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Council candidates air views at forum

VERGENNES — Five of the six candidates for three seats on the Vergennes city council attended a Feb. 23 forum at American Legion Post 14 and answered a series of questions about taxes, the city’s economic climate, how they view teamwork in city government, and the future of the city’s police station.
Multi-term incumbents David Austin (who did not attend), Lowell Bertrand and Clara “Ziggy” Comeau are being challenged by William Benton, Nelson Sears, and former city manager Renny Perry. The race is the most crowded in at least a decade and a half.
Vergennes residents will cast votes for the three candidates of their choice next Tuesday, Town Meeting Day, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. at the fire station.
The Feb. 23 forum was attended by about four dozen people. Each candidate was given a brief amount of time for introductions, including two candidates for the Vergennes Union Elementary School board, incumbent Cheryl Brinkman and challenger Susan Ferland (see separate story, Page 2A).
Each then took turns answering five pre-set questions, with a strictly imposed 90-second time limit. The order of response was changed for each question.
In their opening statements, candidates were invited to share their backgrounds and state their reasons for running. Their remarks are edited for space here, but are printed in the order of their remarks. Some biographical data is added.
OPENING STATEMENTS
BENTON: Benton, a Vergennes native, has operated a real estate appraisal business in the city for 31 years after graduating from the University of Vermont. He is also the Middlebury town assessor and a downtown property owner. He has also lived in Waltham, and his three children have gone to city schools. He has served or is serving on a half-dozen city or regional boards, including a lengthy stint as the president of the Vergennes Partnership. 
 “It’s a great place to live,” he said. “My family was always interested in giving back to the community, and I feel the same way. I’ve been involved in a lot of different organizations.”
Benton said he is self-employed and his hours will help him serve.
 “I’m lucky because I have a job that allows me flexibility,” he said. “So I can do this.”
BERTRAND: Bertrand first won election to the council in 2008. He has lived in Vergennes for 40 years after moving to the city at the age of 4. He has worked for almost 25 years at Goodrich Aerospace, now in what the company calls “configuration management,” making sure the firm follows proper procedures when it releases documents, drawings and bids to clients.
“I have no platform except for trying to keep the taxes down, especially with the way the economy is now,” Bertrand said. “I would consider it a privilege to serve again.”
COMEAU: Comeau, a real estate broker and downtown property owner, was first appointed to the city council in 2005. Comeau, who also spent a half-dozen years on the city’s planning and zoning boards, has easily won three races to retain her office.
“I would like to run again because I was involved, and also David Austin was involved, in the beginning of the city plan, and also the new rules for the zoning change,” Comeau said. “So I feel that because we were the only two that got involved in the beginning and know the way things are going to be going on, that I should stay on for another term and get this through, get this passed, and get it to where it should be.”
PERRY: Perry has 20 years of experience as a city manager, including his half-dozen year tenure as the Vergennes city manager that ended in 2008 when he left to become Vermont’s director of trial court operations, a job he still holds. He also served on two municipal councils in New Hampshire and was elected to one term as the mayor of Dover, a city of about 30,000.
“I think all of that experience I have in local government can be of benefit to Vergennes and its citizens,” Perry said. “And I want to give back. And actually I miss it a little bit. I’ve been out of it for three-and-a-half years at another job, and I’d like to get better connected with the community …
“What would I like to do for you? Responsibly hold down the taxes. See that downtown improvements continue. See that we develop a supportive business atmosphere. Encourage economic development. Pay particular attention to the zoning bylaws that are coming to the city council, because that’s really important to shaping the future of the city.” 
SEARS: Sears is a fifth-generation Vermonter and 1975 Vergennes Union High School graduate who has lived and worked in Miami, Chicago and Costa Rica, with jobs including adult education teacher, actor, substance abuse counselor, and public relations, marketing, and community outreach professional. He returned in 2008 to care for his ailing mother, and is now working for and taking courses at UVM. 
“I left seeking fame and fortune, achieved neither, but learned a lot along the way,” he said, and then emphasized his background in marketing, outreach and public relations as a positive in engaging citizens with city government.
“The (city) plan is an incredible document, and I keep going back to it. One of the things that sticks with me is ‘Actively engage the community,’ so I would like to flip things a bit … I would like to find out what you would like to be done for the city,” he said.
QUESTION ONE: The candidates were asked about being “a team member” on the council, serving on committees, and “demonstrating measurable results.”
SEARS: “We have a blueprint that has been created (the city plan) … I’ve gone through a lot of the minutes, and a lot of the work is not glamorous work … But it’s important work that needs to be done, and it takes attention, and I have great writing skills from public relations …
“There are people in Vergennes who volunteer for these various commissions. I would like to expand that team so that more people are actively involved, and figure out what is of interest to you (residents).” 
PERRY: “I think it’s absolutely essential that a council work as a team … As far as commitment, it took me a while to decide to get back into local government. I think I was committed when I was here before, and I intend to be very committed now and will work on any committee necessary to do the best job I can.”
BERTRAND: “I always make my decisions on what’s best for the community. I try to set aside my personal feelings and do what’s right the community. And working as a team with the rest of the council is very important for the city.”
