Five candidates file papers for two seats in county's shire town
MIDDLEBURY — Recent elections for the Middlebury selectboard have gone wanting for candidates.
Not this year.
Middlebury’s Town Meeting Day ballot will feature six candidates vying for three vacancies on the selectboard, races that will include three incumbents and several familiar faces.
As the Addison Independent went to press Wednesday, five residents had confirmed their intentions to seek one of the two, three-year terms that will be at stake on Tuesday, March 6. Those candidates include incumbent Selectman Victor Nuovo; Selectwoman Susan Shashok, a recent appointee to the board; former Selectman Don Keeler; Brian Bauer, who ran unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate in 2010; and Eric Murray, another former candidate who sought appointment to a vacancy created this past fall by former Selectwoman Janelle Ashley. The board picked Shashok to fill that vacancy.
Also on the ballot is the single year left on Ashley’s term. One candidate, current Middlebury Development Review Board (DRB) Chairman Gary Baker, has thus far confirmed plans to run for that spot.
Residents have until 5 p.m. this Monday, Jan. 30, to file petition papers for local offices.
Interviews with all six declared candidates reveal that they have different backgrounds and aspirations but espouse at least one common priority — to boost jobs and economic prosperity in Addison County’s shire town.
Nuovo, Charles A. Dana Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Middlebury College, will be seeking his third consecutive three-year term on the board.
“I have found working on the board very satisfying,” Nuovo said. “I think there is something very valuable in what we do — working locally in a non-partisan way to solve issues. Town government is a great institution.”
Nuovo cited several important issues that Middlebury will face in the coming months and years. They include a vote in March on a $4.8 million bond issue to improve fire facilities in the downtown and in East Middlebury, keeping the municipal budget tight and affordable, planning for new municipal offices to replace the current aging structure at the intersection of College and South Main streets, and promoting economic development.
“However we do it, we need to create good jobs, close to home,” Nuovo said, echoing a sentiment recently voiced by Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury.
Nuovo also cited public safety and lobbying against unfunded state and federal mandates as priorities for the board.
“Local control and more autonomy needs to be explored in a more careful way,” Nuovo said.
Shashok lives in East Middlebury, where she manufactures a line of all-natural skin-care products under the brand “Caroline’s Dream.”
Shashok has decided to run for a three-year term, rather than the balance of the term (Ashley’s) to which she was appointed this past fall. She is pleased to see a large field running for office this year.
“I think it is great that a lot of people have taken papers out,” Shashok said.
Shashok said she has been negotiating a steep learning curve since joining the board.
“I would like a chance to continue what I’ve started,” she said.
Her focus to date has been on flood-control issues in East Middlebury and the recreation department. She has also taken an interest in economic development in town. Shashok was the lone dissenting voice in a recent board vote on whether to ask townspeople to vote an additional penny on the tax rate (to generate $72,000) to help bankroll a Middlebury Economic and Business Development Fund. That fund — to feature contributions from Middlebury College and the local business community for a total of around $200,000 annually — would primarily be used to bankroll a new hire who would aggressively recruit new businesses and work to maintain current jobs.
Shashok said that while she is a “big fan of economic development,” she would rather see such efforts channeled through the already-established Addison County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC).
“I believe if we went through (the ACEDC), there would get the same feedback for a lot less money,” Shashok said.
Incorporating bike-friendly elements into public works projects, promoting green energy initiatives and planning for new town offices are also on Shashok’s to-do list.
Murray is owner of East Middlebury-based EJM Enterprises — a company that specializes in heavy equipment and truck repairs, as well as towing. He most recently ran for the board last March, losing to incumbent Selectmen Craig Bingham and Dean George. He offered last fall to fill out Ashley’s term until this March, but the selectboard instead picked Shashok.
Undaunted, Murray is hoping to break into the winning column this March with the same priority — changing the business atmosphere in Middlebury.
“I’d like to achieve a little more of a business-friendly attitude in town,” said Murray, who believes Middlebury has gained a reputation for being a difficult place in which to establish and grow a new enterprise.
“When you aren’t business-friendly, it’s not very conducive to bringing in new revenue,” he said, referring to the goal of increasing the community’s grand list.
Like Shashok, Murray is skeptical of the proposed economic development and business fund.
“We already have an economic development system in place,” he said, referring to the ACEDC.
