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March 1, 2007

By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — The seven-member Vergennes City Council could have four new members after Tuesday: Mayor April Jin is facing former alderman Michael Daniels for a two-year term, while Alderman Randy Ouellette is the only incumbent in a field of five seeking three council seats.

Ouellette is facing Mathew Chabot, Christine Collette, Peter Garon and Diane Lanpher; The top three vote-getters will earn two-year terms.

All the candidates except Chabot attended a forum hosted by American Legion Post 14 on Feb. 22; Chabot was out of town on business. Jin and Daniels’ opening remarks and responses to questions from the audience of about 20 were excerpted in Monday’s Independent.

This article presents excerpts from the opening statements from the council candidates, in which they offered brief biographies, their reasons for running, and responses to several questions. Chabot participated after the fact via e-mail.

OPENING REMARKS

Chabot grew up in East Hardwick and graduated from U-32 High School in 1984; he manages Macy’s Department Store in Burlington. He attended Johnson State College and lived in Massachusetts and Connecticut before returning to Vermont five years ago.

Chabot, who has spoken at council meetings on traffic issues, said, “I have chosen to run … for many of the same reasons I chose to return to Vermont. We live in one of the most beautiful areas in the country, with balanced, grounded beliefs and a strong sense of community.” He added that his “priority in public service would be to increase the engagement of our community in the process.”

Collette is a Vergennes-area native who said she is in her late 50s. The manager of the city branch of the Merchants Bank, Collette has served on the Vergennes Planning Commission, the Vergennes-Panton Water District board, and the board of the local chamber of commerce.

Collette said she disagreed in 2005 with aldermen’s management of the city’s dispute with state and federal officials over city funding for hosting Northlands Job Corps, and in 2006 with their proposed $1 million deal with a private developer to extend sewer into Ferrisburgh.

“I didn’t like the way the Northlands Job Corps situation was handled, and I didn’t like the way the Infill Group sewer deal was handled, so that was why I decided to run and have my say,” Collette said.

Garon, a Vergennes Area Rescue Squad member, is a former Milton school board member who works in human resources for the state of Vermont. His wife, Cheryl Brinkman, is a Vergennes Union Elementary School board member and area native. He described himself as a “fairly typical” resident.

“I don’t like paying property taxes or sewer taxes, but I sure like city sewer better than septic systems, and I’m awful glad we had enough plows, trucks and people to take care of the Valentine’s Day Massacre,” Garon said.

He said his human resource background would serve him well in office.

“I’m a problem-solver who daily has to bring together people with strong disagreements, bring them together in common decisions. I’m open-minded and operate with a good measure of common sense,” he said. “I’m always looking for new ways to analyze problems.”

Lanpher, a Buffalo, N.Y., native who has lived in Vermont for 23 years, was a Democratic candidate for the Vermont House this past fall. In recent years she has worked for the New England Institute of Addiction Study to enhance substance abuse treatment in Vermont and has been affiliated with Vermont Department of Health’s Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse since 2001.

“I’m very pleased to say that when I go to work I try to do something for Vermont every day,” she said.

She also spent a decade as Cornell Trading’ U.S. retail fulfillment agent, and also worked at both the city’s schools prior to that, and has served on St. Peter’s Catholic Church’s parish council and on the Vermont bishop’s lay committee.

Ouellette owns and operates R&K Woodworking on Panton Road. He has lived in the Vergennes area for 19 years, and has also been a St. Peter’s parish council member. Ouellette said he has not missed a city council meeting in his two years, and that he is always available at his shop to listen to residents.

“Whenever I get a call from one of my constituents I immediately pass it on to have action taken on it,” he said.

Ouellette said he believes he has always put the city first.

“I’ve always believed I’ve had the best interest of Vergennes in mind,” he said.

POLICE FUNDING

One of the first questions the candidates were asked was how they felt about fire department, rescue and police funding. All agreed about fire and rescue spending, but differences emerged on police spending, especially on the need for a new station. Excerpts from their responses follow.

COLLETTE: “Yes, (the station) should be moved out of the opera house. Is it feasible? That’s what we need to discuss down the line here. Where would we get funding? Can we afford to build, buy, or whatever the situation may be?” she said.

