First Warden: Kim Gaffett
First Warden Kim Gaffett, who is seeking a fifth term in that office, is all about balance. She runs Town Council meetings so as to give everyone adequate time to speak, and she says she is often able to sympathize with multiple points of view.
“I think that often I see two sides of every issue,” she said. “I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what’s right. It’s not always clear.”
She has served as First Warden now for six consecutive years, and for a term in the early ’90s; sat on the Town Council for a 10-year period; and the Planning Board in the ’80s. She says she’s enjoyed the ride, and more than that, feels like she’s been able to give back to her home: “I wouldn’t do it if I felt like I wasn’t helping.”
Gaffett was raised on the island, and has lived much of her adult life here, returning after college and graduate school in l982. She has served many roles in the community, including director of the Ocean View Foundation for 13 years.
“I grew up here,” she explained, “and I have a long history here. I feel devoted… I’m someone who knows the issues.”
A council “veteran”
And it quickly becomes clear that she knows what’s going on. Gaffett sits down in her well-organized office at Town Hall and dives deep into discussing the complicated details of some of Block Island’s pressing issues.
For example, she has seen the development of Deepwater’s plan to install five wind turbines off the coast of Block Island, and she knows what has to be done next. She first describes the many steps the council has weathered already, such as negotiating the fiberoptic line to be included for the town’s benefit.
And if the deal happens, the council will have the responsibility of issuing a rate re-design for the Block Island Power Company, since BIPCo will be purchasing power instead of generating it. The town will have to negotiate with BIPCo to stabilize rates as well as safeguard the town ratepayers in terms of that process.
“It’s going to be a whole new world,” she said. “Our goal is to identify the pros and cons and work hard to benefit the town as much as possible.”
But she doesn’t stop at Deepwater. She notes that she has a goal to really work on conserving the town’s energy use in general. “The next step is going to entail a lot of stewardship,” she said, and continues on to give a variety of examples. For one, she’d like to work on developing town building codes that encourage energy savings.
When Gaffett took the stage as First Warden six years ago, she says the council experienced a “complete turnover,” of members, whom she believes worked well together and accomplished many things. She’s enjoyed working with this group, and commends the varying demographics of the members, all-in-all who meshed into a productive six years. “We’ve evolved into a collegial group,” she said, “and I hope that model will continue.”
Yet she knows there are some who are ready for change, and she assures them that there will be change, with at least three new council members about to be voted in. “That is exciting,” she said, “To see what everyone’s interests are… the synergy can be really productive.”
Two other things Gaffett hopes to accomplish in the next two years are organizing a more active discussion for the many stakeholders involved in the Great Salt Pond, and developing a document that identifies every town-owned beach access and a management plan for these access points.
She also is aware of the great need for affordable housing and rentals — both on the working class level and professional level — and plans to address this. “I just got a call recently for medical center director housing options,” she says, as an example.
Being First Warden hasn’t been without its challenges. “It’s hard in a small community,” she notes. “There have been some very difficult meetings.” Especially, she adds, when these meetings pit neighbors, family and friends against one another — such as in the recent medical center discussion.
A voice for all
Gaffett paraphrases the philosopher Voltaire to describe the current council open meeting structure, which includes public comment at the beginning of meetings: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
“I do think one of my strengths is running a meeting,” she said. “I make sure everyone has a chance to speak and I try to limit personal attacks.”
She explains that according to state Open Meetings Law, meetings must be open for the public to witness, but there is no requirement to take public comment except in a public hearing. Yet, this council lets people participate in the discussion throughout the meeting.
“We want people to participate,” she says.
There are times, however, that the council chooses to go into closed meetings. Gaffett’s opponent Howell Conant charges that the current council makes that decision too often. Gaffett agrees that going into closed meetings is a choice, but says it’s sometimes the right choice, such as for protecting the privacy of a personnel or a bidder.
“Not a single complaint made to the Attorney General’s office has been upheld,” Gaffett points out.
Environmental and business stewardship
Opinions on open meetings aside, Gaffett says the biggest difference between her and Conant is in their areas of interest: she is an enviro type, while Conant, she thinks, is more focused on emergency management topics.
She knows how to balance the needs of the community with the environment. Take, for example, things like deer on Block Island.
“I’ve never been to a candidates’ night that didn’t have a question about deer,” she says, noting that this council has done a lot to expand hunting, with more hunting locations such as Rodman’s Hollow. And it was this council that put in place the Deer Task Force.
Gaffett says that the environment includes not just natural resources, but human resources, such as housing and jobs, too.
She gave an example of a small business the council, with her leadership, helped out. Sven and Laura Risom, of North Light Fibers, came to her because the Zoning Ordinance didn’t allow their business. Gaffett and the council led the efforts to bring this to the attention of the Planning and Zoning Boards, and then change and pass this ordinance.
The town has been responsibly run. “We have kept steady in these economic times, and have not laid anyone off in the town,” she says.
Also keeping steady is town maintenance. Despite challenges that not enough maintenance is being done, Gaffett points to various projects, such as Old Harbor Dock maintenance completed under budget, allowing extra money for other maintenance.
And in her off time, Gaffett spends time enjoying the environment she works in — such as running a bird banding station and spending time outside. She says she likes going for walks, too, but often finds herself going at night. Otherwise, she says, she ends up doing more waving than walking. “I’m the type of person who loves greeting everyone,” she says with a laugh.
Overall, she says, “I’ve gotten to live in a place I love, doing what I love.” She’s hoping voters give her the chance to continue in the same vein.