The thinker, the builder, the questioner, the wizard and the puzzler

A Camden Select Board report from Marc Ratner
By Marc Ratner | Jan 03, 2018
Marc Ratner

As we enter 2018 I thought it might be a good idea to write an update on Camden’s current Select Board after our first six months together.

It’s been a whirlwind six months as we’ve begun work on a whole host of tasks and I find that the current board has a mix of abilities that compliments each other very well.

How do I break that down?

I think of Jenna Lookner as “The Thinker.” She listens and considers the information and conversation being discussed and always gives a reasoned explanation of her thoughts. She doesn’t speak perhaps as much as the rest of us do – but when she does it’s worth hearing. She sits next to me on the board and I watch her take copious notes during our meetings and then I notice she always comes to the next meeting very well researched and thoughtful about the issues.

Bob Falciani is “The Builder.” He has worldwide experience as a builder and when we get into technical details – there’s no one better to guide us. He digs into any and all things technical. He now knows more about the wastewater plant than any person should have to. Having that experience on the board is so essential. When you have to decide about a “widget” it’s always good to have someone who can explain what it is and Bob always can.

Alison McKellar is “The Questioner.” She asks questions that in my experience have never been asked before. Instead of “OK” it’s “Why Not?” She’s especially concerned about making sure that our meetings, deliberations and decisions are as public as can possibly be. In a democracy there’s nothing more important. One of the reasons she’s so good at questions is because she spends more time than I can imagine studying town business – she knows the town website and files better I believe than anyone else has ever.

Of course John French is “The Wizard." Twenty years of experience on the Select Board is a treasure that I don’t believe we’ll ever see again. He remembers more than I’ll ever forget… and I forget a lot. We’re so lucky to have that depth of knowledge about our town coupled with his commitment. Unlike the Wizard of Oz – John is the real deal!

“The Puzzler?” More about him later.

No matter what you think the job of being on the select board is like – once you’re in the midst of it you find it’s quite different than you ever expected.

The actual select board meetings are like the tip of the iceberg.

In between the meetings – the five of us constantly are researching, talking to people, meeting with people (it certainly can be a dangerous job – the constant breakfast / lunch / coffee meetings can put on the pounds - there are so many good food / coffee establishments in this town), attending committee meetings – it’s a time consuming – yet fascinating job.

Matter of fact – the only people we don’t meet with are each other – except occasionally one on one.

Why? Because it’s not allowed. Anytime three of us are together it can officially be a meeting – and we can’t have a meeting without public notice and an open invitation for the public to attend.

There are no backroom deals here – because we’re very careful to follow the law in this regard.

The only time you might see any of us together (more than two) is at a party or function and we’re very careful not to discuss town business.

So how much time is involved?

I went back over the last year and a half to see what I had on my calendar.

52 Select Board meetings / workshops / executive sessions

130 town committee meetings

68 individual meetings

That doesn’t include the time spent in the town office going through and signing invoices. (Town invoices / check authorizations have to be signed by the Select Board members and we all spend a lot of time going through the invoices to make sure that what we’re signing we should be signing.)

Plus phone calls -and those can happen anytime day or night – weekday or weekend - and the ever present email with even a mailed letter showing up from time to time.

It’s nice to work with four other individuals so committed to our wonderful town.

And what we do is just another tip of the iceberg.

We get a lot of publicity (alas, not all of it wonderful) but there are soooo many other people in Camden volunteering their time on all the town committees that never get much attention. Here’s a list of some – but I’m sure not all – of the committees in town – I’ll forget something and John French will know it:

Energy Committee, Harbor Committee, Camden Connect, Downtown Design Group, CEDAC, Opera House Committee, Historical Committee, Four Seasons Committee, Parks and Rec Committee, Camden Conservation Commission, Planning Board, Zoning Board, Personnel Board, Cemetery Association, Pathways Committee. Route 1 North Committee, Megunticook Dams Committee, Board of Assessment Review Committee and the Budget Committee.

It’s a wonder that there’s anyone in town not volunteering for something.

That’s why we live in such a wonderful community.

Which brings me to “the Puzzler.”

That’s me.

Why “The Puzzler?”

Because in my many years of business experience - I gravitated to work that gave me a puzzle that I had to solve in order to get the job done. Ask me sometime I’ll tell you about it.

So I approach the job of Selectperson for the Town of Camden as one where it doesn’t matter much how I feel in the beginning one way or another about a town issue that needs to be solved – only that I talk to enough people, learn as much as I can about the issue, understand the situation, study the pros and cons of the solutions so that I can guide and assist the town into the best answer possible.

