Rockland council candidates outline views

By Stephen Betts | Nov 06, 2017
Valli Geiger, left; Gregory Mason, center; Lisa Westkaemper.

Rockland — The three candidates for Rockland City Council tackled the issues of housing, the downtown and cruise ships during an Oct. 4 forum.

Incumbent Councilor Valli Geiger, retired contractor and Rockland native Gregory Mason, and longtime arts administrator and educator Lisa Westkaemper attended the forum held at City Hall and organized by The Courier-Gazette.

There are two seats to fill.

The candidates agreed on many items but parted ways on others.

Geiger said she has a real passion for housing and has worked on dealing with the lack of affordable housing in Rockland during her first term.

The first-term councilor said there is a desperate need for housing in Rockland. She is the sponsor of an ordinance to allow more homes to be built in certain zones including the area between Maverick and North Main streets. The council voted Oct. 11 to postpone action on that proposal until January.

Developer Stanley "Buddy" Carleton Jr. has said he wants to build apartments on property he owns there, but existing zoning would limit him to 24 units and the change could allow up to 48.

Geiger said the neighborhood would likely not be able to support luxury apartments and that public housing for low-income residents would not best serve the community. She said children don't do well when they are in housing developments with other poor children.

She suggested working with area employers to see if they would subsidize the construction of affordable housing for workers.

Mason said the neighborhood being eyed for the housing is near a difficult intersection. He said he could support 24 units, but that 48 seemed like a lot. He said mixed housing is much better than a large low-income development.

He agreed there was a need for more housing in Rockland.

Westkaemper said she would need to know about Carleton's proposal before deciding whether to support a zoning change. She said the community should look at creative adaptive uses for underutilized existing buildings to increase housing.

In response to a question on rent control, Mason said artificially holding down rents would not fly in Rockland. He said the best way to keep rents from rising is to keep property taxes from rising.

Geiger said she was not sure about the city imposing rent limits.

Westkaemper said she would need to know more about any rent control proposal before deciding whether to support it.

In regard to short-term vacation rentals, Westkaemper suggested the city consider some type of incentive for people to rent long-term when they are not using housing for short-term rentals during the summer. She said she would support studying regulations based on whether the housing units are owner-occupied. She said there needs to be a balance in the number of short-term rentals and long-term housing by neighborhoods.

Geiger agreed, saying she was concerned by the trend of people buying multiple houses and converting them to short-term rentals.

"I'm quite concerned that the entire South End will be dark nine months of the year because people are acquiring homes for completely commercial gains," Geiger said.

Mason said he found out during his door-to-door campaign that three houses being used for apartments will no longer be rented because of strict codes that require new stairwells if the existing ones are too steep.

The candidates parted ways on whether there is a greater focus on downtown than on other parts of the city.

Mason said there is a discrepancy in the way the city treats downtown compared to other areas. He said while downtown Main Street has nice sidewalks, it took a truck knocking down a traffic signal by the entrance to Rockland Plaza Shopping Center on Maverick Street to get a working walk signal.

He said he had made repeated requests to city officials to repair the broken walk signal before the crash and had even put up a sign he made saying "Cross at your own risk." That sign remained up until the crash.

He said there are no sidewalks on sections of the busy Maverick Square intersection. He said that Rockland should be a safe, walkable city, particularly near its food stores.

Geiger said she does not believe there is an inordinate focus on Main Street. She said the rise of Main Street has helped Rockland prosper since the 1970s, when many storefronts were closed and boarded.

She pointed out that Rockland councilors supported a bond issue, approved later by voters, to spend $1.6 million to repair Old County Road.

Westkaemper said the downtown appears to get a lot of attention because it has so much activity. She said she would have no objection to returning to a ward system, in which councilors would be elected from different geographic areas of the community.

Westkaemper said, however, that the best way for councilors to be responsive to the community is for citizens to contact them and speak with them and for councilors to meet with citizens from all neighborhoods.

Each of the councilors said they would consider setting a limit on the number of large cruise ships.

Mason said that he has heard mixed reactions to the benefit of large cruise ships for downtown merchants. He said brew pubs and restaurants do well.

