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Commentary on the 2010 Town Election

June 3, 2010

Join Sam Obar’s exclusive coverage of the 2010 Walpole Town Election on Saturday, June 5:

At 4 PM, listen to a special edition of The Sam Obar Show with Selectwoman Nancy Mackenzie. Mackenzie will discuss her choices for selectmen this year, among other issues. Listen live here.

Beginning at 8 PM, check Sam Obar 180 and the Sam Obar Twitter Feed for live election results and updates about all the candidates and campaigns. Throughout the day, the Twitter feed will also provide ongoing updates about the voter turnout, poll locations, and the candidates.

UPDATE 6/5/10: Please see the election results here.

This post has been edited since being originally published.

With less than one week left to go until one of the most critical elections in Walpole history, all of the candidates for the Board of Selectmen are facing a packed week of door-to-door canvassing, sign-holding, and general campaigning throughout town in a last-minute push for victory. Among the important issues being heavily discussed this year by all candidates are biotech, economic development, meals taxes, a reduced police force, a closed East Walpole fire station, school layoffs, and town buildings and related long-term planning. Candidates and their networks of supporters have been aggressively spending the last few months inundating The Walpole Times with letters to the editor and several have gone door-to-door to campaign more than once. For the second year in a row, multiple candidates have set up websites and Facebook pages – an unprecedented milestone in the history of Walpole political races and a sign that the power of technology continues to be a driving force in this year’s and future Walpole elections.

This year could be a watershed year for the town once a new Board is elected. Multiple candidates have called for some form of more openness, including Selectmen office hours, a revamped town website, and expanded public participation. All have publicly stood in opposition to the proposed Robbins Road police station, except for one who claims he is neutral. Town planning in regards to town building use has become a major issue this year with a new political action committee, Walpole 2020. Further, the biotech issue has become controversial as it relates to economic development, openness, and the health of the community.

My predictions

I am predicting that Eric Kraus will win one seat and the other seat will be a tossup between Mike Berry and Patrick Shield. I predict the police station question will be rejected and Question 2, a non-binding initiative regarding pesticides on foods will be approved.

My thoughts on each of the candidates

The Front Runners

Patrick Shield ENDORSED BY SAM OBAR 180

When I endorsed Patrick Shield for Selectman a few months ago, I was excited and enthusiastic about having a member of the Board who is ready to improve transparency and at the same time push important issues like public safety and the schools.

Mr. Shield’s campaign deserves a lot of credit for being the most aggressive campaigner of all of the candidates, making his presence known on the Town Common each Saturday and even throughout the week and becoming only the second candidate for local office in two years to start a campaign website. I am disappointed, however, that he appears to have failed to fire up supporters as well as he seemed to last year.

Throughout the League of Women Voter’s Candidates’ Night last week, Mr. Shield seemed uncomfortable and awkward. On issues he is very knowledgeable on, he seemed to manage his time poorly and ran out of time on several occasions to discuss a lot of the great ideas and thoughts he has. By the end of the night, I felt I had learned basically nothing about Patrick or why he wanted to be selectman, whereas I had learned a tremendous amount about all of the other candidates. Other people I spoke to who came out of the event also said they were very disappointed in Mr. Shield’s performance.

Furthermore, given that Mr. Shield is the only candidate who started a campaign website, I was disappointed that he did not use it more to rally his supporters and provide updates about his campaign. The website did not have as much of a discussion of the issues and his position on them as I would have liked. The Events page, too, has had the words “List of Events coming soon…” for some time now, with no clear idea of when “coming soon…” is. If Barack Obama’s successful campaign for president two years ago is any hint, political candidates can definitely use the power of technology to keep their campaign moving. Mr. Shield’s website was a step up from previous candidates for selectmen, but it seemed like it was being underutilized.

I do commend Mr. Shield, though, for starting a website in the first place. I wish the other candidates had followed his lead. It baffles me why in this day and age most of our municipal candidates have not made campaign websites a major priority. WalpoleNews.com is a prime example of how a lot of Walpole voters have turned to the internet to get their information about the candidates for local races. The candidates, therefore, have a prime opportunity to cash in on this electorate by creating websites. Mr. Shield took the lead on this and I believe he has an advantage over the other candidates because of this.

