the town needs to hire another person for the job. “It’s not right,” he said. “The Fire Department took care of it (for all these years) and can do it now.”
The candidates were asked about revitalization efforts in the town’s business districts.
Dombroski said downtown Wakefield “is my backyard,” adding, “We are better than our downtown. It is not a true reflection of our town.” He suggested sitting down with landlords and business owners to see what improvements can be made, as well as encouraging people to come to town. The selectmen should let it be known that “Wakefield is open for business,” he said. Dombroski also said town leaders need to find a way to get some of the “thousands” of people who walk Lake Quannapowitt to come downtown.
“We have incredible potential,” Dombroski continued.
Butt said she would like to see a new commercial strategy for “all of Wakefield,” something that would connect the lake to the downtown to Greenwood.
Benjamin suggested offering tax incentives to landlords. He said part of the problem is that many landlords downtown are “absentee” and don’t seem to care what their buildings look like. He offered up the old Ski & Sport Shack as an example. Benjamin has supported the creation of a bylaw giving landlords a certain amount of time to deal with vacant storefronts, or face a fine.
Chase said the town should identify “mixed use” developers and “engage them immediately” about any interest in buying adjoining downtown properties and developing them.
Lapery said the town “missed the boat on funding years ago” to spruce up the downtown. He said the town needs landlords to want to fix up their properties.
He also said, “Greenwood has done a better job than the downtown has” in its revitalization efforts.
Phyllis Hull suggested that progress has been made downtown, saying there are only two buildings that are in dire need of improvements. She said it doesn’t help matters when the building that used to house Ristorante Molise across from the civic center sits on the market for $2.5 million.
The selectman hopefuls were asked for their opinion of a May 1 Town Meeting warrant article seeking to ban single use plastic shopping bags from Wakefield stores.
Butt said it was up to the voters to decide.
Benjamin said he supports the ban.
Chase felt society is beyond the need for plastic bags.
Lapery asked if you start banning plastic bags, what’s next? He suggested further investigation was needed.
Hull said the ninth grader who made the presentation about the warrant article to the selectmen recently did a “great job,” continuing that while plastic bags at Farmland are sturdy and serve a purpose, “the plastic bags you get in most stores are useless.”
Dombroski compared the need to lower our reliance on plastic bags to recycling bottles and cans. It can be done through community awareness, he said.
The town has taken over responsibility of the Americal Civic Center. The candidates were asked how that public facility can best be utilized.
Benjamin said he likes the way it is being utilized now. The Americal is centrally located and many great things go on there. He mentioned the Boys & Girls Club as an example. The Wakefield Interfaith Food Pantry is also housed in the building and it is rented out for all manner of functions.
Chase suggested looking into the property more closely to find the “first and best use,” adding that the Americal may be best used as mixed use.
Lapery said the civic center is doing alright as is.
Hull said she would like to see some improvements at the Americal and more public activities.
Dombroski said he spoke with Recreation Director Dan McGrath, who is excited to be overseeing the facility and will be offering many exciting programs in the future.
Butt, who first volunteered at the food pantry when she moved to Wakefield, said the civic center is a great addition to town.
The candidates were asked about an election ballot question and a Town Meeting warrant article that seeks to ban commercial or retail recreational marijuana business from opening up in Wakefield.
Chase said he opposes the ban because of its impact on the tax levy and program “growth” opportunities. “This could be a lucrative endeavor if done right,” he said, explaining the town could implement “best practices” to achieve that end. Wakefield is not in a position to discriminate against businesses, he said.
Lapery, referencing a business in Brockton that delivers marijuana with flowers, said eventually recreational marijuana commerce will make it to Wakefield. He suggested regulating the businesses “to the outskirts” of town.
Hull said there are questions surrounding the topic in part because the state is taking its time coming up with regulations regarding recreational use sale in the Commonwealth.
Dombroski agreed, saying the law as written now is “fraught” with issues. He said he appreciates the fact such businesses could increase tax revenue, but added quickly that the business districts in town should be developed to foster all kinds of businesses.
Butt said she would wait to see what state regulations look like before making a decision.
Benjamin said it is important to separate the use of medical marijuana from recreational use. He said he would like to see businesses selling marijuana for recreational use out of Wakefield entirely.
The candidates’ forum, which also included one for those running for School Committee, was moderated by Bill Carroll.
The program was produced by David Watts Jr. Tom Stapleton was associated producer. It was directed by Ryan Boyd. Ian McDermott handled the audio. Adam Nestle created the graphics. Cameras were manned by Patty Bianchet, Adam Nestle and Liz Reid.