Candidates show their colors at debate
While many questions elicited similar stances, the Town Council and First Warden candidates’ answers were peppered with variety and some differing of opinions at the Oct. 6 candidate forum — and issues ranged from Deepwater Wind to controlling the island deer population.
Block Island Residents Association President Bill Penn, Block Island Times editor Pippa Jack and Times publisher Fraser Lang posed the questions. Audience members, who filled most of the seats in the school cafeteria, submitted Lang’s questions that night; Penn’s questions came from BIRA members, and Jack’s from submissions from readers.
First Warden candidates Howell Conant (I) and incumbent Kim Gaffett (I) gave brief statements on their background and answered questions during the first 45 minutes.
Following that, Second Warden candidate Ken Lacoste (R) joined in a debate with the six councilor-at-large candidates: Sean McGarry (D), Bill McKernan (R), Terry Mooney (R), Norris Pike (D), Les Slate (I) and Chris Warfel (I).
First warden debate
After a five-minute each opening statement, in which both candidates detailed their history with the island, the questions began.
The two candidates generally agreed on many ideas, such as the role of the First Warden (a partner with the town manager/staff, the public-council liaison, and leader of meetings,) and a call for “stewardship” of conservation lands.
Both agreed that the issue of beach access is important, and neither would favor term limits for council members.
Both candidates agreed that allowing Block Island School students to take virtual classes/distance learning would be beneficial, but neither thought it would reduce education costs.
An issue of concern on-island, said Penn, is the growing number of deer ticks and Lyme disease. Penn asked Conant first how he would deal with the issue. Conant said he would refer to the Deer Task Force for its judgment, but he would participate in their meetings.
Gaffett agreed with him, saying that she would work with the Deer Task Force and the Department of Environmental Management, and added that the task force has done much work to expand hunting properties already.
BIHS and open meetings
Yet other questions brought about differences of opinion.
Conant said the Block Island Health Services board should comply with all of the open meetings law, and Gaffett followed up, stressing that while the building is town-owned, the BIHS board is not a public body. Gaffett believes that the town management agreement should ask for the board to follow provisions of the open meeting law, but not every aspect of this — calling into question the necessity of forcing the board to post its meetings on the Secretary of State’s website.
Conant had further maintained that there is not a “single law that requires any public meeting ever to be held in closed session.” He believes there are way too many closed meetings held by the council.
Deepwater and Verizon
Conant was asked if the town should take an official position on Deepwater. He believes that the town has already taken a position on it. He noted that he doesn’t have a personal opinion on it, but hinges his decision on the free cable. “Everything Block Island is going to address has been addressed,” he added.
Gaffett didn’t seem to agree. She said this would be a good time to take a position as Deepwater goes through the permitting process and public hearings, especially in regards to “making sure cable is there, making sure the fiber optics are there, making sure escrow accounts are there for removal.”
Penn asked Gaffett if she would be willing to have the town lobby Verizon to upgrade its internet standards, and Gaffett responded that the town has been doing so already. Conant responded, saying that the internet is one of the “greatest shortcomings” on-island and would put it on the top of town agenda.
Gaffett noted that “maintenance is critical for buildings,” and listed many improvements already done to town buildings, saying she believes the town has done a great job keeping up with maintenance. Conant disagreed, calling the maintenance “abysmal.”
Gaffett admitted she did not know enough about an emergency alert system and reverse 9-11 system to speak on it greatly at this time, but did not seem inclined to bring back the sounding alarm. Howell, who served as past emergency management director, believes that “mass notification” needs to be improved, including potentially bringing back the siren.
Gaffett noted that the town has a great working relationship with upstate government, but Conant said he would increase lobbying relationships upstate.
Conant also said he would not favor a ban of all plastic bags on Block Island (Barrington, R.I., explained Fraser Lang, has done so recently); Gaffett said she would.
Gaffett graded the council an A for the council’s performance, but said more could still be done, such as implementing a maintenance tracking plan and energy conservation plans. Conant graded the town a B, and said sometimes improvements are best seen from the outside-looking-in.
Town Council candidates
Following the first warden debate, the six candidates running for three councilor-at-large positions, and Ken Lacoste running unopposed for second warden, were asked a series of questions. The first one asked had two minutes to respond, and each successive candidate had 30 seconds, during the hour and a quarter session.
The seven opinions sometimes echoed one another — all candidates desired transparency for the Block Island Health Service Board (with Lacoste adding that medical records must be safeguarded,) and none supported the idea of a one-way traffic pattern in town. All agreed there is a parking problem in town.
The candidates, however, were split on some issues, with three favoring a small town-owned wind turbine (Lacoste, Pike and Warfel) and four against.
Five supported term limits for council members, with Lacoste and McGarry opposed.
Most candidates agreed there could be better representation upstate, and called for a potential lobbyist, although McGarry disagreed and commended the state government. Warfel urged caution if Block Island lobbied for particular positions.
