Camden Select Board candidate Alison McKellar

Sun, 07/12/2020 - 8:00pm

On July 14, voters in Camden will choose two of three candidates to serve a three-year term on the Camden Select Board. Penobscot Bay Pilot has posed questions to each candidate, providing the opportunity for the public to better understand their position on issues important to the town and region.

Please provide a concise biography of yourself.

I grew up here in Camden, splitting my time with my dad, who still lives on Spruce Street, and my mom in North Union, just on the edge of the Burketville town line.

I attended the Children's House Montessori School, Appleton Village School and Camden Hills Regional High School (two years in Camden and two years at the Rockport facility).

I attended college at Stetson University in Florida on a full academic scholarship, where I majored in sociology and Spanish. After graduating, I lived and worked throughout Latin America as a translator and volunteer coordinator for various nonprofit organizations and since my return to Camden I have worked in jobs ranging from bartending at Peter Otts, to legal blogging, to freelance web design, to teaching Spanish at the Watershed School where I worked for four years.

I live with my husband (Vincent Jones) and two kids (Colton and Mason) on Mechanic Street.

Vinnie works for Yachting Solutions and I am able to stay home with the kids most of the time by supplementing our income through renting rooms in our home (mostly long term tenants and work/travel visa students from around the world who work in Camden's restaurants and inns during the summer).

I struggle to answer questions briefly. I usually want to talk and read about things for longer than most people before making a decision. This can be both a strength and a flaw for a Select Board member. All of these issues are more complex than the format allows and I. I enjoy being a Select Board member because I am constantly learning something new and seeing our  town in different ways. 

Camden elections and 2020 Town Meeting during COVID-19 pandemic

Camden is holding municipal, school budget and state elections on July 14.

In an unprecedented move, Camden will also hold its annual town meeting on July 14, as well, with all warrant articles appearing before voters at the ballot box.

This is a one-time phenomenon, the town hopes, as municipalities across the state cope with a pandemic of COVID-19.

Town Meeting will be conducted by secret ballot only.  There will be no open floor town meeting in 2020.

Penobscot Bay Pilot has posed questions to each candidate running for the Camden Select Board, providing the opportunity for the public to better understand their position on issues important to the town and region.

There are two seats available on the Select Board, each representing three-year terms.

Seeking reelection are Robert Falciani and Alison McKellar, while Peter Lindquist has also entered the race.

The candidates have responded with their individual written answers.

Alison McKellar

Peter Lindquist

Robert Falciani

 

What are the 3 most pressing issues facing Camden today, and how would you like to see them resolved?

More rain, rising seas, and aging infrastructure: No one denies that Maine's climate is changing, and whether you believe that humans are causing or that it's just a much faster stage of the normal natural progression of life on planet earth, it makes sense to plan for the change.

We know that in addition to warming temperatures and rising seas, that morre water is also falling in the watershed over shorter periods of time. We get more rain and more intense storms than when Camden was first settled.

On top of the increased precipitation, we also now have fewer trees and more paved surfaces throughout the watershed, both in Camden and Lincolnville. When rain falls throughout the Camden Hills, it either seeps down deep into the soil and then bedrock or it makes its way toward the sea. For the Megunticook Watershed, everything that can't be absorbed must ultimately travel underneath many of Camden's downtown buildings.

All over Camden there is more water that needs to pass under our buildings, bridges, and drainage pipes, especially in the downtown. Roads, culverts, sewer, and storm drains are already in constant need of replacement and the more water, the faster it all needs attention. There are incredible grant opportunities available at the state and federal level to address the challenges in a way that makes us more resilient while also restoring habitat for fish and other animals.

If we can deal with rising seas and increased rain in a way that makes our sea walls more livable for wildlife and less expensive for people, we can get help paying for it while making Camden a place that's even better for birdwatchers, fishermen, and kids who love looking under rocks. 

Gentrification: This is just a fancy way of saying that Camden is becoming too desirable to be affordable and sometimes too fussy to be fun. Another way to explain it, in Camden’s case especially, is the encroachment of residential development in traditionally commercial and industrial districts.

