Chestertown Town Council: Candidates for Ward 1 Answer Voters’ Questions

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The above video from the candidate forum is just under 22 minutes, edited down from the full hour and a half meeting. 

Three candidates for Chestertown’s Ward 1 Council seat took the stage at Heron Point Wednesday night in a League of Women Voters forum. Owen Bailey, Bob Miller and David Foster are running to fill the seat vacated by Councilwoman Liz Gross, who announced earlier this year that she would not seek re-election. A substantial crowd, almost 200, was present to hear the candidates’ views, with very few vacant seats in the Wesley Hall meeting room.  The election is next Tuesday, Nov 7, 2017, with voting from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m

David Foster, candidate for Ward 1

After a brief introduction by League representatives, outlining the format for the discussion, the candidates made introductory statements. Foster said he loves Chestertown, but like other small town across the nation, it faces perilous times, with shrinking tax bases, growing costs and the loss of young residents who have trouble finding jobs. He said he has the expertise and experience to tackle those problems, bringing in jobs and young families to sustain the amenities residents have come to love.

Bob Miller, candidate for Ward 1

Miller said he and his wife moved here two years ago and want to make a contribution to the community. He said he has 35 years of experience as a Certified Public Accountant for nonprofit organizations. He said Chestertown is essentially a $5 million nonprofit, with the council serving as its board of directors. His background, he said,  would be useful in helping the town find the best way to allocate its resources to best serve its residents.

Bailey said he was born in Chestertown and has spent most of his life here, with most of his career working for nonprofits including the Washington College Literary House and the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy. He said many young people leave the community in search of work and affordable housing. His focus, if elected, he said, would be on issues such as alternative transportation and the creation of job opportunities.

Owen Bailey, candidate for Ward 1

The candidates were then asked to answer three questions from the League, which they were given in advance. First, they were asked how, given limited resources, they would ensure that road maintenance would be funded.

Foster said infrastructure maintenance is one of the town’s largest budget items. He said the current approach, as developed by engineering schools, is a system to manage roads on a regular basis, similar to getting regular medical checkups instead of waiting for a medical crisis. He said regular maintenance would reduce costs by some 40 percent over waiting until complete repaving is needed.

Miller said the town has an adequate budget for road maintenance. He said he is generally mpressed with the condition of the town streets, having seen far worse in travels to other parts of the world. He said the state Department of Transportation may have grants available to support road work within the town.

Bailey said the town needs to plan ahead to keep its streets in repair. He said heavy truck traffic does most of the damage to the town streets. He said an investment in bicycle and pedestrian paths would help remove cars from the roads, decreasing wear.

The second League question concerned ways to encourage the upkeep of properties in town, either by enforcing current regulations or proposing new ones.

Miller said he favored a “see something, say something” approach to derelict properties. He said he had called attention to two properties at an October council meeting, He said a system of stiff fines would make a difference. He said he would work to see that rules are followed.

Bailey agreed that residents should call attention to problems they see. He said it might also be good to encourage volunteers to help residents, especially elderly ones, to maintain their property and perform such tasks as shoveling snow.

Foster said poor maintenance is a chronic issue, noting that he and his wife had renovated a High Street building that had been a problem. He said clear building codes and fair enforcement were key, but the real issues are public awareness and prompt enforcement.

The third League question asked the candidates what they would do to help downtown merchants increase their profitability, including ways to increase the number of visitors to town.

Bailey said people come to town “for the experience,” something they can’t get at malls or online shopping sites. He said the town needs to enhance its character, improve access to businesses and support events that bring in visitors. He said the town should also encourage minority investments in downtown business.

Foster said he agreed about selling “the experience”. He said not all events draw the same number of visitors, and not all benefit downtown merchants the same way. He said the Harry Potter festival, by including a scavenger hunt sending participants to businesses all over town, was among the most successful. He said the festival organizers had worked together with business owners, and that was the reason for the success. He said another factor would be to promote nearby attractions, thereby encouraging people to prolong their stays in the area.

Miller said the council has been supportive of businesses, especially with its development of the Arts and Entertainment District. He said the real key is an emphasis on careers instead of jobs, to give the young the ability to stay here and raise families, He suggested a conference center as a way to attract more business, along with night-time entertainment. Keeping the hospital here is a central issue, he said.

Hope Clark asks a question while Nancy Smith holds the microphone transmitter.

The moderator, Lyn Dolinger, then accepted questions from the audience. Hope Clark, a member of the Diversity Dialogue Group, said there has been considerable discussion of race and racism in the community recently. She asked how the candidates would address racial issues if elected. She also asked how they would encourage members of minorities to open businesses in town.

“We need more cultural sensitivity and inclusion.” Miller said, citing Washington DC as a city where different races and cultures mingle more freely. “We need to make it easy” for members of minority groups to open businesses downtown, he said. He cited Legacy Day as an example of how different groups can work together to reach valuable goals.

