South Thomaston candidates offer voters a choice
South Thomaston — More than 50 residents attended the candidates’ night meeting March 7 at the historical society building to hear the political platforms of five people running for selectman.
Dorothy Meriwether is running unopposed for the three-year term formerly held by Jeffrey Northgraves. Wayne Brown, Dianne Darling, David Eaton and Sonja Sleeper are seeking the two-year term left vacant by the resignation of Patrick “Mike” Florance. Northgraves is not seeking re-election.
John Spear served as moderator and allowed each candidate one minute to answer questions from the audience. The session lasted nearly two hours. Questions ranged from concern for the purchase of a new fire truck to a proposal for a town manager to one of respect shown to residents by the board at meetings.
The election will be held at Gilford Butler School on Tuesday, March 26, at 7 p.m. Town Clerk and Registrar of Voters Barbara J. Black said she would be on hand at 6:30 to help with voter registration.
Darling, a native of Bangor, said she is a graduate of the University of Maine and worked at Eastern Maine Medical Center for a number of years. She moved to South Thomaston 13 years ago and has served on its planning board for 12 years.
“I’d like to do what I can to help this town,” she said.
Eaton said he is the brother-in-law of Northgraves and has served on the planning board for two years. He is the proprietor of Maine Stone & Landscape in Rockport and is the father of six children.
Brown served as a selectman for three years in the 1980s and as a fire chief of the town until 2005. He worked in aviation for a number of years and was employed at the Maine State Prison in Warren until his retirement a year and a half ago.
Meriwether came to Maine from California 22 years ago and has served as a member of the town’s budget committee for 12 years and the Knox County Budget Committee for six years.
Sleeper, who arrived recently from Atlanta, where she worked in administration, came “home” to South Thomaston where her family has roots back to 1740, she said. She is the daughter of the late Ed Sleeper.
The first question dealt with the proposed cut in revenue sharing by Gov. Paul LePage. The town’s new budget of almost $1 million would be cut by $99,000 if the town loses the state’s assistance.
Candidates were asked what they would do about combining costs with the reduced income and what they would cut.
Eaton said he agreed with the premise that costs could be reduced by combining, but he did not say where the consolidation of cuts could be made.
“I agree with the premise,” he said. “We’ve got to stop spending.”
Brown said people do not realize how serious the situation can be.
“We’ve got to look at what’s needed, not at what’s wanted,” he said.
Meriwether, a member of the town and county budget committees said she knew there was $99,000 the town might not get.
“We’ve got to look at the budget at the town meeting,” she said. The deficit would be greater if there are cuts in state aid to education.
Sleeper brought up ambulance costs. “There’s an $80,000 savings right there,” she said.
Darling said it was wrong of the governor to “drop this on us.”
“I’m hoping it’s not going to happen,” she said of the cut.
Candidates were asked their views on the fire department’s proposal to buy a new $450,000 fire truck on a 30-year plan.
“It’s a luxury, but the facts don’t justify the purchase of a new fire truck,” said Brown, who has opposed the idea from the beginning.
Meriwether pointed out that the town couldn’t afford a new truck now with so many residents owing $300,000 in unpaid property taxes.
Sleeper said she went to a presentation on the truck Feb. 26 and noticed the mileage was low on all the trucks.
“If you have $300,000 in unpaid property taxes, how can people afford a new truck?” she asked.
Darling asked whether officials could put together a time line for repairing a fire truck engine.
Eaton said South Thomaston needed the truck, and that it was up to the town to have good equipment.
One resident asked the candidates if they were prepared to deal with lawsuits against them, and they all said yes.
Another question focused on the recent discussion of converting the political system to a town manager form of government. Northgraves had been talking the proposal up at selectmen’s meetings, saying that government has become too complex and needs the expertise of a town manager.
Darling pointed out if the town hired a town manager, it would be spending more money.
Eaton said he disagreed with Northgraves on the town manager issue.
Brown also agreed the town does not need a manager. “Selectmen should be able to make the decisions,” he said.
Meriwether said Town Clerk Barbara Black already has some of the responsibilities of a town manager without having the authority.
“She is active in all the capacities, except the authority. I’m not looking to create a new position of town manager for anybody else, especially when we have someone like Barbara,” Meriwether said.
Sleeper said she did not see a need for a town manager right now.
Candidates were asked their priorities for the town; cutting back or providing more services?
Although Eaton said to leave it the way it is, the others focused on the need for better roads.
When the topic of $300,000 in unpaid property taxes came up, many residents supported the delinquent taxpayers by saying they can’t afford to pay their taxes.
Darling asked whether some kind of monthly repayment plan couldn’t be worked out to help people get caught up. “For a town of 1,500 people, we have high costs,” she said.
“I don’t want to see people put on the sidewalks,” Darling said.
“What sidewalks?” quipped someone from the audience, which brought laughter.
Meriwether said the problem showed that the town was charging people too much to live there.
Brown predicted a snowball effect from people who can’t afford to keep up with their taxes already.
“We have to do the best we can, and cut back,” he said.
Residents were also concerned with amenities at selectmen’s meetings and reports the officials were arrogant toward townspeople.
Brown said that in the past two years there hasn’t been much participation at meetings because people were intimidated.
“I don’t have any grudge,” Brown said.
Meriwether reiterated her position that selectmen can’t do much without the town’s support.
“Come to the meetings,” said Meriwether, who regularly attends selectmen’s meetings.
Eaton pointed out that he sometimes has 100 employees, and having respect for people goes a long way.
Sleeper said she favored a system where everyone has a chance to speak.
Candidates all agreed that they would be able to adopt the lifestyle of the additional time taken to be a public official.
“I can devote time to it,” Brown said.
Sleeper said she would expect to spend about 25 hours a week to being a selectman, on top of 40 hours at a regular job.
Darling said she would have a reduction in time because she would no longer be able to serve on the planning board, which was even more time consuming.
Candidates agreed that something had to be done about repairs to the bridge over the Weskeag River.
Eaton said he and his son had gone under the bridge in a boat, and noticed the underneath was rotting.
Selectman Robert Branco, whose term expires in 2014, said officials from the Maine Department of Transportation inspected the site this past summer and said they would have to put the bridge into their next two-year transportation plan.
Courier Publications reporter George Chappell can be reached at 207-594-4401, ext. 117, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.