Renewable energy and Deepwater cable
Jack asked candidates if they would ask the town to take a position on Deepwater; Warfel responded first saying the town should have taken one a while ago, and should research more about what an electric cable could bring to the island — and urged the town to look past the life of this first cable.
McGarry also questioned the necessity of receiving a mainland cable through Deepwater, and Mooney expressed mistrust in some of the Deepwater personnel.
McKernan believes that it’s going to happen, but urged for responsible skepticism to make sure the rates, cable, etc. received are what the town is expecting.
Lacoste spoke up against the initial process that approved Deepwater, but now that it’s underway, he said, he overall supports the project.
Pike said he is in favor of Deepwater and its cable, and believes it should be connected to the wind farm. Slate believes the town is involved and should continued to be involved in Deepwater.
Penn asked Pike if he would be in favor of changing town ordinances to stimulate the use of island-wide renewable energy.
Pike said that he didn’t see that town ordinances preclude installation of renewable energy systems but does support renewable energy.
Warfel says that some ordinances are problematic, especially in regards to wind, and to not include these forms of energy in some town buildings and policy has been a mistake.
McGarry believes that restrictive ordinances are there for a reason, to protect feasibility and siting of the turbines. McKernan agreed that the aesthetics should be an important concern.
Mooney said he is “against windmills in everyone’s backyard,” also citing aesthetic concerns, but supports solar panels.
Slate supports renewable energy; Lacoste does as well, but seemed more inclined to wait for the Deepwater cable first.
In regards to Deepwater, Penn asked Warfel first about what he would support in terms of internet service through Deepwater’s fiber optic cable. Warfel called upon his past experience working on other islands, and suggested a ratepayer-owned cooperative system.
McKernan, who has worked with AT&T in the past, said it’s very important to reach out to all internet providers and to lobby for the best technologies possible.
Lacoste said he would want to do his homework before making a detailed response, but may support upgrading the fiber optic.
McGarry supports upgrading the fiber optic system, and Pike, Slate and Mooney agreed.
McKernan favored opening up more land to deer hunting — performed safely — because deer have become more and more of a problem.
“I am in complete support of eradication,” said Pike, but added only in the deep of winter with complete and proper notification.
Mooney and Lacoste both support increased hunting. McGarry and Slate support complete eradication.
Warfel said that hunting is problematic on Block Island, but didn’t see it as practical for eradication of deer, especially noting that most land requires approval of the landowner/steward, not the town.
Maintenance and Public Works
Lacoste began with the first question, regarding maintenance of West Beach Road — where the recycling center is located. He would be in favor of paving part of the road, but keeping the beginning dirt. Funding, he noted, is “the tricky part.”
Mooney, McKernan and Slate all agreed with Lacoste that the road should be paved. McKernan also called for more aggressively pursuing grant applications, while Mooney said that going line-by-line through the budget would probably reveal a lesser priority item that could be taken out.
Sean McGarry, who is also the town’s transfer station manager, said he knows best about the terrible condition of the road. He believes paving the road would pay for itself, especially easing maintenance.
Pike would be a proponent for relocating the recycling center closer to town in the service zone. Warfel said that the road should not be paved, but the oiling of the road should be stopped to reduce potholes, and more aggressive grading would be best.
When asked about installation of sidewalks, Slate — a cab driver who said he wouldn’t cab at night out of safety concerns— said sidewalks should have been installed on Chapel Street, and also called for better lighting on bicycles at night.
Warfel also called for lighting requirements on bikes, and said safety of pedestrians and bikes are a huge concern.
Lacoste suggested low-power solar lighting, expanding space to make it safer to walk, and if funding is available, sidewalks as well. McKernan and Mooney agreed. McGarry added that the town has been adding sidewalks in many other places.
Pike called for better lighting over sidewalks.
Regarding affordable housing, Mooney thinks the 1-percent rental tax has done a great deal to provide affordable housing to the island, and Lacoste said that the tax is not overly burdensome but provides a good revenue stream.
Slate, McKernan and Warfel agreed that the town has done a great job providing affordable housing, although Warfel believes more could be done.
McGarry stressed keeping the current affordable housing in the system, and also the need for affordable rentals. McKernan agreed.
Pike said he wasn’t sure that the 1 percent would offset any building costs on-island.
McGarry was not in favor of establishing a port authority, but expressed concern of the state’s choice of Cape Air instead of New England Airlines. McKernan and Mooney agreed and Slate is also in opposition to a port authority.
Warfel also opposed a port authority, but does think the town should work more closely with its tourism and transportation. Lacoste also made a similar statement.
Pike disagreed, saying that tourism is “at saturation point,” and favors a port authority.
Council members also generally called for increased emergency management communication; McKernan asked to take advantage of the Deepwater cable, and Mooney agreed. Pike said he favors a siren notification, as would Slate. Warfel, Lacoste and McGarry called for diversification of mass emergency notifications.
The candidate forum was the first of two; the second will be held on Tuesday, October 30 at 7 p.m. at the school. A video of the first hour and forty-five minutes of the first debate is online at blockislandtimes.com.