Foster said he has been involved with Sumner Hall and the Diversity Group. He said that the issue is the existence of barriers, some of which are self-imposed.  It’s necessary to reach out personally to reach many members of the black community, he said, citing the Reconciliation event held at the Garfield Center a number of years ago as an example of how that can work.

“Kent County always seems to be starting from farther behind,” Bailey said. He said the focus at Eastern Shore Land Conservancy is “going to the people you need to attract and dealing with them in person.” He said you need experts to make it work, mentioning Rosemary Ramsey-Granillo of the Local Management Board as someone with the experience to reach members of minorities.

Another audience member said he was worried that too much emphasis on tourism could turn Chestertown into a “t-shirt and ice cream center.” He asked how development could be kept in control.

Foster said the town is trying to attract people. He said there are sufficient regulations to prevent unchecked development. “I don’t see it as a problem,” he said. He suggested working with Washington College to study ways to encourage development without letting it run away.

“Washington College is a great resource,” Bailey said, citing departments like the Center for Environment  and Society. He said many college towns have a town-and-gown committee to facilitate communication between the two. He said both institutions need to understand each other and work together.

Miller said he saw the results of 30 years of development in Kensington before moving here. Growth equals prosperity, but it needs to be kept within limits, he said.

Former Ward 1 Councilman Jim Gatto asked about town finances and the lack of a CPA in the town government.

Miller said he had looked at the town budget. He said the budget needs to be more transparent, with clear statements of where the town’s expenditures are in relation to the budget on a regular basis. He said the town isn’t in danger of failing an audit, but it does need a CPA in the office.

Foster agreed there should be a CPA in the town government. He said it isn’t clear whether the town’s debt is increasing, or what to do if it does. Chestertown already has some of the highest taxes in the state, he said.

Bailey said he would need to work with the town staff to see how things work. “I agree there should be long-term planning,” he said.

Another audience member asked how to increase affordable housing in town.

Foster said the town does have some affordable housing, but not enough. He said there are no easy solutions – “Rent freezes don’t work,” he said. He said restoring some of the dilapidated houses in town might be the best solution.

Bailey said infill development is part of the solution. He said Easton has had some success in lowering rents, and Chestertown might learn from its approach.

Miller said rents are too high, possibly because many college students’ parents can afford them. He said rent controls in some sections of town might be an answer.

Candidates for Chestertown Ward 1 Council Member (L-R) David Foster, Bob Miller, Owen Bailey

Margie Ellsburg asked whether the candidates support the marina project.

“It’s vital to preserve access to a natural resource, the river”, said Bailey. He said it would bring people into town. It’s important to raise the parking lot at the marina to counter the effects of flooding, but it needs to pay for itself.

Miller said he has looked at the budget, and the marina seems to be paying its way. He said a better marina will be self-supporting and a draw for the town.

“We need to do what we can to make it a success,” said Foster. He said the town should work with Washington College to see about the possibility of making the Armory, owned by the college, into a conference center to bring people into town. “It’ll be a major challenge,” he said.

After several more questions, the candidates summarized their appeals in closing statements.

Bailey said the town has much to offer, thanks to those who love it and have worked for it, but not everyone has benefitted equally. “I want it to work for everyone,” he said. “It’s my home – I want to see it thrive.”

Miller recapitulated his qualifications and said he is running because he wants to give back to the community. He said the town needs to save the hospital and improve relations with the college. He said that while he is “a come here,” he is now a “be here” who is committed to the community and willing to work to make it better.

“We’re all here because we value the lifestyle, but we have to be aware of the challenges,” said Foster. “Win or lose, I commit to continuing the conversation and searching for solutions.” He said he was willing to work with anyone to solve the town’s problems. “We can all be problem-solvers – get out and vote!” he said.

Ladies of the League  – Sandy Bjork, Lynn Dolinger, Nancy Smith, Lillian Zelinkski, members of  the League of Women Voters of Kent County

The evening’s  candidate forum was organized by the League of Women Voters of Kent County, a nonpartisan political organization whose mission is to inform voters and to encourage citizen’s active participation in government and to encourage all citizens to vote.  For more information, call 410-810-1882 or visit the League’s web site.

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Letters to Editor

  1. I want to thank the League of Women Voters for organizing this forum and the Chestertown Spy for providing such good and informative coverage. I also want to encourage readers to look at the video coverage of this event also provided by the Spy. I want to clarify, however, one comment I made regarding our local property tax rate: I believe I said that Chestertown already has SOME of the highest property taxes in the state but the Spy quotes me as saying THE HIGHEST taxes. I know, of course, that Baltimore City and a couple of other counties have higher taxes than we do and did not mean to imply that our taxes were higher than theirs. As we discussed, our local tax problem is further aggravated by the fact that Kent County is one of only three counties in our state that taxes town residents for services provided in the County but does not provide a differential to the town residents.

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