COMEAU: “Working as a team has a lot to do with being on the city council. But every individual person that is on the city council has their own identity, and they all bring something to the board. And doing that, we all have respect for each other and we all listen to each other.”
BENTON: “The nice thing about a small town like Vergennes it that it’s a non-partisan community when it comes to local government. We all realize that we need to do what’s best for the community … One of things that may be lacking, or that I’m hearing is that there may not be enough communication, and I think that is critical.”
QUESTION 2: Candidates were asked if the city’s police station should be moved out of city hall, and if they had a preference on location.
PERRY: “It should have moved out a long time ago … when I was city manager, I started the whole movement of moving the station out … That’s an incompatible use of having the police station in where the opera house is, and with modern policing the way it is, they need more space.”
BERTRAND: “When there is an event at the opera house, and when somebody is taken into custody they may accidentally hurt somebody while being transported … A perfect location would be the old Denecker building across from Kennedy Brothers … We could have our cars stay inside … and I think it’s an adequate building.”
COMEAU:  “We have approximately three-and-a-half good acres out there (city-owned land off New Haven Road). That is ours, free … I think that would be a good place.”
BENTON: “I remember when I was about 5 years old, and the police station was in the same place it is in now, and we had two police officers and one cruiser … We have three or four cruisers and we have eight staff. The legal requirements are so much more difficult now, technological advances. I think it makes perfect sense to look seriously at moving the police station.”
SEARS: “It absolutely makes no sense to have a high-security place of law enforcement mixed with a place like the opera house … (Suggesting the Denecker site) “There’s something about the flag and the police station. It’s a presence, and it’s a presence that’s needed.”
QUESTION 3: “In concert with the (Vergennes) Partnership, what are your ideas of promoting new and established businesses in the city?”
BERTRAND: “Everybody’s fighting for the same businesses into the same locations. Everybody has open storefronts … I don’t know what we could do to make it attractive for them without cutting taxes for them. And if we cut taxes for them, our taxpayers have to pick up the burden … So I really don’t have an answer for that.”
COMEAU: “I’ve lived in Vergennes long enough to see it when it was really busy and when it was almost a ghost town … And then our partnership came and … did a lot of good work to bring people back in here. But again with the economy the way it is, it’s hard.”
BENTON: “Things are not as bad as they were two or three years ago … We can’t remain stagnant. We have to continue to remain positive, to push the community, to sell it to small businesses who want to conduct business in a nice atmosphere.”
SEARS: “The economy is bad, but people are still spending money.”
Sears recommended “collaborative opportunities with the University of Vermont and Middlebury College” for marketing surveys in helping city officials in “knowing the demographics … and what the essentials are for those people.”
PERRY: “We have to be really careful about supporting our existing businesses … It’s hard to get ones that aren’t here.”
Perry suggested a “business visitation program” including partnership and city officials. “That has to come from the top. The city council has to show it is in support of business ventures.”
“We can also do things like targeted promotions when we do have spaces that are open, we can actually go and seek particular businesses to fill them.”
QUESTION 4: Given the tough economic climate, candidates were asked “What ideas do you have for keeping the tax rate stable?”
COMEAU: “We have a good city manager that knows how to budget … We’ve been doing very well the last two or three years trying to keep our taxes down and stable.”
BENTON: “I don’t think we should cut things for the sake of keeping the tax rate stable if those things are in the long-term interest of the community, in terms of maintaining infrastructure or equipment … We’ve been able to get a lot of money by renting out the water tower for cell phone use. Creative uses like that to increase revenues are things we all need to look at … and I think we need to try to investigate additional grant monies.”
SEARS: “Anyone who tells you they can keep tax rates stable might also sell you some land off West Florida.”
“All of the things they have mentioned and fiscal responsibility can hedge some of that.”
PERRY: “There are some things you have to do regardless of the cost in taxes because you might be putting off something that might cost the taxpayers a lot more later on. Expanding the tax base is another thing to try and deal with taxes.”
BERTRAND: “I think Middlebury and some other towns put either a small percentage on the rooms and meals tax or a local tax on non-perishable items, just some way to generate revenue without having to increase taxes.”
QUESTION 5: Candidates were asked if they would support a local option tax of 1 percent on the rooms and meals, state sales, and local use rate taxes in Vergennes.
BENTON: “We would have to seriously look into the ramifications of those tax increases … But the reason I say that is the 1 percent local option tax is applied to, for instance, electric bills. We all have electric bills, but the nice thing is Goodrich has a much bigger electric bill than we have.” 
SEARS: “I am concerned about the impact on businesses … Burlington does have the (extra option tax) on the state rooms and meals tax, and for the tourists coming in. I don’t know that that’s that much of a hit for them.”
PERRY: “I would certainly consider it, but I would have to spend a good amount of time talking to businesses about what impact they feel they would (have) … We could really scare people away from doing business in Vergennes … and we can’t afford to have that happen.”
BERTRAND: “We could run the risk of driving our potential buyers away … I would look at other ways of generating income first before doing this.”
COMEAU: (Comeau said she spoke to two business owners about the idea.) “One of them didn’t think it would have that bad an effect, but another had some concerns … It’s worth looking into, but I think we really have to think about this one.”
Reporter Andy Kirkaldy is at [email protected].

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