The League of Women Voters of Kent County presented the candidates for two seats on the Chestertown Council at a candidates’ forum, Tuesday night. More than 50 residents filled the upstairs room at Town Hall.
Ward 2 candidates, Linda Kuiper and Tom Herz, fielded questions from the League and from audience members. Kuiper is the incumbent. Ward 4 candidate Meghan Efland, who is running unopposed for the seat being vacated by retiring Councilman Marty Stetson, was also present to meet with voters face to face after the forum.
Following a brief introduction by League president Cece Trainor, moderator Kitty Maynard outlined the ground rules. Candidates were given two minutes apiece for opening statements, followed by three prepared questions, after which audience members were given the opportunity to present questions. The candidates alternated responses, except for a few cases where a question was addressed to a particular candidate. The entire forum lasted about 90 minutes.
Herz spoke first. “I’m running as a candidate for Ward 2 because I believe Chestertown’s future is bright,” Herz said in his opening statement. He described moving here 18 years ago to work as a webmaster for Dixon Valve, gradually expanding to become a software developer with a nationwide clientele. At the same time, he became captivated by the work-life balance he found in the community. “We have problems here; our revenue is flat and our expenses only continue to rise. But we have so many opportunities here to grow, we have so much to offer,” he said, saying he hoped to use a role in the town’s government to help make Chestertown “the jewel of Kent County.”
Kuiper was second. She began by saying, “I know pretty much everybody in the room, and I’ve been working for you for the past 8 years.” She said she is a quality and training coordinator for a locally-based company that provides services to chronically mentally ill adults in four states, a job that makes her familiar with Maryland regulations, policies and procedures. She said she uses her knowledge regularly to help constituents who feel they aren’t being listened to. “Sometimes I feel like I spend a lot of time fighting city hall,” she said, adding that she has “helped a lot of people” during her time in office. “I’m here, I’m hoping to serve you and work for you another four years.”
The first prepared question noted that the town council is considering moving some or all of its policing responsibilities to the county Sheriff’s office, and asked which of the options the candidates supported and why.
“I don’t support turning the Chestertown police department over to the county at all,” said Kuiper. She said the town police department is unique and local, and that the officers know the residents and are responsive to their needs. She said the controversy about the future of the department has already caused trouble, with some officers looking for other jobs and the part-time secretary having resigned. She said she has frequently ridden with the officers during their shifts. “I know the issues, I know the hot spots.” She said the type of police work on the county and state levels differs from what the town needs.
Herz began by thanking the police department and interim Chief John Dolgos, noting that they are “all dedicated public servants.” He said the town cannot afford any lapse in public safety, and that residents deserve the same level of treatment and response they get from the town police in case of any merger with the county. However, he said, “As a steward of your tax dollars, I think it would be irresponsible to not at least explore the various options that are on the table.” If elected, he said he would “dig into the statistics,” to get a clear idea of the services the town is providing so residents continue to get the same level of response if a merger with the county does take place.
The second League question looked at the Historic District Commission’s guidelines and the frequent complaints that the guidelines unfairly weigh on homeowners with moderate or low incomes. The candidates were asked if they support changes to allow more reasonably priced repair and maintenance work within the District.
Herz said the issue raises “a central question to my campaign,” in that communication between the town government and its residents is critical to the town’s well-being. He supports the use of modern materials to obtain a historic look, and the use of modern doors and windows for energy efficiency. However, he said, “We have to be careful,” because “the charm of our town” is dependent in part on its authentic historical architecture, which brings visitors to town and “makes them fall in love with it.” So while changes are sometimes necessary, the town also needs to protect the historical integrity of its buildings.
Kuiper said that the residents who are going to the Commission need to determine whether their home is defined as “contributing” to the District, depending on age, style, and other considerations. She said tax credits and other assistance are available to low-income residents who need to maintain historic homes. Some repairs, such as roofs, may be covered by insurance, she said.
