The Block Island Times

Meet the applicants

Looking to fill vacancy on Town Council
By Stephanie Turaj | Dec 29, 2013
Photo by: Kari Curtis

At a meeting next week, the Town Council will appoint one individual to a vacant councilor position. The meeting will be held at noon on Monday, Dec. 30.

As of Friday, Dec. 20, there were five people expressing written interest in the role: Howell Conant, Mark Emmanuelle, Allan MacKay, Gary Ryan and Les Slate.

First Warden Kim Gaffett said she will accept written letters of interest until the meeting. Letters can be submitted at Town Hall or mailed to P.O. Box 220, Block Island, R.I. 02807.

There is a vacancy because Councilor Sean McGarry resigned in November, after discovering he could not bid on new town contracts while in office or for one year after leaving office.

According to the town charter, the replacement does not go up for election. The person is appointed by the council. The new councilor will fill the role only until Dec. 2014 if they do not participate in the elections next November (or if the person runs and loses the seat).

Here is a look at those who are currently in the running for Town Councilor.

Howell Conant

“I still feel some obligation from all my supporters of the campaign,” said Howell Conant, who had run for First Warden, and lost to Kim Gaffett last November. Conant received 401 votes and Gaffett received 514 votes. “On their behalf, I still have an opportunity to represent them.”

Conant added, “I thought it would be a nice gesture of solidarity if the council chose me, bringing in an opposing candidate. It would be sort of a unique opportunity to have everyone in the voter base represented.”

As he’s talking to The Block Island Times, Conant exudes the same enthusiasm he did during his campaign last year. When asked about the top issues he believes the council needs to address, he rattles off his list.

“Addressing electricity and internet are both huge items at the top of my list,” said Conant. “I think we need to take a much more aggressive position to provide reliable internet for businesses and homes.”

Conant provided a brief explanation as to how this would be done. He said the town needs to “bypass” working with Verizon and talk directly to state officials. He said that Verizon needs to be “instructed” to provide better service.

Conant also said he wants to address the issue of town infrastructure and provide more housing for town employees. In the summertime, seasonal town employees live in the Coast Guard Station, located at the end of Champlain Road, but Conant said this is located too far away from town, and there needs to be more attractive housing options.

Also, Conant added that he wants to make Town Council meetings “more participant-friendly.” For example, he wants to see with more use of projectors to present information at meetings.

And while he has these big issues to focus on, Conant also knows there’s a job to be done: plan the 2014/2015 fiscal year budget (beginning July 1). “I’ve been carefully following the town’s fiscal management,” he said.

Conant moved to Block Island when he was 15. He has nine kids. He’s the owner of Omni Associates, a small business he started in 1974 when he was first starting out in the construction industry. Conant’s also a trained airline pilot, has licenses to install sprinkler systems and fire alarms, and is a self-taught master electrician. This would be his first time on the council, but he’s no stranger to community service — among various other roles over the years, he’s been on the Fire Department for 45 years, and also founded the town’s Historic District Commission.

Mark Emmanuelle

“I am a stone in the shoe, and I have been for years,” said Mark Emmanuelle. “I have said what needs to be said and I try to do what needs to be done, when so many others are reluctant to do so. I’m a voice of so many people who are so frustrated.”

Indeed, Emmanuelle voiced his clear opinion that nothing seems to be getting done in the town, which is why he decided to run. He continued, “If the Town Council is wondering why people are not coming to meetings, why they’re not getting involved, it’s because [the council] is not listening, and not doing what needs to be done.”

There are several issues he believes should be addressed. For one, he said there needs to be more done to provide affordable housing to island residents. “I’m the luckiest person in the world, because I have my own place to live,” he said.

As for the deer issue, Emmanuelle said that he is in favor of total eradication of the deer herd. However, he believes the recently approved deer reduction plan is a good first step. “Let’s go with it for now,” he said.

Also, he said there are “health and safety issues.” He explained this involves continuing to address the summertime partying on the island, for example.

“The Fourth of July debacle didn’t happen one summer, it happened over the course of five years. Despite the number of times I spoke with those in the council position, nothing was done and it escalated,” he said. “The Town Council has an inability to act proactively to countless issues.”

Emmanuelle gave another example of how the council isn’t proactive enough: he hasn’t heard from any councilors asking him questions about why he’s running for the position.

“I wouldn’t be coming into this position with a bunch of goals. I’m coming in with a bunch of limitations,” he said. “I think what I would probably do is to say [to the councilors] that admitting their failures or shortcomings is not a big deal. It is not until we admit our failures that we can move forward.”

Emmanuelle first came to the island for a weekend visit in 1979, and moved here to live in 1985. Currently, he works for Block Island Plumbing as a plumber’s assistant, but he has held various jobs over the years — “from bartending to school teacher,” he said. He’s served on numerous town boards and committees.

Allan MacKay

“I would like to work on an even keel. I think it’s unfortunate that the council has gotten contentious,” said Allan MacKay, who said he’s running after being approached by several people. “I think issues need to be debated on, and then move on. I think this is a group I could work well with.”

MacKay said he wouldn’t be coming into the Town Council with an agenda.