Let’s discuss two situations that I’ve been very involved in.

Sagamore Farms is a town property - 70 or so acres that are next to Camden Hills State Park – that have belonged to the town since 1946. There has been discussion for years and years about what to do with it but with no progress. I kept hearing we can’t do this, we can’t do that, we need a master plan etc.

Until today! (As I write this on December 29th)

Amazing what you can do if you focus on getting something done. It’s not about speeding to 100 right off the bat – start at 5, then move up to 15, turn it up to 40 – pretty soon you’re at 100. But you have to start somewhere.

With a big shout out to Pete Kalajian of the town’s Energy Committee – who put in hours of work to help get us over the hurdles of accessibility, government regulations and conflicting opinions of how the land should be used - Camden now has a finished solar farm at Sagamore Farms that will provide clean energy to the town and yet leave plenty of room for other development.

The email came in today that Revision Energy has finished construction and all that’s left to do is for CMP to complete the work on their end to turn it on.

What about the Middle School and the MET building?

Here’s a puzzle for all time.

I’ve been on the Middle School Building Committee since it was formed after the first vote failed at the polls.

I stepped aside from being the official Select Board liaison last week so Bob Falciani could take that role – he is the experienced builder on the SB after all. I will continue to attend the meetings as both a parent – my son attends the Middle School now but will be at the High School when the new school is finished - and as a resident of Camden.

But after years of listening, asking questions, studying the situation I find I’m fairly well educated on the design of the new school. One thing that people should be aware of is that the Oak Point Architects specialize in building schools. I’ve learned a lot about their experience and history and understand that many of the decisions of the design of the building are based on that experience and specific educational requirements. And they listen – recent changes were suggested by our teachers.

Experience counts.

So that brings me to the MET Building.

I find myself exactly where I would expect to be in this situation right now – where I should be – smack dab in the middle – puzzling about what the best answer is.

I find I get frustrated by the constant back and forth in the press and in social media. It seems that everyone writing on both sides is so set in their opinion that the discussion becomes personal instead of professional.

I have a lot of thoughts about both sides of the issue. A refurbished MET building would be the perfect place for school administration and other educational needs. The Town of Camden certainly could use incubator business space. There are tax credits for restoring old historical buildings. Once it’s torn down – it’s gone forever. But then again – if the money to do the job right is not available and only a partial restoration is done – Camden could be stuck with an expensive white elephant of a building in the middle of a school yard and a residential neighborhood. Even if it is restored – where do people park? (Shhh- quietly working on that). Certainly the residents of the neighborhood don’t want their street to be more of a parking lot than it is now – just as they’ll start to see relief once the new school is built. What about energy costs? As we try to increase our energy efficiency in town – a partially restored building could be incredibly inefficient and costly.

For a quite a while I had some quiet conversations with some people that could have made great use of the building – properly restored - it would have been a wonderful idea for Camden – but those discussions ended because they didn’t want to be a political football in the middle of this issue. I can’t blame them for that.

As a continuing man in the middle I listen to both sides and see that both sides have very valid points. This is a puzzler for sure and I wish we had a white knight in Camden that could provide the total restoration funds that the building deserves. Camden could sure use the building if done right.

I don’t know what the solution is yet so I’ll keep listening and asking questions of both sides.

My decision on which side I’ll side with will be based on the long-term interests of the Town of Camden.

That’s my job.

Which leads me to Matt Dailey and Owen Casas.

I know them both; like them both; admire them both.

I’ve talked to both of them about the latest divisive issues.

I know both wish they could dial back the clock and approach this issue differently.

What makes me really sad is the intense debate both in the press and on social media that has inflamed the issue and made it so personal.

How does this happen when the two gentlemen involved have put themselves out in the public eye with the sole desire to do good work so as to make all of our lives better?

I wish I’d gotten involved in the issue earlier and done something as simple as inviting them both out for dinner.

As I detailed above in different words – about all the meetings I and the other select board members do – what is most important is communication, discussion and understanding .

I think one of the wisest things about the Select Board process – is that at this level – there are no political parties.

We work together instead of separately.

Maybe it’s not too late.

Matt / Owen?

Let’s have dinner.

Marc Ratner is a member of the Camden Select Board.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jan 07, 2018 15:50

Thoughtful comments from a seriously dedicated man. Camden is lucky to have you in their midst.

Mary "Mickey" McKeever

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