Barrington council candidates agree on just about everything

Barrington Town Council candidates share their views during online forum

By Josh Bickford
Posted 10/22/20

They agreed on what the role of the town council should be.

They agreed on the town's response to the pandemic.

And they agreed on whether the town is doing enough to be a welcoming and …

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Barrington council candidates agree on just about everything

Barrington Town Council candidates share their views during online forum

Posted

They agreed on what the role of the town council should be.

They agreed on the town's response to the pandemic.

And they agreed on whether the town is doing enough to be a welcoming and inclusive community.

The four candidates running for three Barrington Town Council seats appeared to agree on many of the topics discussed during an online forum on Wednesday night, Oct. 21. Only on a few brief occasions, including during the closing remarks, did the candidates show any separation.

After thanking the League of Women Voters and East Bay Media Group for hosting the event, Independent candidate John Alessandro used his closing remarks to offer a detailed account of his experiences while serving on some boards and commissions. He said some residents had attacked him and his family on social media. He said others mocked him in person when he announced he was running for council. He said his supporters were bullied while at kids events, and told to take down his lawn signs. Mr. Alessandro said one elected official even refused to sign his election papers.

"We, as neighbors, need to be better," Mr. Alessandro said.

The former member of the Barrington School Committee and current member of the Committee on Appropriations used his closing remarks to emphasize the need for decency and respect among people in town, despite where they stand on the political spectrum.

Mr. Alessandro is the only non-Democrat running for town council this fall. Annelise Conway, Robert Humm and Carl Kustell have all been endorsed by the Barrington Democratic Town Committee.

Mr. Alessandro, recognizing that, said he was the only candidate running for the town council that was not part of "the status quo."

During his closing remarks, Mr. Kustell said the next couple of years would be challenging ones for Barrington, referencing the impact the pandemic has had on local businesses. A member of the town's Economic Development Commission, Mr. Kustell said the town could still make progress, however, if it sticks to its comprehensive plan. He mentioned planting more trees, supporting renewable energy sources, improving the village center's connectivity, and making sure local seniors are provided the services they need. Mr. Kustell also said he wants to make sure Barrington continues to have the best schools, that people can afford to live in this community, and that everyone feels welcome here.

Ms. Conway said one of the reasons she is running is to ensure that there is a female voice on the town council — Kate Weymouth and Joy Hearn, the two women on the council, are not running for re-election. She said she will lend an important perspective to the council, as a working mom in town.

Ms. Conway also wants to make sure that the town's leaders recognize the barriers to improving diversity and inclusivity. She said she believes in the importance of affordable housing and preserving public services in Barrington.

In his closing remarks, Mr. Humm, who is the chairman of the Economic Development Commission and the Planning Board, said his approach is to work collaboratively on issues. He also said that he does not consider himself a politician, and aims to make Barrington an even better community.

Is Barrington welcoming?

Mr. Pickering asked the candidates if they thought Barrington was inclusive, equitable and welcoming, and if they supported the recent efforts of town government to respond to this same question?

Ms. Conway said that there may be barriers in place for inclusivity and equity that people from Barrington just cannot see. She said it was important that the town keep a broad perspective in order to accomplish those goals.

Mr. Alessandro said he believed Barrington is inclusive, but added that the town could always do more. Mr. Humm agreed, saying that Barrington is, on the whole, welcoming and inclusive. But he believed strides can be made to improve the situation if town officials do more to collaborate with different groups — those with different financial backgrounds, educational backgrounds, and religious backgrounds.

Mr. Kustell said the values of Barrington's residents are clearly in the right place, as evidenced by the 1,200 people who attended a silent vigil along County Road near the Barrington Congregational Church earlier this year. He said the town can also address the issue with minority hiring and prioritizing affordable housing.

Flying flags

When asked if the town government should be in the business of raising flags and making social proclamations, the majority of the candidates said Barrington needs to adopt a flag policy. Mr. Humm said the town should not be talking about flag poles, but rather addressing the issue in other ways. He said a flag policy would help do that. Ms. Conway agreed — she said there should be a flag policy, but also believes there are many other ways that the local government can address certain issues in town. She said the town's affordable housing statistics are abysmal. She also said there's a difference between raising a flag and being on the forefront of social change.

