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Council forum puts candidates on display

October 22, 2009
CLAREMONT Predictably, taxes, spending and growth were the key themes at the Claremont Chamber of Commerce-sponsored councilor candidate forum Tuesday night.

Of the 21 candidates, only Ward III candidate John O'Connor was missing.

School Board Chair David Putnam served as moderator of the forum, which was broken up into four separate groups in order to accommodate the large field.

The first group to go included the candidates for mayor (incumbent Deborah Cutts, challenger James Nielsen IV) and assistant mayor (incumbent Andrew Austin, challenger and current Ward II Councilor Paul LaCasse).

Putnam asked the same three questions of each candidate. The first was "what do you believe to be the single most important issue facing Claremont in the next two years?"

Mayor Cutts was first given the first opportunity to respond.

"Our ability to sustain responsible growth and to address the concerns about property taxes. No one likes paying taxes, but they're a fact of life," Cutts said.

Nielsen responded that he believes the most important issue(s) is "the tax rate, the growth of business, and the issue of bonding," although he added that if the city's tax rate goes up, it's most likely due to "the schools and county [portions of the tax rate]."

Assistant Mayor Andrew Austin replied that "economic growth," would be most important, but that "putting an addition on [the high school] and focusing on education" would be important as well.

LaCasse apparently read from the section of the city charter that literally states what the assistant mayor's duties are.

The second question asked of candidates was "what do you believe are your responsibilities as [a member of the council]?"

Nielsen took the opportunity to suggest that Cutts has not conducted the meetings with proper decorum, as according to the charter.

But Cutts countered by saying "reading the rules and employing them are two different things," but ultimately answered the question by adding that her most important responsibility is "reflecting what's important to the taxpayers."

Austin's answer included "attending meetings at the state level," and "supporting the mayor."

The third question asked of the candidates was "how do you intend to sustain growth while also exercising fiscal responsibility?"

LaCasse gave a short answer, as was his trademark for the night.

"All the council can legally do is review the budget the city manager presents to them," he said, adding they're capable of little more besides making small changes.

The candidates were also each potentially asked a question prepared by another candidate in their field.

With just two candidates running for the seat, LaCasse apparently posed the question to Austin, asked by Putnam, "when you originally ran for council your campaign was for lower taxes, but since elected you have voted several times to increase taxes, why?"

Austin replied that he didn't feel those votes represented "raising taxes" as much as they were to "keep up with growth," and that "there's no way to avoid that increase it wasn't a matter of raising taxes."

The second group was Wards I (Vic Bergeron, Bradley Ferland) and II (current at-large Councilor Keith Raymond, William Regan III).

To the question of the most important issue facing the city the next two years, Ferland said it's "figuring out how to move the city forward without burdening the taxpayers."

Bergeron said the biggest issue could be whether the state continues to cut funding.

Ferland said his responsibility as councilor is to "practice integrity and honesty," and that he'll practice fiscal responsibility by "making sure needs are met before wants."

Bergeron said he would help growth and be fiscally responsible by "looking back 10 years to see what's been done," followed by speaking with appropriate members of administration.

In his closing statement, Bergeron added that "One thing is clear: this election will decide whether we want to move forward or go back to the '80's and '90's."

Raymond said the most important issue(s) is "renovating the high school, and building a new community center, because that's what people and businesses look at when they want to move somewhere."

Regan said it's to "keep the momentum we've developed," and agreed that schools are important.

As for how to be fiscally responsible while encouraging growth, Raymond said he believes "the city council's record the last few years shows they have been fiscally responsible," citing Lowe's, CVS, and other businesses coming to Claremont despite the recession.

Regan said his responsibility is to "talk and meet with constituents," and to "be prepared and read the materials."

Ward III was next up, with Nick Koloski, Robert Woodman, and Dennis Dube all in attendance (John O'Connor did not participate).

Woodman said "the biggest problem is probably that we have too many underemployed workers," later adding "as long as there's breath in my body, I'll do what I can to help Claremont."

In his introduction, Koloski said he's "not a quitter or a yes-man, and if I was I would've thrown in the towel a long time ago, after the nasty letters, phone calls, someone going through my garbage, and putting an industrial nail in one of my tires."

Koloski said he believes he'll be fiscally responsible because "my friends call me cheap, I say I'm frugal. I don't take spending other people's money lightly."

Dube answered it's important "not to bite off more than we can chew, or even swallow," and added he believes his responsibility is to "make decisions that reflect the decision of the taxpayers."

With the event running ahead of schedule, the decision was made to invite all nine at-large candidates (current at-large Councilor Kyle Messier, current at-large Councilor Robert Picard, current Ward I Councilor Chris Lewis, current Ward III Councilor Jeff Goff, Cynthia Howard, Adam Burke, Gerald Donatelli, Steven Picano, Levi Sanders) to the forum at once, instead of the original plan of breaking them up into two groups.

Donatelli was the first to answer, regarding the biggest issue facing Claremont the next two years.

"Accountability of government," he said. "And to stop wasteful spending."

Goff phrased his answer in the form of a question.

"I think we have to ask ourselves, where do we go from here," he said. "Look where we've been and now we're the envy of the state. Do we continue on that path, or do we slash the budget and cut services?"

Lewis expressed similar concerns.

"We cannot cut the budget to bare bones," he said.

But Sanders took issue with what he referred to as "scare tactics."

"It's absurd to suggest that anyone in Claremont wants to cut essential services," he said. "When you hear the negativity coming from members of the council, it makes you wonder why they support the city manager, even though he [Guy Santagate] signed the tax cap petition."

Picard also focused on the point, adding that "I believe the city council already voted on the petition to cut the budget by 30 to 60 percent, and that was voted down."

Ten years after the fact we're finding out that this bedroom community thing don't work," he said. "There's a lot of talk about city growth, but look at the number of houses for sale, the number of apartments for rent, the number of empty storefronts."

Sanders added he'd like to see more transparency from the council and the city, referring to the "$880 thousand dollars apparently wasted on the recreational center project, and they can't even tell us where it went."

Sanders also said it's not right that a resident must file a 91a form to obtain salary information, and even worse that the city charges for their time.

With regards to being fiscally responsible, Messier said she supports "the fiscal restraint the council has been following."

The at-large incumbent agreed with Goff and Lewis that whether or not "we continue to move the city forward, or go back to the '90's when the city deteriorated and property values fell 20 percent," will be the most important issue facing Claremont in the next two years.

But Picano agreed with Sanders that some are using scare tactics.

"They're trying to frighten the senior community," he said. "No one's talking about cutting services, they're talking about spending wisely."

Howard, who sparked the controversy when her group (Claremont Citizens for Lower Taxes) presented the municipal spending cap petition to the council, defended her group's stance.

"When we presented the first petition to the council," she said, referring to the petition preceding the tax cap petition, proposing to cut the budget by 30 to 60 percent. "The intention was to start a discussion about property taxes, not to slash services."

Asked what she feels is her responsibility as councilor, Howard said "directing the city manager," was near the top of her list, and that "the current council has lacked that."

On how to promote growth while spending wisely, Burke said "not spending above our means," is key. "The city manager and the council have done a good job of that already, and I think we've created the environment we need to bring in new businesses."

Lewis defended his remarks by saying he agrees that the idea of slashing the budget by 30 to 60 percent is "scary," but that if certain people are elected he fears it could happen.

"The math just doesn't add up," he said. "You're talking about cutting $5 million from a $15 million budget services would suffer."

The forum was broadcast live on CCTV, and will appear again Saturday evening. Residents can check the website, www.claremontv.org for scheduling details.

Martin Lord and Osman
Salmon Press
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