KENT—In a 90-minute debate last Friday evening Kent’s three candidates for first selectman stated their cases for election. The debate was sponsored by Kent News, Inc.
Democrat Lynn Mellis Worthington, and petitioning candidates Martin Lindenmayer and Rufus DeRahm were asked a series of nine questions submitted by the public and curated and edited by moderator Steve Pener and KNI Vice President Deborah Rose.
Each candidate gave a brief synopsis of their employment history and reason for running. Worthington is making her first foray into politics, having been a journalist and a 26-year educator at South Kent School, the last five years as an academic administrator.
“I want to have the honor of serving as first selectman because Kent deserves to have a top leader who governs in a way that is honorable, efficient, productive and respectful,” she said. She added that her desire to “do the most good for the most people” is not a campaign slogan, but rather reflects the “democratic values I have always held.”
Retired naval officer Lindenmayer termed himself a “dedicated and accomplished professional, shaped by both global and local experiences,” and whose military and civilian assignments “demonstrate my ability to provide leadership and accountability for those positions of trust.” He cited his many civic contributions since moving to Kent, including five years as chairman of the Board of Education.
“You will be selecting a CEO for the Town of Kent,” he said. “For 40-plus years, I have worked in leadership positions and have proven experience working in large budgetary areas in government where I had to be accountable and knowledgeable.”
DeRahm recounted his long history in the community and his service on the Board of Finance, Board of Selectmen, Board of Assessment Appeals and the fire department, among others. “My experience and interests are broad and have given me insights on the needs and strengths of the town,” he said. Among those he listed education, infrastructure improvements, robust and varied social activities for residents and affordable housing “so all residents can feel they have opportunities.”
The candidates were asked what they would do to improve life for senior citizens in the rural town. All agreed that transportation for the elderly is a challenge that needs to be addressed. “We definitely need to provide van service,” DeRahm said. “That would be a primary first step.”
Worthington agreed, saying the town should purchase a 14-passsenger van. She added that mixed-use affordable housing would provide innovative ways for seniors to downsize from the current homes.
Lindenmayer said such a van is already owned by the town and used to transport students at Kent Center School to athletic events. “We could reach out for times that it is not being used,” he suggested, but DeRahm said that vehicle would not be handicap accessible.
When asked about economic development Worthington said there has to be a balance between development and the character of the town. “Many people are concerned because they place real value on the look of the town,” she said. She proposed partnering closely with the Chamber of Commerce to take a proactive approach to development.
Lindenmayer said the Plan of Conservation and Development provides the backbone of what needs to be done. Most of all, the town needs housing for its work force, he said, which would provide labor for businesses that might come to town.
DeRahm also said an economic development committee is necessary. “The only way we can develop continuity is to make sure the workforce has housing and is able to stay,” he said. “I’m not against industry because it provides a steady number of jobs. But to be stable we have to have housing and provide for younger people, so we need good schools and good social programs. It’s not just the business community we’re looking at.”
When it came to the issue of nonprofits using town-owned buildings the candidates agreed that an atmosphere of welcome collaboration should be fostered, with Worthington saying such collaboration is “vital to the viability of the town.”
Lindenmayer said, “the people dedicated to supporting this town have to have a leader who helps them find a ‘yes,’” and DeRahm said the buildings should be open to “any organization fostering the betterment of the town.”
They addressed the question of having enough space for community programs. DeRahm said some town facilities are “outdated” and Worthington said she had heard much support for a swimming pool. “I want to help guide and support coming up with ideas,” she said. She included resuming use of the venerable Swift House among those ideas.
Lindemayer questioned putting money into 18th-century Swift House, which does not meet current building codes. “Swift House should be assessed for what could be used for,” he said. “A plan of use for each facility is needed.”
Affordable housing was mentioned again and again. The town has benefitted from the dedicated efforts of the nonprofit Kent Affordable House (KAH) and has four percent of its housing stock dedicated to that purpose. That is far below the state standard of 10 percent but exceeds the level in many Connecticut towns.
Worthington agreed with a recent housing survey that concluded a housing director would be beneficial. “It would be great to have someone coordinating,” she said. She lauded the KAH and said its work to obtain a workforce housing grant “is just what we need.” She said the town should act on establishing a Land Acquisition Fund.
Lindenmayer said the town needs to find property and make the best use of it and noted that the town is fortunate to have sanitation systems. He said a housing commission or authority would be useful “to build a larger plan” and that the effort to create housing would be a “public/private collaboration.”
DeRahm agreed “housing is definitely a priority.” He suggested purchasing a parcel of land that could serve multiple purposes “and give us total control over development rather than negotiating with developers over what they want to do.”
KAH wants to purchase town land to expand its South Commons development, but Lindenmeyer said there are several factors to be considered, listing parking, the adjacent firehouse and the senior center on Swift Lane.
DeRahm agreed that there is “still a lot of dialogue that has to go on” but concluded, “As long as a collaborative effort can come to an agreement, I am all for increasing affordable housing.”
Worthington was positive in her reaction. “Affordable housing is vital, and we need to move forward,” she said, pledging to work with KAH to move the project forward.
The next question had to do with public safety. DeRham said he would like to see two resident troopers so the town has seven-days-a-week coverage. He suggested that cooperation between the private schools and town could ameliorate the $340,000 annual cost.
He conceded that the problem of lagging volunteerism for the fire department and ambulance corps “is way more complicated” and suggested increasing the tax abatement allowed for volunteers.
Worthington does not favor two resident troopers but would add overtime. She reported people are upset about speeding in the town and would want troopers to take more enforcement action. A firefighter for 21 years, she urged “people to give time back to the town” and said the business community could encourage volunteerism by allowing employees time to respond to emergencies.
Lindenmayer wanted the existing police force to use its powers to solve problems such as parking. “Let’s use our troopers to the best,” he said. He supports having a security officer in the elementary school.
A municipal swimming pool was a big issue. “I am for a town pool,” Worthington said. “All children should know how to swim.” She said not all residents like the location of Emery Park. “I’m not anti-Kent Commons, I just want to make sure it’s laid out properly. We should do all the research and then make plans.”
Lindenmayer said Emery Park is difficult for seniors to use. “Seniors should be able to walk easily to the pool to recreate.”
DeRham drew laughter when he said he liked swimming at Emery Park as a child, “but my kids are not so sure. They don’t want Emery Park back.”
The future of Swift House sparked divided opinions among the candidates. Lindenmayer asked if it is the facility that would best benefit the town if refurbished. He said the town would have to invest funds in a study of the structure, but DeRham contended that the “plan in place” is key for the old building.
“It’s going to be up to the town,” DeRham said. “The numbers coming in may be too much for its use. It’s unfortunate to have to balance whether its full utilization would warrant the money we would have to invest. It’s more than just an [ADA] ramp and a bathroom. It’s got a second floor you can’t get to.”
Worthington favors retaining the structure. “It’s location is prime and for the town to give it up would be crazy,” she said. “We can bring that building back. It can be done in stages.”
The candidates were asked how they would use the skills and strengths of their colleagues on the Board of Selectmen. DeRham said the administrative load on the first selectmen has increased to the point where the members of the board should be given responsibilities that use their skills. “I’ve been a selectman twice, and I’ve seen two different styles,” he said. “If you’re not part of the process, it’s difficult to walk into a meeting and be productive.”
Worthington said the “key to a strong board is teamwork and collaboration. My leadership style is collaborative. We have to commit to getting things done and not just talk about it, talk about it, talk about it.”
Lindemayer spoke about his career and his ability to lead. “It’s about bringing individual’s skills together to meet achievable goals,” he said. “Working together, you can achieve that.”