Rockport Selectmen candidates face off in online debate

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Jun. 11—ROCKPORT — All five candidate in this year's selectmen race participated in an online debate hosted by the League of Women Voters of Cape Ann and will face again next week.

Each candidate is vying for one of two seats on the board. Incumbents Ruth George and Sarah Wilkinson will face off against Planning Board member Herman Lilja; Craig Morrill, one of the plaintiffs suing the town in Essex Superior Court regarding an alleged conspiracy against members of the Rockport Fire Department; and Michael Polisson, a part-time commercial fisherman and now three-time selectmen candidate.

Rockport Town Election will be June 22. Each of the three polling precincts will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The five candidates are scheduled to participate in an in-person forum to be hosted by the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce next Thursday.

Here's what the they had to say in the taped debate organized by the League of Women Voters of Cape Ann and moderated by league President Hannah Kimberley:

First priorities

"What is the first thing you want to accomplish in office in the first six months?," Kimberley asked.

George said she wanted to focus on constructing the new Public Works facility. Initial plans for the project reportedly came in at $2 million over budget — an on-budget redesign is expected to go out to bid this July.

Lilja said he was hoping to build connections with the town's multiple departments to better understand their current needs.

Wilkinson said her first priority would be reopening downtown post-pandemic. As head of the town's pandemic reopening committee, she said she's now working to make outdoor dining a permanent option this season.

Morrill and Polisson opined to eliminate the town position of emergency service director, tasked with overseeing the Fire, Harbormaster, Forest Fire and Animal Control departments and the town's ambulance response team.

First responders

Morrill said he could be able to mitigate the ongoing controversy regarding leadership of the Rockport Fire Department within his first six months office.

"It has run smoothly for decades and over the last few months there has been a major problem with the Board of Selectmen and their representatives at the Fire Department," Morrill said. "It's an easy solution. Years ago, I was a selectmen and we had a problem with the Police Department. ... We didn't have to pay anyone to look at the problems. We went out to talk to the fire chief and police chief and worked out the problems ourselves."

Wilkinson and George both said they'd hope to complete the upcoming audit of the Fire Department by Municipal Resources Inc.

"I wish that I could agree with Mr. Morrill when he says that there wasn't any issues when the department ran itself," Wilkinson said, "but I've been on the board for 15 years and we've dealt with several issues in the department. The goal of the emergency services director was to really support each department, but as soon as we found out there were issues we suspended the possession. Now, I would favor sitting down with the new leadership of the fire department and each department and work together to...have polices and procedures that are modern and appropriate ..."

Housing

When asked about plans for affordable housing, Polisson seemed to throw his hands up in the air.

"With the tax base in Rockport and the average value of a home in Rockport, there's no such thing as affordable housing," due to "the influx of wealthy people buying up properties, paying too much form them," he said. "Unless someone leaves us a few million dollars as seed money to start something I don't think we can do it."

George and Wilkinson both touched on the upcoming affordable housing survey organized by the Community Preservation Committee. A request for proposals will be coming out "very shortly," according to George.

The two women and Lilja said they supported creating an affordable housing trust for local tradespeople.

Plans were put in motion in 2019 to construct an affordable housing complex by the MBTA station on Railroad Avenue. Lilja lamented that these plans have seemingly "dried up."

"But the bases have already been placed there," he explained. "Now the state has came in with housing choice and is demanding we change the zoning within a half-mile radius of the MBTA station to permit housing to the tune of 15 units per acre. It will be done. otherwise we will lose certain opportunities by the state."

Beaches and downtown

Long Beach and rising tides were the next topics on the debate agenda.

When asked about the future of Long Beach, Wilkinson said she hope the shoreside cottages will stay for years to come. She said she was open to the idea of selling the plots of land but not unless theres a stipulation enforcing continued public access to the beach. Likewise, Lilja and Morrill said they'd be open to selling the land if it was determined to be within the best interest of the town.

George mentioned the importance of keeping downtown's infrastructure safe as shorelines shrink.

"Looking at the GIS mapping ... one of our biggest areas is the infrastructure downtown in Barletta Park, where our sewer and water is," she said. "That is one of the lowest parts in Rockport. When ocean rise comes, that may be one of the first things that flood out — the pump station down at Barletta Park. It's not going to come quickly, but those are the major things that we need to look at in addition to our three harbors and our beaches ... and what we can do with the state and federal monies that could be appropriated. Usually... the town has to pay 25 percent (of the total for the project). That's really a bargain from what we can get from both of those agencies."

Finally, each candidate was asked about how he or she would handle the town's shifting demographics.

Wilkinson said she wants to keep Rockport a multi-generational town and, to do so, the town needs to continue supporting cultural activities and the schools.

While Morrill and Polisson said they were in favor of the proposed Proposition 2 1/2 override to support Rockport Public Schools, which will need to be approved voters at this upcoming election, they believe school spending is an issue.

"We have 2,000 less people now than we did in 1990," said Morrill, "and yet we're spending a lot more money on the different public services like schools. We need schools of course, but every time you vote for an override, it's not just for one year. It goes on and on and on in perpetuity. Their plan is to do it again in five years...It's got to stop sometime....From this point on we need to look at the spending habits of the school."

Polisson said school choice students "need to go" as they are a drain on the budget. The claim that school choice students are a cost to the town has been refuted by Rockport Public Schools on numerous occasions. According to the Rockport School Committee, school choice students are a necessity to the district as they fill student quotas per classroom and provided a net gain of $144,000 to the budget per year.

George said she believes more young families will move to Rockport now that the COVID-19 pandemic is dissipating.

"You see a house in Rockport and it's on the market for less than two weeks right now," she said. "The cost that young kids get at a job now, graduating from college, they can make well over ($150,000 to) $200,000 easily. These people are looking at a small, beautiful community like Rockport with a good school system to come here and work from home."

According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a bachelor's degree recipient in 2019 was $64,896. Master degree recipients received on average $77,844 per year, and doctorate and professional degree holders received around an average of $97,000 per year. The average price for a single family home in Rockport is currently $513,350.

The full debate is available via 1623 Studios at youtube.com/watch?v=DtFDqb03yA0.

The in-person selectmen candidate forum will be held by the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, June 17, at 10 a.m. Guests are invited to attend the event at the Rockport Inn and Suites' meeting room, located downstairs from the main lobby.

Town Moderator Robert Visnick will moderate and questions will be sourced from the public. To summit a question for consideration, email the CACC Government Affairs Council at info@capeannchamber.com by Monday, June 14.

Online preregistration is strongly encouraged as seating is limited. For more information, visit capeannchamber.com.

Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or mcronin@gloucestertimes.com.

IF YOU GO

Who and what: Selectmen candidate forum.

When: Thursday, June 17, at 10 a.m.

Where: Meeting room at Rockport Inn and Suites, 183 Main St.

Preregistration: capeannchamber.com.

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