BENNINGTON — Five of the seven candidates running for three seats on the Select Board participated in a question and answer session Tuesday at Oldcastle Theatre. Each had two minutes to respond to each of the 10 questions posed to them.
Present were incumbent Chairman Thomas Jacobs, Jeannie Jenkins, Don Miller, Michael McDonough, and Jeanne Conner. Not in attendance were Michael Bethel, and Jason Bushee. They are running for three seats.
The forum was sponsored by Oldcastle, the Bennington Banner, the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, and Bennington News Network. Posing the questions were Chamber President and Banner Publisher, Ed Woods, Chamber Executive Director, Matt Harrington, and former Chamber President, and part-owner of Kevin's Sports Pub and Restaurant, Lindy Lynch. Hosting the event was Jeff Grimshaw, founder of BNN.
Below is a sampling of the questions asked, and the responses.
Question: What is the most compelling argument for installing a mayoral system, for or against, in Bennington?
Jacobs: He said mayoral elections essentially become popularity contests which brings upsides and downsides. On the one hand, a mayor is re-elected based on their level of competency. "The downside is just that, you could get someone that is relatively incompetent, lacking in skills or otherwise, and not able to deal with important issues the town needs addressed," he said. "I don't think it should be discounted, right now our charter does not provide for that, it would be something we would have to look at."
Jenkins: "I think what a mayor could give us in an opportunity to be bolder and to raise issues with more urgency," she said. "I do think it could have a very positive impact in terms of having us evaluate the issues that are before us and really debate how we want to move forward with those issues on a regular basis."
Miller: "It would primarily address the question of leadership. And I think that means a vision, I think it means promoting Bennington and being proactive in those areas...I think (Jacobs) has done a good job of trying to step out of the traditional role and make more proactive leadership opportunities for the board, but if you had a chief, elected officer that person would run on a vision and be in charge of trying to enact that vision, and if it didn't work they would be voted out," he said.
McDonough: "I have not been a supporter of a change in government to a mayoral system. Looking back over our history we have had our share of very good town managers and our share of less effective town managers. I think the same would be true in a mayoral system," he said, adding that having a continued vision from year to year is key, and that can be accomplished with the current system.
Conner: "I don't know that much about a mayoral system versus a select board system to even have an opinion on it, but when I think about something like that I would want to explore it, there's no reason not to explore it and flesh out the positives and the negatives," she said. The would have to consider term limits and eligibility among other things.
Question: If you could add one key element to assure the success of downtown Bennington what it be?
Jenkins: "I think we need to have people living on the second and third floors in downtown, I think we need to revitalize Putnam Square, we need to provide a sense of downtown being the place to be and that there's something there for everyone from birth to old age," she said. What's there now needs to be pulled together and marketed.
Miller: "The one thing I would do is dream ahead five years, if you have a vision of a downtown where all the storefronts are full and there are apartments upstairs and its bustling, it doesn't happen overnight, you can't come up with one thing that will make that happen," he said. What's needed is a vision and a plan to make it happen.
McDonough: "With the question asking for one key element, I would suggest that element is investment," he said. "Investment in a significant fashion." He said a large investment would give the town a morale boost regarding the downtown and lead to more development there.
Conner: "I want a thriving downtown as much as anybody, but I don't want us to lose the uniqueness of a small town. I believe that's why people come to Bennington, we're not the same as every other town in the nation and I think we forget that," she said, adding that high rents and dilapidated spaces in downtown need to be addressed, entrepreneurs need to be supported, and there needs to be more green space.
Jacobs: "I see the Putnam block as the cornerstone for the future, and it is the home run. With a synergy of private investment, I believe there are folks and companies that are interested in the right time to step up to the plate with public support. Public support is not just the dollars, it's the community saying, we're ready to support." He said the town will have to take a risk to make this happen.
Question: Tell us your feelings on the legalization of marijuana
Conner: She said there were three things she took from a recent forum on the topic, those being to follow the science, that marijuana is here and not going away, and to move slowly. "I don't know how I personally feel about it yet. I think it's something that needs to be talked through, learned about, researched for other states' mistakes possibly...I think we should not shut the door, but we shouldn't open it wide, yet," she said.
Jacobs: "I do think if, and I expect when, legalization occurs we should be prepared. We should be proactive in determining whether or not we want to, as part of our ordinances, deal with it up front...when it happens I want to be ready, unlike the solar situation where all of a sudden it was here and we started to backfill, and I think we got the backfill result," he said, adding that the board will not have to deal with this right away, but will at some point in the near future.
Jenkins: "I think I like the cautious approach the legislature seems to be taking," she said. "It makes sense for us to all be aware of the impact on youth brain development." She said setting standards for marijuana consumption in terms of what's in the product is a plus, and that Vermont should learn from other states and countries who have legalized it. "I appreciate that we are moving forward on this in a measured way so that the decisions we make are not rash and they have thought and data behind them."
Miller: "I think the Select Board's role is to be ready. It's probably inevitable," he said. While the bill in the legislature has safeguards, it leaves much for town's to decide. "Especially basic questions, do you want to declare yourself a dry town, if you're going to allow business in town to be permitted, and that might require some zoning changes and things like that." He said work on how to handle these things should begin now. He said young people need to be protected against the harmful effects of marijuana.
McDonough: "As the athletic director of Southern Vermont College, this is really a challenging issue for me personally as well as our state," he said. "We as a society have never dealt very well with the concept of prohibition, whatever it is we prohibit we find a way to achieve it anyway." He said he also worries about the impacts marijuana's increased availability might have on young people, especially ones in the educational system. "The bottom line for me is we're just not ready yet. I think all of the concerns everybody has expressed at the table still need a lot more thought."