“I do have my own thoughts on things,” he said. “But I’m thoughtful about issues — I like to make a decision based on what I heard.”

That being said, he also knows there are several important issues the council is addressing. As the council will likely have to address Deepwater Wind’s turbine proposal, he said he has generally accepted the idea of using them. (Although he did say he disagreed with the past process of how the Rhode Island government approved Deepwater.)

Also, he spoke to The Block Island Times about the deer reduction plan, and it is clear he has given the plan careful thought.

In fact, he has an additional proposal to bring to the table: provide an incentive to island hunters for reducing the deer. In addition to raising money for the deer reduction plan, he suggested having an island organization raise money for a deer bounty, perhaps compensating a group of hunters for up to 175 deer.

“I would like to investigate if this could be done during the same time White Buffalo is here, so local hunters can have access to the process.” MacKay said. “I’ve spoken to a couple of people, and I think there’s a willingness.”

MacKay has been visiting the island for 55 years. He moved here in 1978, lived off-island for a stint beginning in 1999, and returned in 2009. He works in construction (while noting he often works with Councilor Norris Pike, he said he doesn’t believe this would be a conflict of interest). He has a daughter, Alcy, who attends the Block Island School. (MacKay’s wife, Lisa Stiepock, is an employee of the company that publishes The Block Island Times.) He is also no stranger to public service, either — he’s been on the Zoning Board, the Historic District Commission, and currently serves on the Sewer and Water Commission.

Gary Ryan

“I want to make a difference,” said Gary Ryan, and while it may sound cheesy, he meant it sincerely. “The council seems to have stagnated. They’re not agreeing to get things done.”

He added, “At the end of the term, the council has to measure itself on what it accomplished, not what it didn’t get done. The process has to be moved forward.”

Ryan believes he would be a good fit to help things move. “I know everyone on the council, and I see them as my friends,” he said. “They’re all great people. You just have to sometimes find that grey area, if one says black and the other says white.”

As a member of the rescue squad, Ryan said he wants to focus on the island fire, rescue, police and medical services.

“We don’t get mutual aide out here,” he said, referring to the island’s isolation, with no neighboring towns. “I believe the people at the Medical Center do a phenomenal job, and it would be catastrophic to lose the center’s services.”

Ryan also addressed the deer reduction plan. “I don’t know if it’s the best method, but I think it’s the only available option. I would like our hunters to be involved.”

While supporting local hunters, he echoed concerns voiced by Police Chief Vin Carlone that off-island hunters coming for recreational hunting is not the safest of circumstances. Ryan added that he would like to see the deer brought down to a “manageable level.”

But overall, Ryan really just wants to help the island and its residents. He told a short story to The Block Island Times about his time volunteering for the helping hands, at which he discovered that there are 45 families in need of holiday meals — a fact that surprised him.

“I just have a desire to help people,” he said. “And maybe it’s just time for me to help out.”

For many, Ryan’s face might be most familiar as the guy behind the Grocery Store counter. But he has served numerous roles in the community over the years: Rescue Squad for 24 years, past Rescue Captain, past Block Island Health Services Board member, and past owner of the Highview Hotel. He moved to the island in 1985. He also has a degree in history from Post University in New York.

Les Slate

“I want to make the council more people-friendly and more answerable to the people,” said Les Slate. “The people need to have more input, and the council has to recognize people’s input.”

Slate has run for a Town Councilor position for many years, championing his life-long experience as an island resident and his “common man” approach to town issues.

“So much can be accomplished with just common sense,” he had said during the last election.

In keeping with this sentiment, Slate provided just brief answers to The Block Island Times, but that doesn’t mean he’s empty of ideas and issues he wants to address.

As he has said in the past, working to cut the school’s budget remains his top priority. “The school’s a touchy subject,” he said. “I never get a straight answer to why we spend millions of dollars for so few kids.”

Slate has several concerns about the island infrastructure, and noted that the Town Council’s plan to form an Infrastructure Committee is a good idea.

“We need a new beach house,” he said, noting he’d like it to be restored to its original green color. He also said he is in favor of a recent proposal to build a new harbormaster shack.

Also, Slate would like to see the island’s tourist season extended, and he suggested finding a way to attract large cruise ships to the island in the fall season.

Slate was raised on-island, and he attended the Block Island School about 40 years ago. He held many roles here through the years: Boy Scout, construction worker, road crew member, and cab driver, to name a few. He currently serves on the Conservation Commission.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Thomas Walsh | Dec 30, 2013 08:31

I cannot agree with the bulk of what Mark has to say. In particular, I am firmly against the entitlement mentality he espouses. There are many towns I would love to live in but just cannot afford to. Does that mean these towns should build attractive housing for me? Owning your own home should not be luck it should be from hard work and saving and living within your means in a town you can afford to live in not one you just want to.

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Posted by: martha kaminiski | Jan 16, 2014 13:50

I totally agree with Thomas.  People should work for their houses not look to live in affordable housing.  If you can't afford to live on the island you need to move off or find a job off island to better yourself and commute.  Besides half those people who live in affordable housing on the island rent out rooms to make money.  Which is completely illegal. It is all cash.  I think someone should look into that especially during the summer.

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