2015-05-29 / Community

Six vie for board of selectmen positions

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — With six candidates running for three open seats on the Kennebunk Board of Selectmen, voters certainly can’t complain they lack for choices.

What’s more, with Selectman David Spofford ruling out a run for re-election — his wife recently informed him he wants to start wintering in Florida, Spofford joked at a recent meeting — voters are guaranteed at least one fresh face on the board when ballots are counted after the polls close June 9.

Even so, any new member on the board of selectmen will be familiar to anyone at all versed in local politics.

The slate of candidates includes two incumbents — John Kotsonis and Albert Searles — as well as two former selectmen — Daniel Boothby and William Ward Jr. Also in the race are two prominent community activists, including Edward Karytko, who has probably attended more selectmen and school board meetings in recent years than anyone not elected to be there, and Shiloh Schulte, active most recently in the ongoing controversy over a proposed skate park in Parsons Field, an issue also on the June 9 ballot.

All six candidates met for a debate at town hall May 21, fielding questions on a wide array of topics, most notably on issues outside their normal purview as selectmen, given questions raised of late concerning the future of the local school district.

School building bond

With a $56.5 million renovation bond on the June 9 ballot, all six candidates agreed the three RSU 21 buildings targeted for repair, Kennebunk High School particularly, have suffered for lack of maintenance.

Karytko said he did not like “pouring money” into Kennebunkport Consolidated School and Arundel’s Mildred Day Elementary School, given the space available at two newer school buildings in Kennebunk. To his mind, Karytko said, it makes more sense to bus Arundel and Kennebunkport students to Sea Road School, rather than to close the building for the sake of maintaining older sites in each RSU town.

“If we are one district, we need to act as one district,” he said.

Kotsonis was less overt about being for or against the bond, but, like Karytko, said he felt upgrades had been “put off for far too long.”

“I think maintenance for the last few years has been neglected because we knew a renovation was coming,” he said. “I think they let some things go to make it appear worse than it needs to be.”

Kotsonis said he tended to doubt that the current renovation proposal is a true “needs-based” plan, given similar assurances made about a $75 million bond rejected by voters in 2014.

“We were told in the beginning that’s what we needed, that that’s what it was going to take, but voters sent a message and it got whittled down,” he said.

Searles expressed the strongest view, saying he was not only against the bond, he’s also against RSU 21’s $40.5 million budget proposal for the coming school year. Not only that, Searles said he also opposes the RSU itself.

“I don’t believe this RSU agreement ever should have been entered into,” he said, suggesting the three towns “could accomplish more and spend less,” on their own. Searles pointed out that in the six years he has sat on the board of selectmen, the portion of his tax bill dedicated to municipal operations has gone up $45.79, while the school portion has risen $195.42

“I don’t understand why it needs to be triple what we pay to op(erate) an entire town,” he said.

Schulte, meanwhile, came down as the strongest among the six candidates for the opposing view, in favor of the bond.

“I don’t think it’s perfect, but we need to fix these schools and I think we owe it to the community to do so,” he said. “If we don’t pay for this now, I think we are going to be paying more in the future. The fiscally responsible thing would have been to fix them 10 years ago, then we wouldn’t be dealing with this now.”

Ward said he felt the towns are locked into the building proposal as presented, because of the agreement which created the RSU 2009. His primary complaint, however, was that the architect for the project got “a blank check” to design the buildings in the first place, only to bankroll even more when redesigning them after voters rejected that version of the buildings.

“The only people who have gained from all of this is Harriman Associates,” he said.

Finally, Boothby appeared to defer to the school board on the issue, saying also that he favored borrowing while interest rates are low.

“We elected a group to represent us and I think we should trust them,” he said. “They presented a plan they think is in the best interests of Kennebunk and I’m going to listen to them. I know we have to watch our pennies, but money is not going to get any cheaper.”

RSU withdrawal

With Kennebunkport voters due to vote on funding a study into the feasibility of withdrawing from RSU 21, and a similar petition circulating locally, the candidates were asked if they support Kennebunk pulling out of the school district. All six said they’d put the question to voters if a withdrawal petition materializes — they don’t really have a choice in that regard, all agreed — but they split on support for such a measure.

“I personally wouldn’t support it,” Boothby said. “I think we need all three towns to help support our schools. It doesn’t make sense to me that it would be feasible for Kennebunk to go it alone.”

Karytko said he would favor funding a withdrawal study, but stressed that’s not the same thing as supporting withdrawal.

“In order for anyone in town to understand if withdrawal is good, bad or indifferent, you really have to go through the process,” he said. “We just have to make sure the education would not suffer for our children. That’s the first thing.”

