Affordable housing, community outreach, diversity, a new school superintendent and the townwide response to the pandemic were just some of the many issues discussed during the virtual Candidates’ Night on Wednesday, March 31.
Arlington residents heard from eight candidates running for five positions in the offices of School Committee, Board of Assessors and Select Board. The candidates for the Arlington Housing Authority did not speak.
The Candidates’ Night event was jointly sponsored by Arlington’s League of Women Voters and Envision Arlington, and live-streamed by ACMi via their YouTube and Facebook channels.
Here is a summary of the one-hour presentation.
Moderator Margaret Coppe, of the Lexington LWV, opened the discussion by outlining the procedures and rules for the evening and introducing the order of events. Unlike the evening's order, this summary begins with the Select Board followed by by the Board of Assessors and School Committee.
Three candidates, two positions, 3-year terms
Candidates’ Night comments from the three candidates for two positions on Arlington’s Select Board represented the longest section of the evening’s proceedings and offered the most detailed discussion featuring five community-vetted questions as compared to three for each of the other positions on the ballot.
In his opening statement, challenger Eric Helmuth said that he has been a Town Meeting member, chair of the Community Preservation Act Committee, which funded millions of dollars in affordable-housing and historical projects, and worked in many roles and capacities “to make Arlington a better place for everyone.”
Former School Committee member Jennifer Susse said her broad experience in a variety of town roles and community positions have given her a front-row seat to the housing, environment, racial justice, equity and inclusion challenges in Arlington, but that tonight’s event “gives us the opportunity to introduce ourselves and talk about the issues we care about.”
Incumbent John Hurd echoed Susse’s hopes and concerns, saying that Arlington has faced a number of challenges in fiscal stability, racism, housing affordability, the pandemic, transportation and sustainability, and that significant work lies ahead. However, he credited the “collaboration among board members and residents” in addressing these issues, and “is committed to building on the progress that we have made.”
Moderator Coppe read the first community question and followed with others:
What does affordable housing mean to you? What can the Select Board do and not do to increase affordable housing while addressing neighborhood concerns about set[back] limits, traffic, and existing home sizes? Do you have any specific comments about the proposed development at Thorndike Place on the Mugar property?
Susse opened by noting that while the Select Board doesn’t deal directly with housing issues, it should play a role. “We don’t have enough affordable housing. And we need to be a leader in the community in producing housing.”
Hurd said that “in the past year, we’ve [the Select Board] stepped up our role … to promote affordable housing in town,” including in being “heavily against the Mugar Woods development project.”
Helmuth said that “affordable housing means economic diversity. We are a better community if our fabric is economic and social diversity.” He believes that successful housing works because it’s built in the right place like along Arlington’s commercial “spines.” Mugar Woods is the wrong place for more housing.
What’s the most important issue in which your position differs substantially from those of your challenger’s, and explain your stance?
All three candidates praised their challengers for running positive and issue-based campaigns saying that even as they agree on substantial issues, their problem-solving lens comes from their different life experiences and perspectives. Hurd said that as a small-business owner, he “sees how issues of parking and the beautification of our business districts can affect the type of commerce that we can do here in town.”
Helmuth said his training in mental health means that his approach is “looking at the needs of the people, making sure voices are heard, and holding ourselves [as board members] accountable.” Susse followed up by saying her School Committee background is helpful since “43 percent of our budget is in the schools.”
What would you do to ensure that new hires and appointees to various public bodies made by the Select Board and town manager promote diversity, equity and inclusion? What challenges to increasing diversity in these positions would be outside of your control as a Select Board member?
“Anyone can join a committee and a commission,” said Helmuth, noting that it’s important to get “people who are underrepresented feel welcome, feel like they would have a voice and be represented.”
Susse said that the way to promote diversity and inclusion is to form relationships over time with residents. “It has to be going to the community, talking to people with diverse backgrounds,” so that when positions open up in town, “you already have that sort of trust that people feel comfortable” in participating.
Hurd agreed that diversity in town leadership is lacking, but that the way to increase diverse candidates in the election cycle was “to reach out and recruit good quality candidates from diverse backgrounds.”
Do you think Arlington needs a social-media policy and a code of conduct for employees, including the police department? Why or why not?
While Susse assumed this meant that the town didn’t already have a policy in place, she said it “was worth considering to figure out what would make sense in terms of our values.”
“A code of conduct came up a number of times in the wake of the Officer Pedrini incident,” said Hurd. He believes the town should come up with an appropriate policy, and he would be happy to work on this.
Citing how the public loses trust when an employee lets down themselves and the town with posts that reflect poorly on their colleagues and the town, Helmuth said, “yes, I do think we need that policy.”
Cities and towns served by the MBTA will need to have a multifamily zoning district near a transit station or risk losing state grants. How do you think this will affect Arlington?
Pointing out that the majority of Arlington’s transit travels along Mass. Ave., Hurd said the Select Board will “comply with any regulations that the MBTA puts forth to make sure we don’t lose any service” and that transportation has been a key issue for the Select Board this past term.
Funding is tied to compliance, and Helmuth called it an “opportunity to try something, and find out where multifamily housing can work.” He said that he believes that “people want more than one kind of neighborhood.”
Susse said she is excited by the economic-development bill signed by Gov. Baker in December. If we don’t comply with the regulations, “we risk losing MassWorks grants, which are super important to our town.” She advocated for a communitywide discussion to find ways to satisfy the requirement with multifamily housing.
In closing statements, the candidates reiterated their qualifications for and desire to serve as a Select Board member. Hurd said that his dual perspective of being a lifelong Arlington resident and a progressive candidate meant that he can “champion issues that appeal to all Arlington residents both new and old.”
