Candidates share priorities, differ in vision

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BRATTLEBORO — Select Board candidates are united on issues but have different ideas on how to improve the town.

Ben Coplan, who's running against incumbent Tim Wessel for a three-year seat, said he has lived in Brattleboro for 45 years.

"The town's been awfully good to me and my family, and I feel some responsibility to help shape its future," he said during a forum Wednesday night. "I also think there are some ways in which we can make it better."

After two one-year terms, Wessel said he wants to continue serving on the board he believes works well together.

Oscar Heller, one of four candidates vying for two one-year seats, said he wanted to move to the area after attending a "very rustic camp" as a child. He is a young professional who co-owns a graphic design and website building company.

Elizabeth McLoughlin, one of his opponents, said she knows the needs of the community. She is the chairwoman of the town's Planning Commission, and sits on the skatepark committee and finance committee.

"I think Brattleboro is a caring community and I want to be a part of the continued care as part of the Select Board," she said.

Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee Chairman Franz Reichsman, another contender for the one-year seats, initially worried about lack of participation in the election. But he said good candidates have come forward.

Daniel Quipp, who's also seeking one of the one-year terms, said he grew up in a single parent household with a fairly low income and worked to escape the challenges of poverty.

"For me, it's really important that there's someone on the board who has an experience of poverty and a desire to see people's lives in this town improve," he said.

Coplan said he is seeing a higher number of people living in poor conditions than in the past. Wessel worries middle income earners, who he sees as crucial to the grand list, are being "squeezed" out of the community.

Heller said he is concerned about gentrification in the community and the risk of displacing residents.

"Navigating that balance may be the primary challenge of Brattleboro in the future," he said.

McLoughlin said she feels the board is already collaborating with social service agencies to meet needs in the community. Reichsman calls the budget "love made visible." He was the only candidate to suggest the local 1 percent option being proposed to Town Meeting members at their annual meeting could significantly hurt merchants.

Others were supportive of the new revenue source as it is seen to be a way to help reduce the burden on property taxpayers. Quipp suggested the possibility of an income tax as additional help.

"I think we should talk about spending levels," said Reichsman.

For Heller, economic development is a big piece of the equation.

"I think the era of the 500-job factory in Vermont, in Brattleboro, is probably over for good by Vermont's choice largely," he said, having hopes of attracting those in the tech industry to the community.

On improving diversity and equity, Coplan suggested making more education and training available. He worries those opportunities in Brattleboro were slipping away with recent changes at SIT Graduate Institute and Marlboro College seeing less higher education classes in town.

Wessel said the town wants to hire a human resources director with experience in equity and diversity. Lack of the latter is one weakness of Vermont, said Heller.

McLoughlin advocated for looking for people of all colors and genders but also from different places geographically. She called the decision to hire a female as town planning director "a nice step."

"I already think of Brattleboro as a welcoming place for people to come to," said Reichsman. "I think from the discussion I've heard at Select Board meetings ... the issue is considered pretty much all the time. It comes up quite frequently. I guess my question would be: What can you do? We can open the doors and offer the opportunities but then people have to walk through the doors and take those opportunities."

Reichsman said he'd like to see some Republicans involved in local discussions.

"Folks need to feel they are generally welcome," said Quipp, who was the first to advocate for better accessibility downtown.

The other candidates agreed.

"I think the town is aware of this issue and is working with others to make improvements," said McLoughlin.

All the candidates supported the idea of shopping locally but did not feel it would be their job as Select Board members to encourage it. Quipp leaned on Vermont's motto, "Freedom and Unity," while saying the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Brattleboro were already doing good work to promote the community. Heller said he has been thinking up a "crazy idea" for an incentive program for local shopping.

The candidates did not support an ordinance that would tell people how high they could keep their thermostat. An article at Representative Town Meeting proposes a plan to cut down on energy consumption in town buildings and look at having similar requirements in households or businesses.

Quipp, a climate activist, said he did not feel the board has any role to tell people what to do in their private homes.

"We can do more as a state and region to encourage energy efficiency," he said.

McLoughlin said she felt energy auditors were already doing good work in the community.

"Big brother as a thermostat?" she said. "I don't think so."

Expressing frustration with the candidates' support for the 1 percent local option tax, Rikki Risatti of Brattleboro said she would be running as a write-in candidate for the board seats and would "offer more solutions" than she heard at the forum.

Another resident commended the candidates for being of high quality.

In closing remarks, Heller encouraged people to get in touch with the candidates.

"This is cheesy," he said, "but this is the purest form of democracy."

Coplan spoke about bringing more families to town. Wessel said he supported the idea of municipal broadband and getting the skatepark finished. McLoughlin touted her professional experience as a planner and her work as a volunteer. And Quipp suggested the town look at eliminating its reliance on fossil fuel and improving transportation.

Brattleboro Community Television and The Commons hosted the forum. Moderators included Brattleboro Community Justice Center Executive Director Mel Motel, Brattleboro Reformer editor Melanie Winters and The Commons editor Randy Holhut. Questions also came from audience members in the room and on Facebook.

The election is 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. March 5 at the American Legion at 32 Linden St. Early voting began Wednesday.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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