Kotsonis said he’s against breaking up the district, but wishes the three towns would work harder at getting along.

“As far as any of the three towns withdrawing from the RSU, I don’t think that’s good for any one of us,” he said. “But there’s a lot of strife between the three towns and frankly I’m tired of it.

“We need to put more time and energy into seeing where we can combine services to save the taxpayer money,” Kotsonis said.

But Searles, who has attended more than a few regionalization meetings, said he’s found them to be a waste of time.

“I’d have been better off raking the leaves off my yard, because nothing ever happens,” he said.

Repeating his view that Kennebunk never should have joined RSU 21, Searles said he’s already signed the withdrawal petition being circulated by Karytko.

“As far as the finances go, it’s not been good for us and I really don’t think there’s any way it can get any better,” he said.

“I don’t see any reason to pull out of RSU 21. I think it would be a huge disservice to the kids,” Schulte said, adding that while he understood concerns over costs, a good school system can be a draw for residents and businesses, which helps bolster the tax base.

“A high functioning school district does benefit the town. It does bring people here,” he said.

However, Ward took the opposite view, suggesting the cost of running RSU 21 is driving working class families from Kennebunk.

“We’ve reached the point where the cost of education exceeds the ability of small households to pay for it,” he said, suggesting more needs to be done to lure industry to town, to help cover the costs.

But either way, Ward said he opposed breaking up the RSU. On its own, Kennebunk may not have to pay to renovate schools in other towns, but it would then have to shoulder the entire cost of its own buildings, which could prove even more prohibitive, he said.

Skate park

Apart from questions over the school district, the hottest issue on Kennebunk’s June 9 ballot may be the relocation of the town’s skate park to Parsons Field. A citizen’s petition cropped up to oppose that move.

Kotsonis claimed to have been assured by Town Manager Barry Tibbetts in 2013, when the town raised $100,000 to improve the existing park on Factory Pasture Road Lane, that the money would be used only on that location. Although he later voted along with other selectmen to initiate the move, Kotsonis said he believes most voters thought the 2013 vote was to improve the existing park, not to move it.

“I think that’s what they voted on,” Kotsonis said, noting that he favors having voters weigh in on the proposed move, as many have reported feeling “misled” when “improve” became “move.”

Searles, on the other hand, said he’d favor relocating the skate park, in part because he feels it was originally put in at its present location in the 1990s just to get skateboarders, “out of sight and out of mind.”

“I don’t believe the voters were misled,” said Searles. “We have many, many parks. I really don’t think it should be as big an issue as it is.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he presented the petition objecting to the move, Schulte wants the $100,000 put into the existing skate park. At the very least, he said, more thought needs to be put into the future of Parsons Field, if the skate park is to go in there.

“If we are going to put a 4,000-square-foot structure there, we should have a comprehensive plan for Parsons Field,” he said. “We should know what we what it to look like for the next several decades, because once we put that in there it’s not going anywhere.”

Schulte also claimed the skaters themselves prefer the current site.

“They love the location, they just don’t love the facility.”

Ward agreed with Searles that the skate park should be closer to the town center, but otherwise seemed to leave the location to the wisdom of the voters.

“At least in Parsons Field, they’d be much more visible if someone needed medical attention,” he said, “but I think it’s right that the people should vote on it because it’s become so controversial.”

“I think this is a situation where we need to get out there and talk to the people and find out what they want,” Karytko agreed, saying size, as well as location, should be addressed.

“If we try to put in something that’s not really big enough in Parsons Field, are we going to have to to add to it?” he asked.

Finally, Boothby opposed not only moving the park, but paying $100,000 to improve the site the town has now.

“I think it’s a want, not a need,” he said. “If they want to improve it, they should fundraise. If we had an abundance that’s one thing, but I don’t think we should be spending $100,000 on it at all.”

Lower Village

Should selectmen support changing the name of Lower Village to Harbor Village? Most candidates tried their best to steer a wide berth of that question

“I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole,” said Searles, offering perhaps the least subtle dodge.

In general, the candidates seemed to agree Lower Village should go by whatever residents and businesses there favor, although Karytko questioned if the village would gain enough in traffic flow from a new name to justify changing signs across town.

“I’m always going to think of it as Lower Village whether they change the name or not,” said Boothby, expressing another common view among the candidates.

Still, while most said they understood the desire for change from a marketing sense — Harbor Village conjures up an image more likely to attract tourists, most agreed — a new name is unlikely to change the biggest thing the village has working against it.

“No matter what you call it, the tourists will still swear they’re standing in Kennebunkport,” Ward said.

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