Even just 10-12 years ago, when I had returned home to Camden and was working at Peter Otts as a bartender at night and part time at the Watershed School by day, there were still at least a handful of places that could be counted on to stay open past 11.

Unfortunately, as more buildings were remodeled, many traded out factories and offices for housing closer to town, and complaints about noise often plagued businesses and patrons until they kind of gave up. The affordable, cramped, and noisy second floor apartments above downtown businesses have historically housed working people, recent graduates, restaurant staff, and boat captains. I've lived in more than one and the benefit was living a stone's throw from everything, but it came with significant drawbacks for anyone who needs peace and quiet.

Plow trucks beeping all night in the winter and people yelling as they spilled out of bars and restaurants, their ears still ringing from the music that was once heard much louder and later in Camden. If your car broke down in the middle of town, you were often lucky enough to have be within pushing distance from either Matt or Steve. We take these things for granted. Many who are drawn to purchase property downtown are taking advantage of opportunities in our zoning to convert commercial space into living space and many of the occupants have no patience for Camden’s night scene or even the early morning clanging and banging of the harbor. 

The value of housing in Camden is so high that once a space goes from a business to a residence, it's highly unlikely it will ever return. Housing is desperately needed in Camden, but we don't want it by turning businesses into single family homes. Historically, from the earliest days of settlement, the downtown was a place for activity and noise was understood as a byproduct of life.

People who wanted it perfectly quiet moved away from the harbor, but today, live music in the center of town must be mindful of sleeping neighbors if they wish to avoid a visit from the police. This is a concern. The Camden Select Board, whoever is on it, must be brave in standing up for the public interest of spaces where people and businesses are free and encouraged to be awake and alive.

We say we want a vibrant downtown with young people and fresh ideas but we’re crafting rules that make it illegal to sit on the village green and play the guitar past 11pm. It's not just in the downtown where Camden has become unaffordable. The $150,000 fixer upper starter home is a thing of the past in Camden as these buildings often find themselves in the way of one that is more suited to the tastes of the new buyers. The house is torn down and replaced and before you know it, it’s on the market for $600,000 or more.

Camden has always benefited from this type of investment and it is sometimes a positive thing, helping to keep Camden’s tax rate low in comparison to other towns and creating many jobs in the process. However, at the same time as we welcome new residents who can make these types of investments, we must also encourage more affordable housing and updated zoning that incentivizes increased density and less expensive options, especially within the walkable downtown. 

The democratic process: Camden’s form of government provides so many opportunities for public input that people have a hard time following along and knowing when to show up. The town can still stand to improve a lot in terms of communication and outreach to residents. In Camden, our system of government is a form of democracy so pure that most of us don't even know how it works.

I attended high school right here in Camden, but I don't remember anyone telling me about the role of the Select Board or the things to be voted on at town meeting. At the state and federal level, we have a republic, not a democracy, and this is the system we teach in schools. We can choose who we want to represent us, but after that, we either live with the decisions they make, or we vote them out. Not so in Camden. Here, we both elect our representatives and also drive their agenda and vote on their recommendations.

The Select Board gets to choose a town manager, but citizens must vote on budgets, ordinances, and many contracts and policies that the town adopts. Ultimately, it's a great system; the last holdout in the experiment of direct democracy that began in New England nearly 400 years ago, but if people don't know how it works, then it doesn't work at all. Even for those who have learned how it works, they are often left in a position where their voice doesn’t count if they don’t have time to show up and speak at a pubic hearing (or five of them). Since so many town decisions are ultimately decided by the voters and not the Select Board, I believe it creates a sort of sleepiness, making it easier to pass the buck by saying we will “let the voters decide.”

With residents being busier than ever, it is unfair to expect that everyone can give their opinions during formal meetings or that they have the time to do detailed research on every ballot or budget item. I continue to look for ways that people can give input quickly and I will continue to use social media and letters to the editor to share thoughts and solicit comments. I see the job of the Select Board as really being the voice of people who cannot show up to meetings all the time or follow along with every issue (this includes being a voice for non human Camden residents as well). 