Proponents of the new fund, Murray said, will have to convince people on how its success will be measured.
“What is the payback on a position like this?” Murray said. “No one seems to be able to answer that question.”
Murray agreed that the town needs improved municipal offices, but believes officials need to “look at the prospect of refurbishing the existing building before condemning it. We need to look at all the options before jumping on a program.”
Keeler, a longtime deputy with the Addison County Sheriff’s Department, is no stranger to the selectboard. He served as a selectman for six years in the 1970s and 1980s, then again for another six years before he decided not to run for re-election in 2010. But he said his schedule will now permit him to resume work as a town official.
“I would like to serve again,” said Keeler, who added his voice to those lobbying for more jobs in Middlebury.
“Now that the (Cross Street) Bridge project is behind us, we need to find places for people to work in this community,” Keeler said.
He wants a full and active industrial park off Exchange Street. He supports the proposed economic development and business fund, with certain conditions.
“I want to see some results,” Keeler said.
“When Standard Register, Specialty Filaments and CPC of Vermont left, we never backfilled (those jobs) with anything,” he added.
As a member of the DRB, Keeler sees development proposals early on in the process. He said he’s encouraged to see Vermont Hard Cider Co.’s plans for a new facility on Exchange Street.
“I don’t think government should create jobs, but rather facilitate private industry in creating jobs,” Keeler said of his philosophy.
Keeler acknowledged the town offices need to be improved, but is concerned about the town’s capacity to pay for such a undertaking in light of other debt payments owed (or soon to be owed) on road and water system upgrades, a new middle school roof, and the fire station project.
Bauer is a retired Middlebury Union Middle School teacher who has served on several local boards, including the Addison County Regional Planning Commission and Middlebury Zoning Board. He also served with the Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association in the early ’70s and as an auxiliary state trooper.
He narrowly lost to current Selectman Travis Forbes in a write-in campaign in 2010. He explained he had been prepared to file petition papers to get on the election ballot that year, but said, “It was suggested to me that there were so many people expected to run that my running wasn’t needed.”
Ultimately, however, there was a dearth of candidates — to the point where a three-year term on the board had no takers. By that time, it was too late for Bauer to file a petition, so he (and Forbes) ran write-in campaigns.
When Bauer learned a month ago that incumbent Selectman John Tenny was not running for re-election after 17 years on the board, he decided to file papers to get on the ballot.
“I am running because I feel there is an under-represented group in Middlebury — retired people on limited incomes with limited resources,” Bauer said. He pointed to recent federal census information indicating Middlebury’s senior and low-income populations are growing. At the same time, property taxes have been increasing, he noted.
“I’m beginning to wonder whether there is a disconnect,” he said.
Bauer is concerned that taxes are increasing on a vulnerable population at a time when the economy and job growth are still lagging.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Can we survive without a particular item, at least for a while, until the economy picks up?’” Bauer said. “Sometime, what is being put forward as a ‘need’ is actually a ‘want’ for a particular group of people.”
Bauer believes the town, in addition to attracting new jobs, should work to offer new shopping opportunities. He said Middlebury is losing shoppers to retail hubs like Rutland, Burlington and Ticonderoga, N.Y.
The proposed economic development and business fund sounds like a good idea, according to Bauer, but he wanted a better explanation of what the “guaranteed return” will be for the money invested in the proposal.
If elected, Bauer pledged to work in a non-partisan way to help the selectboard find solutions to the town’s challenges.
Baker is an independent insurance representative who has lived in Middlebury most of his life. Prior to chairing the Middlebury DRB, he was a member of its planning commission and prior to that, was a longtime member of the New Haven planning commission.
He had always thought about running for the Middlebury selectboard and decided this was the year to do it.
“I just want to do what’s best for Middlebury,” he said, when asked his reasons for running.
Baker, too, is keen on encouraging more economic development in town. Like the other candidates, he supports plans to revitalize the town’s fire stations. He also agrees that the town offices should be improved.
“I do agree we need to keep the gym, and something certainly needs to be done with the town offices,” Baker said, equating the lack of energy efficiency in the building to “burning fuel in an open 55-gallon drum.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
Editor’s note: Candidates for public office are welcome to send a letter to the editor explaining why residents should vote for them, plus the Independent encourages readers to write letters to the editor to promote the candidates they feel would do the best job.