GARON: “Must we have this (new station) to get to the level of services that the city wants, or is it nice to have this? … Do we have to have a new building, or would we just like to have a new building?” he said. “In terms of moving out of the opera house … obviously that’s not a good place to have the police department … The question then becomes how much is the city willing to spend to move in that next direction.”

OUELLETTE: “I do believe we have to move the police station away from the opera house,” he said. “And just in general we need to have a strong police force and we need to have the police staffed.”

LANPHER: “I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave (the station) there. There are safety concerns for officers and for people coming in. I think they need to have their own space and be able to secure that well,” she said. “Vermont is a wonderful place … However we are seeing a lot more (criminal) activity, and we would like to strengthen … our response to that.”

CHABOT: “I feel that although our part-time officers are outstanding, they are also easily recruited by other departments offering full-time positions. The cost of continually retraining officers for the part-time jobs is a drain on our financial resources … Housing one of our arts centers with our law enforcement offices does not seem to be an acceptable combination.”

SERVICES VS. TAXES

Candidates were asked how they would reconcile increasing demands for services while some funding sources were decreasing.

GARON: “Part of our role is (to find) what alternatives are out there. What sources of money might there be? What different ways are there of looking at the issue?” Garon said. “One direction I would go in is to look for other partnerships. Are there partnerships that can be developed with other towns? With the state? …. Partnerships within the city between businesses and government? These are things that have been done in other places.”

LANPHER: “Right off I’m going to ask myself if there are demands that are not being met … and if we can get to those specifics and deal with it on a detail basis,” Lanpher said. “I would look at those demands individually and how we could meet them, first without raising any taxes, and we can put our best thinking around them. And if we’ve got multiple things happening that would increase the budget, (we should) go back to the people and listen to what they think the best avenue is to spend our money.”

OUELLETTE: “There are business members who have certain skills and abilities to have certain things that maybe the city should reach out and tap,” he said. “We need to, as a community, make sure we protect our elderly … either by reducing their property taxes by their age or reducing by their age, depending on usage. They shouldn’t be charged what a family of five is being charged … We just need to tighten our belts.”

CHABOT: (In his e-mail Chabot said some of the answers can come from the creativity city officials have already used to find alternative ways for the state to compensate the city for hosting Northlands, such as obtaining permission to spread sewer lagoon sludge on state-owned land, a move that could save hundreds of thousands of dollars.)

“If the needs of the City are met, by way of service, it accomplishes the same purpose. I believe (City Manager) Renny Perry has become quite adept at working through these opportunities and, while protecting our assets, gaining improvements for the advantage of all of us,” he said.

COLLETTE: “I hear it all the time in the bank, from (elderly) people struggling to pay sewer and taxes,” she said. “I will do my darndest to protect that group and keep the costs down. And if we can’t afford it, we can’t afford it. And if it’s issues such as the police station, we can think about it, but if we can’t afford it, I tell you, I wouldn’t vote for it.”

FUNDING PRIORITIES

One of the evening’s final questions focused on the related question of funding priorities. All candidates agreed on fire, rescue, police and infrastructure spending, but some points of emphasis differed.

LANPHER: “I’d have to take a look at the budget … (and) look at making some hard cuts, if we need to make cuts.”

GARON: “You start at the bottom building the services from the central priorities all the way up through. And you do that in a manner where I can turn around to the person who lives next to me and say, ‘OK, here’s what things cost and these are the priorities that we think there are. And if we stay where we are these top things aren’t going to be there anymore.’ But rather than saying, ‘Here’s the budget. What needs to be cut,’ start from the other end of things, the core services.”

COLLETTE: “I’m not familiar with the budget line for line. I assume that’s what you have to do, adjust every line item each time you write the budget … But again I would agree with Peter. It’s not just me. It’s with the folks out there where the priorities stand.”

CHABOT: “Vergennes will continue to grow as a hub for northern Addison County. Funding will need to be established to maintain the quality of life we have all chosen here. The drain on our infrastructure is as of yet undetermined, but there is going to be a drain … It requires sound fiscal responsibilities at all levels of our city government. It’s not always about spending more, sometimes just spending differently.”

OUELLETTE: “Vergennes Day is a great time. We put a fair amount of money into that, but we also get a fair amount of money back out of that. So we need to do more things that are more profitable to the city, so that they can kick back into the coffers. The only real absolute priorities are the police, the fire, rescue, public works. Everything else is up on the scale when it comes time to cut.”

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