At a Tuesday evening candidates’ forum, Shelburne’s ongoing litigation with Vermont Railway provided the sharpest difference between the two contenders for a seat on the Selectboard in the March 6 upcoming election.
The candidates fielded a question on whether they supported the idea of a town referendum on how to proceed with the railroad matter. Selectboard candidate Chris Boyd has been a vocal critic of the town’s decision to appeal U.S District Court Judge William K. Sessions III’s December ruling in favor of Vermont Railway; Selectboard member Jaime Heins voted for further litigation.
Boyd said he supported the idea of a referendum. He noted that Sessions has ruled against the town multiple times saying that the town should have entered negotiations with the railroad rather than continue the fight in court.
Heins, who is an attorney, defended his vote to support the appeal. He said that after reading over the facts of the case he was convinced appeal was the right decision. He said at issue in the case is the town’s control over development and having financial support from the Vermont Natural Resources Council in continuing the appeal all were factors in his vote.
Their comments came at a candidate forum attended by about 60 voters at the town offices Tuesday night hosted by local political party committees and the Shelburne News. Heins and Boyd are vying for a single year remaining in a two-year term on the Selectboard. Incumbent Jerry Storey is running unopposed for another term and Mary Kehoe is the lone candidate for the three-year seat now held by board Chair Gary von Stange who is not seeking re-election.
Audience members submitted questions on index cards before the forum began.
Other candidates there were Barbra Marden, a candidate for a three-year Champlain Valley School District school board term and Town Clerk Diana Vachon, who is running unopposed for a three-year term.
Marden detailed her diverse background in education having grown up in Uganda and studied in Italy. She said cultivating diversity in the school system would be among her priorities.
Vachon, who has been in her office since 2016, said transparency and neutrality are two of the most important aspects of her job that she hopes to continue.
The theme among Selectboard candidates was a call for a more collegial spirit among members. As each candidate stood up to introduce themselves and state priorities for their terms, they all acknowledged the need for better discourse both among members and toward the public.
“My first priority would be to improve the tone and conduct of Selectboard meetings,” said Selectboard Vice Chair and candidate Jerry Storey.
On the railroad matter, Mary Kehoe declared her support for local environmental control, but said she disagreed with the town’s treatment of Vermont Railway saying that no municipality should discriminate against businesses.
Vermont Railway has built a storage and handling facility for road salt in Shelburne near the LaPlatte River and without local permitting review, which the federal court has upheld. The town last year adopted an ordinance to regulate handling and storage of hazardous substances which included salt. The court in December ruled that the new local law was aimed at the new development and could not be enforced against the railroad.
Kehoe also disagreed with the Selectboard’s recent decision to accept a private donation to fund the appeal in the federal court case, saying the town shouldn’t “privatize policy” decisions.
Shelburne to date has spent more than $400,000 in railway-related legal expenses, according to town officials. Town Finance Director Peter Frankenberg recently noted that the town is over budget by $155,000 for legal expenses in the current fiscal year.
The Selectboard is funding the appeal with a $20,000 contribution from the Vermont Natural Resources Council. Storey was the lone vote against that decision.
The discussion moved to a proposal to create a regional dispatch system in Chittenden County and the upcoming vote in seven municipalities – including Shelburne – on Town Meeting Day. Voters will decide whether Shelburne will participate in the formation of a new regional governing body for dispatching emergency services.
Kehoe, Storey and Heins all support putting the measure on the ballot, but said they have questions and reservations that they hope can be addressed if Shelburne joins. Boyd was the lone dissenter, citing nuances in dispatching which he said weren’t fully addressed by the proposal so far.
Referring to the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last week and a close call in Fair Haven, candidates addressed a question about gun control. Kehoe, citing Vermont’s progressive history on issues like abolition and gay marriage, called for more attention to gun control legislation and consideration of how school shootings instill fear in children everywhere.
Heins described mass shootings as a public health crisis and called for an assault weapon ban. Storey agreed that more gun regulation is needed and should be discussed in the community. Boyd did not call for further gun control, stating that knives and drugs are also threats to children. Boyd commended the recent efforts in Fair Haven and Fairfax, which prevented incidents in Vermont.
The issue of the Black Lives Matter movement was also brought up. Marden, the only person of color running for office, said BLM was one of the reasons she decided to run, as diversity awareness is central to her candidacy. Heins stated his support for Black Lives Matter, calling it an important discussion.
On Town Meeting Day, March 6, polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Shelburne Community School.