 

How will you protect the Camden taxpayer as you shape and govern a municipal budget, and juggle various interests that request municipal funding throughout the year?

When I was first elected to the Select Board I got a note in the mail from a wise friend who congratulated me and offered some simple advice: that when making decisions,  “to seek what is best for the majority of residents.”

This basic mantra may seem obvious but it is a helpful question to return to when things seem foggy. There will always be a tendency to try to solve the problem in front of us or be sympathetic to the appeal of the person in the room. Sometimes, these issues reflect the concerns and priorities of the wider community, but it is also not uncommon for the loudest voices to represent minority views.

The people who can show up in person for a public hearing are not the only voices who matter and it is up to the Select Board to present a budget that we believe is best for the majority of residents. We must be a good quality and representative sounding board as town staff works to put it all together, and to help be the voice of people who do not always have time or ability to show up at meetings. 

Protecting the Camden taxpayer begins with a clear understanding of the town's current and forecasted financial commitments. It is easy to waste significant time and energy on arguments over office supplies and related minutia, while losing sight of the bigger picture and missing opportunities for significant savings. This requires reading reports from independent auditors, updating spreadsheets of expected capital improvement and maintenance needs, understanding the issues and opportunities laid out in our comprehensive plan, and staying on top of new ways that municipalities are solving problems around the country.

The majority of the job of developing the municipal budget rests with the town manager and town staff. Often, the real opportunities to save money for taxpayers are not as simple as reducing a line item or buying fewer office supplies. They come in the form of an inter-local agreement between adjacent towns or scouring grant opportunities that may offset municipal spending on things we would have to do anyway, such as culvert and bridge replacement. 

 

Camden has refined and promoted itself as part of an outdoor recreational economy for several years. Do you believe that is worth continuing, and if so, how so?

Camden’s most enduring and important assets have always been its natural resources. People visit Camden for the same reason that many of us live here. We have a ecological and geographic diversity that is unrivaled in the state. Within walking or distance, one can enjoy Penobscot Bay with its islands and sea creatures, Megunticook River and its numerous tributaries, lakes and ponds, mountains and valleys, and a community that worries as much for the flora and fauna of the region as for our festivals.

Specialty shops and industries will come and go but the basic human desire to interact with nature in a somewhat wild form is an irreplaceable commodity.  I see Camden's place as part of the outdoor recreational economy more as a natural progression than a direct result of promotion, branding, or marketing. People visit here for some of the same reasons they choose to live here, and it makes perfect sense for us to encourage the creation of businesses that revolve around skiing, mountain biking, paddle boarding, kayaking, hiking, fishing, birdwatching, climbing, camping, sailing and more. The harbor and downtown area are a shared resource and the maintenance of trash cans, docks, public restrooms, and sidewalks helps to create a place where businesses and residents can thrive.

The opportunity to see fish, birds, and other wildlife in the harbor as well as explore trails and mountain vistas is dependent on clean water, protected habitat, and our willingness to evolve and improve town infrastructure. If we want to support ecotourism and outdoor adventure sports, we will have to be willing to give up parking spots in favor of bike and kayak racks and replace some infrastructure (like certain culverts, dams and seawalls) with solutions that make way for sea level rise and habitat restoration. 

 

How do you see Camden positioned in the larger regional Midcoast economy?

Camden often appears to be teetering on the brink of a real estate and vacation based economy. The commodity that never fails to increase in value is property within walking distance of downtown. High end residential development is suffocating our industrial and commercial opportunities and more and more people who work in Camden find they can’t afford to live here. Camden is so sought after as a place live and vacation that property owners are investing in catering to this market. None of that is a bad thing on its own, but we are missing the other side of the coin which must involve the creation of additional lower cost housing and protection of some districts for commercial activity. 

 

What municipal committee would you like to be a liaison to, and why?

My biggest problem is that i want to be a part of them all, but with so much going on in Camden, one can very quickly spread themselves too thin and wind up doing a mediocre job at everything. During my first three years on the Select Board, we have been working to implement youtube live-streaming of all committee meetings as well as all Select Board workshops and MDOT public hearings.

