CHATHAM — Selectman Seth Taylor and challenger Shareen Davis underscored their different visions and leadership philosophies during a League of Women Voters debate last Thursday. The two are vying for a single seat on the board of selectmen in the May 11 annual town election.
Taylor stressed his experience on the board and his public sector work for the state Department of Youth Services and in the Peace Corps. He said the main attributes of a good selectman are critical thinking skills for understanding a large budget and a complex government structure, and having the “experience to know what the right choices are.”
Davis underscored her experience on town committees, as a small business owner and as a fisheries advocate. “My life's work has been advocacy,” she said. “I am a person who thrives on being active in my community.” A good selectman does her homework and listens to citizens to understand their needs, she said.
On the topic of affordable housing, Taylor acknowledged the problem. “Our property values are through the roof,” he said, and reaching the state target of reserving 10 percent of the housing stock as affordable “is literally impossible in this town.” The best approach is to create jobs that provide a level of income “that lets them live in this high-priced neighborhood,” he said. Taylor said he also has advocated a residential tax exemption to provide some property tax relief for year-round residents, but noted that the majority of the board has declined to fully explore the idea.
“We're losing a lot of talent,” Davis said, given the exodus of young people from the town. Job creation is important, and people need the flexibility to work from home when they can, she said. When it comes to housing, Davis said she favors the model used in the Marconi rental escrow program, where half of tenants' rent is held in escrow and later used for a home down payment. With regard to the residential tax exemption, Davis noted that seasonal residents already contribute greatly to the tax base. “I'd be very cautious in discussing the idea of a tax exemption for residents,” she said.
The two candidates have different perspectives on the management of town employees. In response to the departure of many town employees in recent years, Taylor said it is the responsibility of selectmen to investigate such problems. The board of selectmen are responsible for the actions of the town manager and any widespread morale problems among town workers, “but it takes three votes for us to do that,” he said.
Davis said the people who have left the town's employ in recent years have done so “for a variety of reasons.” Some were dissatisfied and others were pursuing better opportunities, she said. It is the right of the town manager to build her own team of leaders, Davis said. When it comes to the hiring and firing of employees, “it's not my duty to micromanage the town manager,” she said.
A question from the audience asked the candidates their opinion on the town's first political action committee, which announced its formation recently. The PAC, the Chatham Citizens for Responsible Government, sent out an email criticizing Taylor and urging people not to vote for him.
Though the PAC appears to support Davis' candidacy, “I condemn them, straight out,” she said. “We're a small town and I don't think Chatham is a place for a PAC,” she said. “It could be me, the next time,” Davis added.
Taylor said the goal of the PAC is to silence those who hold a different viewpoint. “I think there's enough dirty politics in this nation. I think it doesn't belong in Chatham,” he said.
On the topic of wastewater, Davis said she supports the current plan to have Harwich purchase wastewater treatment capacity from Chatham. It's one of several partnerships between the two towns, including the Muddy Creek restoration project and the Monomoy School District, she noted. The agreement was negotiated by two other selectmen, a lawyer and a finance expert, she noted. “I think it's a fair contract,” Davis said.
Describing himself as a “Yankee horse trader,” Taylor said Chatham needs to get top dollar for its valuable wastewater treatment capacity. Harwich has specified the amount it would need to spend to build its own wastewater treatment plant, and it is significantly higher than the nearly $6.8 million Harwich plans to pay Chatham for treatment capacity. “The numbers don't make sense,” Taylor said. “We need to renegotiate those numbers.”
Regarding the legal battle over the boundaries of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, Davis said the town is working on the issue diligently, but should avoid getting involved in litigation. She acknowledged that Taylor recently testified before Congress on the issue, but said the letter that he wrote was written by staff and board Chairman Jeffrey Dykens. “I have background in working on regulations and addressing concerns like this,” she said.
Taylor rejected Davis' description of his Washington testimony. “I personally sat in the seat of the House Committee on Natural Resources and testified before the Subcommittee on Federal Lands,” he said. “I didn't carry a letter that was drafted and written by Selectman Dykens. Didn't happen,” he said. The letter was something he drafted with help from the town's consultant, Jeff Pike, he said.
In reference to the debate over the West Chatham roadway project (see related story), the candidates were asked their interpretation of Section 2.8 of the town's home rule charter, which states that a vote of town meeting “shall be presumed to be binding.” Taylor said he believes the section is clear, and means that selectmen should have honored a town meeting vote in which a slim majority of voters favored scrapping the roadway plan.
Davis said she believes that while the charter indicates that town meeting votes are “presumed” to be binding, “'presumed' does not make it the law.” In this case, the moderator indicated that the vote was nonbinding, she said. Davis said she supports the roadway redesign as a means of improving safety and supporting local businesses.