Mr. Alessandro said that if the town had a good flag policy, candidates would not even be discussing the issue. He said the decisions about which flags to fly should not be done arbitrarily — he said not having a flag policy has hurt the community.

Mr. Kustell praised the action of the town manager to raise the Black Lives Matter flag, and did not endorse the creation of a flag policy. He said the flag sends a message that Barrington is a welcoming community.

Response to pandemic

All four candidates said the town's response to the pandemic has been just right — some even called it perfect.

Mr. Humm said the town acted quickly to the situation and responded appropriately. He said the town has also shown flexibility in relaxing some rules and restrictions in an effort to help local businesses.

Mr. Kustell also praised the town and said compliance to the rules and restrictions was great. He said that might be why the town has seen such a low rate of spread.

Ms. Conway shared similar praise also credited school officials for finding a way to get children back to school this fall.

Mr. Alessandro said all the town officials and departments did a great job coping with the ever-changing situation.

Zion property

Candidates were asked their thoughts about the former Zion Bible College property and whether they believed senior housing was still the best use for it.

Ms. Conway said the town should "take back" the Zion property and make it a bigger part of the community. She said it was beautiful resource and could be used in numerous ways: mixed-use, activity center, etc.

Mr. Alessandro said he would love to see the property be used for senior housing. He also mentioned other ideas that had been floated, including the creation of a sports facility or ice rink. He said that the town would need to take ownership of the property to make any of that a possibility.

Mr. Humm and Mr. Kustell both said that senior housing was likely the best use for the property.

Athletic facilities

The candidates stood close together when asked if the town's recreational facilities were adequate. In fact, most of the candidates agreed that not having having access to the middle school sports fields has created the biggest challenge for sports leagues.

Mr. Alessandro said field maintenance is one of the keys, as well as allocating more multi-use fields. Mr. Humm said the issue was a work in progress, and understands that the leagues want better maintained fields. Mr. Kustell said he has seen a lot of water-logged fields, to which Mr. Alessandro said that the fields were actually capped landfills and that was why water puddled up on some of the fields.

Ms. Conway said there were a lot of children in town and was no surprised there was a lack of recreational space. She also mentioned the need for passive recreational spaces and re-opening of the bike path bridges.

Fiscal review

Online forum moderator Scott Pickering, the general manager of East Bay Media Group (the parent company of the Barrington Times) opened the questions with one focused on finance. Mr. Pickering asked the candidates if they believed the town had the right fiscal review process in place — including the financial town meeting — or if they would like to see some changes made.

All four candidates supported the current system, but Ms. Conway and Mr. Alessandro said they would like to see better public engagement in the process. Mr. Alessandro, who participates in the fiscal review process as a member of the COA, added that for better public engagement, the public needs to engage more. He believed the COA was doing well.

Mr. Humm said he believed there was an opportunity to improve upon the annual financial town meeting. He also said the town could likely do a better job engaging the public and communicating with taxpayers.

Mr. Kustell said it was clear that the town does a good job with its budget, a fact that is supported by the low per-pupil expenditure by Barrington Public Schools. He expected that the fiscal situation would face challenges in the future because of the pandemic.

Council meetings

When asked how they felt about the length of some recent council meetings, all four candidates agreed that something should be done to make them shorter.

Mr. Kustell said the town might need to host more meetings in order to ensure that they don't run seven hours in length. He said that while he does not want to limit public comment, it might be wise to limit how long the council members can speak on an issue. He also suggested that officials consider keeping them broadcast on Zoom even post-COVID-19.

Ms. Conway said the length of council meeting has become a barrier for entry. She said seven hour meetings are too long, but she also worried about limiting too much of the discussion.

Mr. Humm agreed that the meetings were too long and thought it might a good idea to put a cut-off time on meetings and if necessary re-notice the remainder of the meeting on a later date.

Mr. Alessandro suggested that to create a more efficient meeting, council members will need all the necessary information prior to the actual meeting.

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