This makes it much easier for not only Select Board members but also residents and town staff to follow the committees’ discussions and provide comments along the way.  My biggest personal concern is with waste reduction, environmental stewardship, and historic preservation. Most of the time, I see a direct connection between all three of these focus points and plenty of overlap with many of the other issues the town faces.

I serve as the Treasurer for the Mid-Coast Solid Waste Board of Directors and liaison to the Camden-Rockort Pathways Committee, the Historic Resources Committee, and the Cemetery Association. Having two kids in the local school system also provides an important link to this part of our town which is separate but in many ways connected to municipal government. Committees add so much to the town and I got my start by being a member of the Conservation Commission and the Budget Committee, but it's also important that the town do a better job reaching out and listening to people who are not committee members but who simply have worthwhile input.

 

How will you protect the town-owned Ragged Mountain Recreation Area from overuse as the region becomes more attractive to biking, skiing and hiking?

I do not currently see that there is a major threat of overusing the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area, although I make a habit of walking and driving all over town during major rain events looking for signs of flooding, erosion and stormwater pollution. The town does rely heavily on the eyes and ears of citizens who notice things before they turn into major problems and no one should feel shy about calling the town with environmental concerns and observations. It is appreciated and quite helpful. I do worry that the area has become less accessible to the average resident for low cost activities like tubing and sledding.

That said, we’ve taken steps over the past couple years to make the mountain more affordable (free for Camden residents on Wednesdays is one example) and Snow Bowl staff are often looking for ways that people can enjoy the mountain for free year round. 

The potential for damage to the mountain and adjacent Hosmer Pond mostly comes from a failure to monitor large projects and to actively check for erosion control issues. Proper site planning and ongoing oversight are essential and the Select Board and town staff have been diligent in monitoring rain events, asking questions, and investing in drainage studies proactively. New trails and paths must be well planned to account for drainage, erosion control, vegetative buffers, slope, and soil type, and existing trails and trouble spots must be monitored for warning signs.

When it comes to projects in areas like this, the town cannot continue the practice of farming operations out to the lowest bidder and hoping for the best. 

 

How do you envision the future of solid waste processing for the four towns; i.e., recycling, waste stream reduction?

There are significant opportunities for improvement in this area and my main concern is with increasing efficiency and expanding opportunities for salvage and reuse. Increasing recycling rates for household containers, cardboard, and mixed paper is an important goal, but we can likely accomplish more for the environment, with less cost to taxpayers, by simply creating ways to facilitate reuse of materials destined for the landfill or incinerator. Through my work collecting donations for Syria from hospitals, hotels, businesses, and private citizens, I see the immense amount of material that is being discarded when it could be reused.

Expanding the Swap Shop (both in size and hours of operation) as well as developing a sensible policy that allows for salvaging of building materials and demolition wood from the landfill would go a long way in both reducing our disposal costs as well as our carbon footprint. Admittedly, I’m very frustrated not to have made more progress in this area at Mid-Coast Solid Waste, where I have served on the Board for 3 years. I am currently the Treasurer of the Corporation and I believe we now have a very good group of members and the possibility to make significant headway. The Swap Shop is set to reopen in a much larger building with expanded hours as soon we get through the worst of the coronavirus restrictions. 

 

What is the future of alternative energy municipal production and service for Camden? 

I believe all options should be on the table and that our decisions should be based on the best available science. Calculations should take into consideration the total emissions benefit of a project including a full life cycle analysis of the manufacturing and disposal of materials. I am wary of “greenwashing” and the tendency to settle on measures that make us feel good without offering a quantified  reduction in emissions. The idea that we can continue to live our lives in the same way as long we build a bunch of solar farms and we all drive electric cars is a myth.

Reducing our impact on the planet is not as simple as choosing different products to buy and in fact the tendency to try and save the planet by buying new things is part of the problem. Environmentalists (yes, I count myself among them) cannot get by on good intentions alone.