The pandemic highlighted for Susse the need for greater community conversations on matters before the Select Board, and she believes she has the “track record of just such work.”
Calling the Select Board the link between the community and its government, Helmuth said his strong relationships to the community and local leaders means that he will “find the best path forward together” to work on challenges in town.
Board of Assessors
Three candidates, one position, 3-year term
Contrasting visions for the Board of Assessor position were articulated during this portion of the night’s program. Incumbent and 30-year board member Kevin Feeley, opened by describing his qualifications for the position, including his law degree, real estate background and dedication to the town.
Challenger, and Town Meeting member for Precinct 14, Guillermo Hamlin, offered his newcomer status as an advantage, saying that his life experiences as an immigrant from Paraguay informs his “outreach when it comes to our low-income homeowners and senior citizens on a fixed income.”
Challenger Phil Lohnes said his CPA degree, technology and finance background mean that he can “take something that’s complex and explain it in clear language to help people understand” the Board of Assessor process.
The first community question asked the candidates to expand on their qualifications for this highly technical and specialized role.
Hamlin said that if “we’re continually looking to overrepresent CPA’s or lawyers in the Board of Assessors, feel free to vote for either one of the two candidates besides myself today.” He said he believes communication skills and outreach to homeowners fighting for relief is what the position should be trying to achieve, and he brings those skills to the role.
Lohnes countered with his strengths as a “numbers guy and a CPA who understands how things work.” He also said that his degree in information systems will be helpful in working with the outside firms that do the actual appraisal calculations.
Incumbent Feeley said that while the assessor’s office could improve on communication, he thinks the office has “shown that they do a fair and equitable job in establishing the tax rates among the values in town.”
Another community question asked for the process by which homeowners question the assessment of their home and how might the process be improved. Lohnes answered that making the process accessible online would give people much of the information they need.
Feeley said the abatement process is “spelled out in the general laws and procedures adopted by the Department of Revenue.” He noted that this year, out of the 15,000 parcels in town, only 44 applications for abatement were received.
Hamlin said that it was incumbent upon the Board of Assessors to “not only serve in its historical advisory role, but to return the information back to the resident” in the form of consumer education, resources and relief.
The final community question asked the candidates to explain the responsibilities of the board and the town’s assessor and how they interact.
Feeley said that “there’s some confusion on the titles” but that the Board of Assessors hires the director of assessing, who spends the majority of his time “meeting with taxpayers and explaining why their application or appeals have not been granted.”
Hamlin said that the board has an “obligation to the taxpayer – especially those living on fixed incomes – of being able to seek relief properly.”
Lohnes said that while the professional assessor runs the staff, the board sets policy and direction. He said he would set a “policy of openness and empathy for the taxpayer.”
In closing statements, the candidates reiterated their positions, with Lohnes adding that he’s looking forward to serving in a way “that represents everyone well and understands that our property tax is the single biggest source of revenue in the town.” Hamlin said he is running for the position because “we need to actually explain to our residents what we are doing, and substantiate whether or not our service to the public is beneficial.” Feeley closed by stating his qualifications for the job, saying “I’ve been doing the job for a number of years, and I have a real interest in it.”
Two candidates for two positions for three years
Candidates and current board members Jane Morgan and Jeff Thielman presented collaborative visions for Arlington’s public schools. They touted the selection of the new superintendent, Dr. Elizabeth Homan, who is slated to take over July 1 for Dr. Kathleen Bodie, who is retiring.
In her opening statement, Morgan, who is running for her second three-year term, and is current chair of the committee, said her priorities would be “the FY 23 budget, supporting our new superintendent, and preparing for post-pandemic remediation [for children who fell behind during the pandemic].”
Thielman outlined a five-point plan: safely reopening the schools and remediation, supporting the new superintendent; continuing the high school building project, which, he says, is “on time and under budget”; advocating for the school in the town’s five-year plan and “starting a conversation about improving the Ottoson Middle School facilities either through a repair, a rebuild or a renovation.”
In response to a community question regarding reopening schools to in-person learning during an ongoing pandemic ...
... both highlighted many of the steps already put in place by the committee for virus mitigation. They include mask wearing among all students and staff, desks will be 3-feet apart, pooled Covid testing for staff and students, vaccines for teachers and other protocols, such as ventilated indoor spaces.
Asked how they would support the new superintendent, especially given the special challenges facing the town ...
... Thielman said that Arlington was “probably one of the first districts in the state to hire a superintendent,” which gave the committee lots of time to come up with a thoughtful transition plan.
Morgan noted that Dr. Homan is under contract for transition planning and already, “meeting with district leadership. She’s very accessible [and] she’s doing everything she possibly can to learn as much as possible about Arlington and the district.”
The final community question asked how they are supporting students of diverse backgrounds and identities in Arlington Public Schools.
Thielman said his professional background is as a CEO of an organization that serves immigrants and refugees – all of whom are people of color. He said that he has a ”unique perspective on that issue that I try to bring into the School Committee discussions.”
Morgan likewise said her work as an associate dean at Southern New Hampshire University means that she works to “develop programs that serve our nontraditional learners. We make sure we’re supporting them to be successful. That is the lens that I bring to the School Committee around serving our diverse populations in Arlington.”
In closing statements, Thielman said he’s running for reelection in order to “help our district move forward.” Morgan thanked the community “for your support of our schools.”
See the ACMi video of Candidates' Nigh on March 31:
The League of Women Voters Arlington has put together a "The Voters Guide to the Candidates for Town Elections."
Visit the Town of Arlington website for vote-by-mail instructions and polling locations.
This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Melanie Gilbert was published Sunday, April 4, 2021.