Freidin stresses public participation in run for Middlebury selectboard

MIDDLEBURY — John Freidin had been content to stay on the political sidelines since his last run for the Vermont House 15 years ago.

He’s now ready to jump back into the fray — as a Middlebury selectman. Freidin is one of eight residents in the running for a total of three spots on Middlebury’s top legislative panel that are up for grabs on March 4.

“I am running for a three-year term on our selectboard because I believe I can help the citizens of Middlebury make wise, community decisions,” Freidin said in a statement announcing his candidacy. “I will be a fresh voice for inclusion, deliberation, and restraint; for civility, respect, and openness. I believe the citizens of Middlebury are experts on Middlebury, and diversity of opinion leads to better ideas.”

Freidin, 72, pointed to Middlebury’s town office/recreation center proposal as an example of an issue for which the selectboard has not adequately involved the public. It’s a proposal that was shaped by representatives of the selectboard and Middlebury College last spring before being presented to Middlebury residents. The plan has generated much debate, calling for construction of new town offices at 77 Main St. and a new recreation facility off Creek Road. The college would acquire the current municipal building/gym site at 94 Main St. and a town-owned parcel off Cross Street to which its Osborne House would be relocated. The arrangement also calls for the college to assume $4.5 million in debt for the town’s two new buildings.

The plan will be put before the voters on March 4.

“I will vote for the proposal,” Freidin said, “but I’m very concerned about the conflict between the proposal and the town plan. I am very regretful this proposal was not developed with inclusion and involvement of the people.”

Freidin was referring to language in Middlebury’s town plan that identifies 94 Main St. as the preferred location for the town offices and gym. A majority of current selectboard members have acknowledged that town plan priority, but point to recent estimates showing that it would cost $6 million to $10 million to build a new municipal building and renovate the gym on site. They have said that Middlebury taxpayers could not afford debt service on such a facility on top of the current property tax rate, which remains one of the highest in the state.

And property taxes are a familiar subject to Freidin.

He spent eight years in the Vermont House as a New Haven Democrat. Freidin spent six of those years on the House Ways and Means Committee. He was one of the chief architects of Act 60, the state’s education funding law.

“It costs too much to live in Middlebury, and consequently individuals who work here cannot live here,” Freidin said. “Taxes are high, and demands for public services keep growing.”

Freidin has also been active in the business world, as the driving force behind Vermont Bicycle Touring (1972-1986). He’s also worked as a teacher (1968-1972) and has served on the boards of the Parent-Child Center of Addison County, the Counseling Service of Addison County, the Ilsley Library and the Frog Hollow Vermont State Craft Center. For the past several years, he’s driven Meals on Wheels to seniors and has volunteered at the Town Hall Theater. He has chaired the state board of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Making Middlebury more affordable should be a prime focus for the selectboard during the next three years, according to Freidin. He lamented the fact that many people who work in Addison County’s shire town can’t afford to live there. That has meant fewer families settling in town, which has put stress on school financing, according to Freidin.

“We need to have more families with school-age children in town,” Freidin said. “More children will drive the school tax rate down, which would take pressure off of homeowners.”

Freidin acknowledged Middlebury’s hiring of Jamie Gaucher last year to serve as the town’s first business development director. Gaucher’s role will include bringing new jobs and businesses to Middlebury.

“I have a lot of respect and affection for Jamie and hope he is able to bring good businesses to Middlebury,” Freidin said. “But having new commercial real estate in Middlebury will not solve Middlebury’s financial problems ... That’s why we need more families with children and why we need more families to work in the new businesses that Jamie is appealing to.”

If elected, Freidin said he would work with his colleagues to safeguard East Middlebury from the whims of the Middlebury River.

“We need to develop a way to protect East Middlebury from flood damage and protect the fish habitat as well,” Freidin said.

Petition papers filed with Town Clerk Ann Webster by Monday’s deadline show that incumbent Selectman Dean George and Heather Seeley will run for a one-year-term on the board, a seat that until last month was held by Victor Nuovo. Along with Freidin, incumbent Selectman Craig Bingham (see related story), Laura Asermily, Ted Davis, Brian Carpenter and Eric Murray are all in the mix for the two, three-year seats up for grabs.

The Independent will profile all the selectboard candidates prior to the March 4 election.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.


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