A glowing field of solar panels within walking distance of downtown may provide an excellent photo opportunity, but we owe it to residents and the planet to be honest with ourselves and our constituents. The best way to cut down on our impact is to invest in a town where people can afford to live, work, and shop (ideally without having to get in a vehicle). In the parts of town that have public water and sewer systems, we should be encouraging smaller minimum lots sizes and even allowing apartment buildings in certain zones. 

 

How best should all Camden citizens access high-speed, broadband internet?

In a perfect world, research has shown that municipally controlled internet service with fiber to the home is the fastest and most cost effective for most communities. Getting to this point is a lot of work. Privatization of services (our current model) is sometimes in the public’s best interest and sometimes not. I do not take a firm position unilaterally but competition among various providers is almost always beneficial for consumers.

Camden has a much better situation that many rural communities and most residents can access service that meets the standard for being considered high speed internet. As I write this, we pay around $60/month and the speed just clocked in at 116 mbps down and 11 mbps up. This is sufficient for our household and we could pay more for even faster speeds, but these options may not be available to everyone in Camden, and I fully support the work being down by town committee members and staff to review options. I subscribe to a podcast through the Institute for Local Self Reliance which deals with this topic. Here is a link for anyone interested: https://communitybroadbandbits.com

 

Camden and Rockport now share a police chief and an assessor. Are there other cost-sharing arrangements that Camden could do, with Rockport or other towns, to spread the staffing responsibilities; e.g., share a planner? Public works director?

Camden and Rockport share costs and work together through a lot more than just the Assessing office and Police Department. We also work together with alongside Rockport (as well as Hope and Lincolnville) through our shared transfer station and ambulance service contracts. Rockport sends a large portion of its wastewater to the Camden Wastewater Treatment plant and as such shares in the costs of that operation.

We work at the county level on many things like emergency management, courts, sheriff, and regional planning and of course we share an elementary and middle school. Opportunities for partnership need not be restricted to Rockport. Lincolnville is an essential partner that we should work more closely with through the watershed and lake that we share and our partnerships with Belfast are expanding through a shared municipal attorney and mutual aid arrangement with the code enforcement office.

There are many additional opportunities but not all partnerships make things easier. Sometimes, working alone is in the best interest of Camden residents, especially when things need to be done quickly. 

 

What do you see as the future of EMS service for Camden?

The most important thing is that we are not dependent on any one option nor entity. We should always have a backup plan. 

Many people may not realize that  ambulance and emergency medical services are overseen and/or administered by the town. When you call for an ambulance, you just want it to be there fast and to have highly skilled people arrive with it as well as assisting over the phone. We can either meet that need by contracting with private companies (current model) or by staffing and equipping the service in much the same way that we do with the police and fire department. We have an obligation to pursue and understand all options and to present the information in a way that helps residents identify and weigh the costs and benefits. 

 

 Free space! Please add additional thoughts as you see fit.

I have struggled with these questions more this time around than I did  three years ago when I ran for the Select Board. Sometimes, the more you learn, the harder it is to see things clearly, and I suppose that is part of the joy of municipal government. I enjoy learning and I especially thrive when I realize, often through the comments of other residents, that I was missing part of the puzzle.

I kind of love being proven wrong about something or having the chance to really someone else’s perspective in a new way. I will admit right now that I do not always get around to responding to every single email but I read them all and I really appreciate the thoughtful commentaries, even when they are highly critical. After three years on the Board, I can see how people get exhausted quickly. It can very easily take up your whole life and it is hard to know sometimes which issues are worth delving into and which battles are worth fighting.

Simply getting up to speed on essential town documents and reports involves many hundreds of pages of reading (charter, comprehensive plan, ordinances, downtown master plan, etc, etc) and our meeting packets are filled with everything from the nitty gritty details of liquor license applications to copies of signage to approve to road closings. Just feeling competent in the basics can take up most of your time if you are serious about understanding everything. Having something really meaningful to contribute, is in my mind, more important and necessary than trying to be an expert on everything, but in the moment it is hard to decide where my time is best spent.

There are infinite opportunities to do good through town government and I am slowly learning to pace myself. I hope to spend my next three years continuing to partner with environmental organizations that can help Camden be the leader that our visitors and residents expect us to be.