The third League question asked how the candidates would communicate with residents, determining their needs and making them aware of their positions on issues being considered by the council.
“I’m out and about all over town,” Kuiper said, “I volunteer for a lot of organizations.” She said all her constituents know she is available at all hours, “so I have no problems communicating, no problems listening, and no problems trying to fix whatever is going on.”
Herz said, “Communication is a central part of what I’m trying to achieve.” He said many problems in town are rooted in miscommunication, either from the town or between citizens. He gave Kuiper credit for “bird-dogging issues,” but said the town needs to do more in “leveraging technology” to communicate. He said he would professionally produce a podcast and use YouTube videos to explore issues of concern to the town and correct misinformation “that spreads and causes worry.”
The floor was then opened to audience questions. Tom Timberman asked what kind of relationship the town has with the county government, and how it could be changed to better serve residents.
Herz said there are long-standing issues between the two governments, but that as a new face on the scene, he doesn’t hold grudges. He said projects succeed or fail with good communication. He gave an example of Galena contacting the county when it needed new computers and getting not only the machines but other services. He said he would work on those issues “with a forthright effort and no pre-judgment.”
Kuiper agreed about the history of disagreements between town and county, and said “I have no problem going to anybody with the county,” or to state government officials. She gave an example of working with Gov. Martin O’Malley’s office to get highway signs for the Farmers Market at considerable savings. “I don’t have problems talking with anybody,” she reiterated.
Another audience member asked whether Kuiper has gone to the county commissioners about a tax differential to benefit town residents, and Herz whether he supported the attempt to win such a differential for the town.
Kuiper said she has gone to the county meetings regularly. Herz said he supports Mayor Chris Cerino and Councilman David Foster in their work to convince the Commissioners of the need for the differential. He said he would “fight to get your tax money back,” whether as a direct refund or by finding “synergies” by which the two levels of government would work together.
Barbara Jorgenson asked Herz how many council meetings he has attended and how many volunteer hours he has contributed. Herz said he regularly attended meetings before Kuiper’s election, and that he was a member of the Chamber of Commerce for many years. “Speak to anyone who knows me,” he said, and they will testify to my commitment to the community.
Kuiper reiterated that, as the incumbent, she has been “working for you for eight years,” listing her service to constituents and accomplishments such as getting the speed limit lowered on Quaker Neck Road at the entrance to town, as well as her volunteer work with the Farmers Market, the Historical Society, and other institutions.
David Bowering asked whether Herz has attended council meetings more recently. Herz said his work makes it difficult to attend, but he regularly reads the minutes and is aware of issues facing the council. He gave examples of his public service, beginning with his work with AIDS patients while a college student.
Kuiper said her job puts her in regular contact with the mentally ill, and that she carries that dedication to the needy into her council work.
Another resident noted that the marina is not self-sustaining and asked for the candidates’ comments.
Kuiper said there is new development coming to town that should increase the tax rolls. She said the marina is beginning to pay its mortgage and expenses, but will take years to become profitable. She said she doesn’t believe that the town should own property, and that she has been working to get the council to sell off much of what it has. However, the marina cannot be sold because of the terms of the bond issue the town purchase to support it.
Herz said the marina needs to be looked at as a long-term investment, which will more than repay its cost in its benefits to the community. It will bring in visitors who will support the local economy and, in some cases, fall in love with the town and buy homes and start businesses here. In 20 years, it will have been “cheap at twice the purchase price.” Selling it off, even if possible, would be a serious mistake.
Jeff Weber asked how the candidates would bring 21st-Century technology to town.
Herz said Chestertown is one of the few communities in the nation with the opportunities to exploit high-tech. He noted that there is 110 miles of “lit fiber” in the county, which will bring people from outside to live here and create businesses. He said the town needs to work with the county and with Washington College to exploit the potential, but he said the potential is there for the town to become “Silicon Valley East.”