Eric Kraus

Eric Kraus, on the other hand, has a campaign that is surprisingly well-run and seems to be getting better and better each day. Mr. Kraus’ supporters have dominated the Times‘ Letters page, and his lawn signs are practically taking over entire neighborhoods. What is interesting about this, and a big problem for me personally, is that Mr. Kraus remains the only front runner in the race who does not maintain a campaign website or a presence on a social networking site. His platform basically consists of one issue: economic development. He has the enthusiastic support of most “school backers”, despite his public opposition to the meals tax increase and proposals for trash fees.

Despite what I see as essentially a one-platform candidacy, Mr. Kraus’ business experience and desire to bring more commercial tax revenue to the town is very exciting. Mr. Kraus boasted to the Times that he feels he can bring in enough money in commercial tax revenue alone to fund a new police station out of the operational budget and not through an override. I am very pleased with his promising ideas, and I look forward to seeing him on the Board. However, his lack of direct discussion about openness on the Board of Selectmen and whether the town website needs to be scrapped and begun from scratch again is discouraging, especially when every other front runner in the race has either lightly or heavily delved into the transparency problem. I want to hear more from Mr. Kraus about how he plans to bring more openness to Town Hall, since it seems to be a major challenge for our current town officials to be transparent on the issues.

Michael Berry ENDORSED BY SAM OBAR 180

Michael Berry’s campaign, like that of Mr. Kraus’, also seems to be doing well this year, especially considering he is the only one in the race who has not already run for Selectmen. Mr. Berry, though, shares most of his characteristics with Patrick Shield. Like Mr. Shield, Mr. Berry would bring experience working in the state legislature if elected to the Board of Selectmen. Like Mr. Shield, Mr. Berry is fairly young. Like Mr. Shield, Mr. Berry grew up in Walpole. Like Mr. Shield, Mr. Berry is making transparency and accountability a priority.

Mr. Berry is one of the most fiscally conservative members of the School Committee, repeatedly advocating for families and the students of the Walpole School System. In 2007, he called an increase in student parking fees at the high school “exorbitant” and actually had the courage to ask “where does all the money go?” Two years later, when the rest of his committee’s members voted to raise athletic fees by $45 per sport, Berry called the fees unfair. In fact, he said that some sports are disproportionately funded. “It’s not going to be the end of the world to shift a few thousand (of dollars) into the sports if that’s what’s needed,” he said at the time. A few months later, he was the only one on the Committee to vote no to raising activity fees at the high school, and instead proposed negotiating with the Walpole Teachers Association to get reductions in stipends for activities. It was a reasonable proposal on his part, but alas he was outnumbered on the final vote. Mr. Berry is not one of those types who asserts that Walpole is launching an “assault” on its education system and the town is being ignorant in not raising taxes immediately to cope with teacher layoffs. Instead, he maintains a cool head and proposes alternative solutions to fee increases that hurt our students and their families.

On the issues, Mr. Berry is strong. To improve accountability and transparency, he has proposed holding office hours. He has called for expanded inter-Board communication, and brings economic development experience from having previously served on the Walpole Economic Development Commission. He is also presently a member of the Walpole Housing Partnership. He grew up in Walpole and graduated from Walpole High School.

The Non-Front Runners

David Sullivan

(Full Disclosure: Mr. Sullivan was one of the Selectmen who voted to appoint me to the Historical Commission in January.)

David Sullivan, the incumbent candidate, is, in my view, not a front runner. Mr. Sullivan did not attend the Candidates’ Night last week apparently for medical reasons. But his absence may have provided the perception that he is incapable of serving the community and showing up when he is needed. Mr. Sullivan also has not had very many letters of support in the Times and appears to lack a real campaign structure.

Mr. Sullivan is competent and capable of serving. He’s not all that bad a Selectman on the whole but we can do better.