Geiger said she does not want Rockland to become another Boothbay or Bar Harbor, where downtown businesses are limited to those that sell trinkets to passengers of the cruise ships. She said larger cruise ships pose a greater threat to Penobscot Bay and impose a greater wear and tear on waterfront facilities.

Westkaemper said what has been missing in the discussion has been representatives of the cruise ship owners. She said she supports the moderate increase in the fees to cruise ships, but that the only question was when it should go into effect.

The City Council voted 3-2 at its Oct. 11 to approve a $2 per passenger fee hike effective in 2018. Geiger supported the increase.

In terms of long-term planning and implementing recommendations of studies, Mason said the City Council should not wait for the perfect plan before it takes action. He cited the recommendations of the Camden Street redevelopment study and said things can be done incrementally, such as improvements to the intersection of Maverick and Camden streets, without waiting until there is enough money and support to improve the entire street.

Geiger said a lot of studies go nowhere. She said one recent problem has been the turnover in the city manager position. But she said a lack of money is also behind the lack of follow-through on studies. She said public services workers are being trained to build sidewalks, and that should help.

Geiger said the lack of revenue is due to state action. She pointed out that Maine voters approved in November a surcharge on higher-income households to provide more money for schools, but the governor opposed it and got the Legislature to repeal it. That and reductions in state revenue-sharing have cost Rockland more than $1 million a year that could have been used for lowering property taxes, improving schools and repairing the city's infrastructure.

Westkaemper said she would like to look at project budgets.

"We have to keep our eyes on the long-range ball."

The candidates also responded to a question from Geiger's husband, Greg Marley, on how to bring civility to public discourse. Geiger said during her opening statements at the forum that she found people were meaner than she believed when she got on the council.

Geiger said when she first went to council meetings before being elected, she was horrified by the public comments toward city employees. She said she had encouraged former Mayor Frank Isganitis to take a hard stance on such comments.

Geiger said she supports individual councilors' meeting outside of meetings to build relationships.

Westkaemper said that she is a good facilitator and the key to civility is to find common ground, de-escalate disagreement, find out the real issues and address them. She said another key is for people to maintain professionalism.

Mason said people need to talk about policies and not people. He said people need to feel that they are being listened to by their public officials and want respect.

In regard to marijuana, Mason said he does not want marijuana sold throughout the community and that its sale should he limited. He said he supported the state referendum to legalize the recreational use of marijuana because he opposes prohibition and putting people in jail.

Geiger said she also supported legalization, saying people should not be jailed for marijuana possession. She said, however, before the city adopts regulations on marijuana sales in the city, she wants to know what the federal goverment's response will be.

Westkapemer said she wants to be proactive on the issue and that a workshop should be held with representatives from all parties in attendance.

Each candidate said, in response to a question, said they would consider whether creating a police review board was needed.

Geiger, a Broadway resident, is completing her first three-year term on the council. She is a nurse who worked for years at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport. She earned a master's degree in public administration and served on the Comprehensive Planning Commission, including as its chair.

Mason, a Frederick Street resident, is a retired contractor who now works at the Landings marina. He served on the former School Administrative District 5 Board of Directors for three years, being elected in 2000. He has pointed out his family's roots in the community, saying he, his father and grandfather were all born and raised in the community.

Westkaemper has had a career as an arts administrator; she has been employed as the executive director of an arts umbrella organization in Austin, Texas, where she served as an arts advocate and representative of the theater community.

She is on the board of the Millay House in Rockland.

She served a two-year term on the City Council of Justin,Texas, a city of about 3,200 residents, in 2012-2013.

Westkaemper is a Broadway resident who has lived in Rockland since 2013.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Kathryn Fogg | Nov 07, 2017 13:33

Thank you, Steve Betts, for your video interviews of the candidates and your follow up articles. At first I thought I knew which two candidates I would support but changed my mind with your questions and those of the community.  Good job.

Posted by: Dale Hayward | Nov 06, 2017 23:39

There is not enough room in this entire space to devour this article bit by bit piece by piece. Too much fluff and not enough luck in the world could bring these political agendas to reality in this city. Nothing but fluff.

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