Kuiper said the county commissioners “dropped the ball” on bringing in high-tech businesses several years ago. She said she supported the drive for a tax differential but hoped the county wouldn’t claim the fiber network was sufficient compensation for the lack of a tax differential. She said there is progress in improving cell service in town.
Gibson Anthony said the “last mile” connections remain a problem with communications, largely because the providers seek to monetize it. He asked how the candidates would address those problems.
Kuiper frankly said she didn’t know. She said she had attended meetings at the county where the issues were discussed. “I’m just disappointed” about the slow progress in connecting the town, she said.
Herz said the last mile is always problematic. He noted problems with wi-fi connections in the downtown area and said he is working with county information technology director Scott Boone to find answers. He said things were improving, and that they would improve faster if businesses and residents organize to pressure the providers for solutions.
Another resident asked about attracting young people to the community. Herz said it was a large reason why he was running. He said he knew several young people who had moved here from nearby cities, starting businesses and raising families. He said that communicating the town’s benefits was the key. “The future is bright, but we need to shine our light” to let people know about it, he said.
Kuiper said the lack of nightlife is a problem. Businesses close early, and people used to city life find the town dull. She said she hoped that new businesses such as Zelda’s speakeasy and the bar replacing J.R.’s would help fill that gap.
Bowering asked whether the candidates support a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) from the college, to compensate for its large volume of tax-exempt property.
Kuiper said she opposes a PILOT program. The college had a good deal of property already on the tax rolls, she said. She said the college is an integral part of the community, often providing first jobs for locals in addition to its educational mission. She also noted that the college is having its own financial issues and has in the past declined to make a PILOT.
Herz said he supports a PILOT payment – “Washington College doesn’t pay enough,” he said. He said he would also work to get the college to partner with the town more to create “centers of excellence” to help build business and attract new young residents.
Jim Bogden asked if the candidates would support projects such as the large solar energy farm proposed for a property on Morgnec Road just outside town.
Kuiper said the property in question is under county jurisdiction, though the town has talked about annexing it at various points. She said the county has fought to exclude other such large projects, and that it has become “a target” for such proposal by outside entities. She said both the town of Chestertown and the county government have solar arrays to provide some of their energy, but that she opposes industrial-scale arrays.
Herz said he supports green energy. He said that property used for that purpose “isn’t lost forever,” but can be returned to agricultural or other use. He said the community can be leaders in green energy – “it’s the responsible thing to do.”
Another resident asked the candidates for assurance they wouldn’t raise property taxes.
Herz said he would do anything he could to avoid it. He noted that Chestertown has one of the lowest tax rates of any town on the Shore, so while he hopes he could delay any tax increase, “I can’t promise I won’t (raise taxes).”
Kuiper said she had worked to get the council more informed on the budget. She said there is an open budget meeting scheduled for Nov. 16 and asked residents to attend. She said she would vote to raise taxes if analysis of the budget showed it was unavoidable.
In closing statements, Kuiper repeated her theme that she has worked for her constituents for eight years and “I have seen a lot, heard a lot and done a lot. I thrive on it,” she said. “You know me, you know what I’ve done.” She also commented on the critical place of Washington College in the community, listing the benefits it brings to residents. “I’ve really enjoyed the last eight years and I’d like to enjoy four more,” she concluded.
After thanking his supporters, Herz said, “The future of Chestertown is bright, but we have to go after it.” He said it’s not about rehashing the past, but taking the opportunities currently available and continuing to move forward “in a way that enriches our whole community.” He said the town needs to work with local professionals to take advantage of its resources and bring young people here to build businesses and drive economic development.
The council election is on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Polls at the Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. All registered voters in Wards 2 and 4 are eligible to vote. For more information, call town hall (410-778-0500) or visit the town website.
Stay tuned to the Chestertown Spy for more pre- and post-election coverage.
Dan Menefee contributed to this story