Mr. Sullivan is also a walking conflict of interest. He has a daughter in the Walpole Police Department, and he himself used to work as a police officer in town. Despite his obvious familial connections to the police force, he failed to contact the State Ethics Commission when he began involvement, along with the rest of the Board, in the process of hiring a new Deputy Police Chief. Not only did he not contact the Commission, but he also continues to assert that it is acceptable for him to participate in the process. This situation is very disconcerting. We need members of the Board who are free of bias and conflicts of interest. Mr. Sullivan does not fit the bill.

Mr. Sullivan is also wishy-washy on the issues and can’t seem to make up his mind on a couple of hot-button issues. As a Board member, he voted in favor of allowing Siemens to upgrade to Level 3 biotech. Yet, he later told the Times that he is “neither for nor against” Siemens doing so. He also said he does not feel the Board was educated enough on the issue and that the public was not adequately educated either. But, let me remind everyone again, he still voted in favor of allowing Siemens to upgrade as a member of the Board. To me, his statements to the Times are misleading or show, if nothing else, that he takes votes that he does not feel 100% confident about. He also refused to tell the Times his position on the Robbins Road police station proposal, even though as a selectman he voted in favor of the override. Once again, this represents a selectman who can not take clear stances on the issues. The fact that current Selectwoman Nancy Mackenzie has already blasted him and the rest of the Board while endorsing two of his opponents is evidence that even the current Board has had enough of him.

Finally, I find it odd that there are some people in Walpole who support Mr. Sullivan because they are calling him the “people’s Selectman.” I fail to see how he has gotten this nickname. At each Selectmen’s meeting, Mr. Sullivan usually remains extremely silent and barely speaks. He votes on issues, but rarely has anything substantive to say, especially when compared to his more outspoken colleagues like Cliff Snuffer and Nancy Mackenzie. Mr. Sullivan does not strike me as any more “for the people” than any other members of the Board.

Bill Hamilton

Once again, Bill Hamilton is running for no apparent reason other than because he feels he has something to offer from having been on the Board once before. However, I can’t figure out exactly what this previous experience offers other than old ideas that will not improve the community. He has had his chance on the Board and served for over a decade. Mr. Hamilton has no plan for economic development and in fact went on record last year stating that he is pessimistic about the economic outlook for Walpole – that’s the kind of tired attitude that does not belong on the Board. The only thing he seems to have going for him is that he was on the Board at one time.

Mr. Hamilton spent the Candidates’ Night last week complaining about how the Board since he left has not done enough to bring in new economic development to the town. He also complained that the police department was unfairly given a building, the Old Town Hall, that was not adequate for their uses. However, he never mentioned the fact that he himself had more than enough time on the Board to fix that problem in the 1980s and 1990s. He presented no real ideas and no evidence that he has what it takes to bring in new businesses. Experience on the Board means nothing when the town is facing issues that require the perspective of someone from outside the box we call Town Hall.

In any case, if Mr. Hamilton gets elected, it would be interesting to see what he can offer. I am not against him getting elected necessarily, but I am not for him either.

James Taylor

James Taylor has a very small group of supporters that are scattered throughout town. I doubt he could be an effective Selectman and his chances of being elected are slim to none unless there is really low voter turnout. His letters to the editor in the Times make good points but generally come in the form of poorly-written, discombobulated rants, which says a lot about his ability, or lack thereof, to communicate effectively.

Mr. Taylor also believes that the town needs a new senior center before a new police station or library. This is a bad idea – our seniors do not need a new facility before the police. Further, Mr. Taylor appears to have a laundry list of grievances with the current Town Administrator. This is a serious problem when he will be forced to work with the TA on a regular basis. He has blamed the TA for “half the problems in this town,” despite the fact that the TA actually has very little power. The TA does not control the town – the citizens do. I too do not get along with the TA on everything, but I have coped with that by trying to use my blog to hold him and other town officials accountable. Perhaps Mr. Taylor could start a similar blog and propose some alternatives to the TA’s ideas, rather than complaining.

Mr. Taylor also seems to be fiscally conservative, which would be a good addition to the Board in any case.

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