On the issues: Belfast City Council Ward Three Candidate Sophia Ridgely Fuller

Mon, 11/04/2019 - 2:30am

Penobscot Bay Pilot has posed questions to each candidate running for the Belfast City Council Ward Three seat, providing the opportunity for the public to better understand their position on issues important to the town and region. The candidate responses are posted as they are returned, and are collected on the Pilot’s Elections Resource Page.

Short biography: Please tell us a little bit about yourself: where you live, what your background is.
I am a retired social worker who, after spending pieces of almost 40 years in Maine, finally had the chance to move to Belfast seven years ago. During my career, I worked in a variety of settings including elementary, technical schools, community mental health and community programs such as Head Start.

I founded a group home for adolescents in crisis that became a model in Massachusetts. And for many years I ran a small business: boarding horses on our 14 acre farm and served as an EMT on our fire department. 

I have two sons, Nicholas, 37, who currently lives in Biddeford where he tutors at Long Creek Juvenile Corrections in Portland and works part time on a lobster boat.

Benjamin, 34, lives in Brooklyn where he works for a neighborhood organization building worker owned cooperatives and tenant organizations.

They will be here helping out during the last few days before the election! My father also lived with us for many years and we had several ‘spirit sons,’ guys who lived with our family for significant periods, from Bulgaria, Palestine and western Massachusetts. I occasionally resorted to having an imaginary daughter to help me cope with all the males in our home! 

I have continued being active in the community since moving to Belfast with Restorative Justice, working to bring a food council to the city, and started the Warming Center where volunteers provide a meal, warmth, power and socializing for the community during extended power outages due to winter storms. I am currently also working on the issue of food insecurity among children in our community and invested in dealing with the climate crisis. The latter takes place through our recently formed Waldo County: Climate to Thrive modeled on MDI:M A Climate to Thrive which aspires to achieve energy independence by 2030.

What are Belfast’s greatest strengths, and how do you hope to maintain them?
I have been door-knocking my way through Belfast since I announced my candidacy in September. This experience has been a delight — warm, welcoming residents who are eager to share their perspectives on many issues, so of course I have learned that the people of Belfast are definitely its greatest strength.

The residents also clearly want to be a part of the Belfast community, I think this energy and commitment to being the best we can be is a huge asset. 

I want to capitalize this energy by initiating a twice yearly ward meeting where folks who live in town (inside the Route 1 bypass) and those living in more rural setting (outside the bypass) can become well acquainted, discuss city affairs such as the budget and spending priorities and, in the process cultivate growing civic leadership. The volunteerism is outstanding. I’d like to establish City Hall as a hub of our volunteers where newcomers can easily find opportunities and volunteer coordination is more easily achieved. 

And our natural environment is magnificent. We have many trails, great rivers and creeks located on carefully tended conservation land for all to enjoy. And of course, our piece of Penobscot Bay with the easily accessed working waterfront via the walking rail trail are highlights for all the summer visitors. 

I also believe that there is a special character to the City of Belfast, we are described as whacky, politically progressive (the first municipality east of the Mississippi to declare and celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day!) with vibrancy of music, art that simply cannot be overlooked. This special character has its own wonderful life, nothing for me improve, just join the fun.

What are Belfast's greatest problems to address?
I believe the growing inequality in our community is certainly one of the biggest problems. As this is a national problem we need to work with all levels of government to really provide systemic change — health care, restoring funds for housing, basic needs especially for the elderly living on fixed incomes.

Here in Maine, with a new administration and in Belfast we need to make sure state municipal revenue sharing is increased as well as the state’s share of reimbursement for educational costs. Property taxes are a huge burden to all full time resident homeowners in our community.

The City has to take responsibility for keeping a sharp eye on expenses, knowing that especially long time homeowners living on fixed incomes have difficulty keeping up with tax increases and I believe our carbon footprint is a serious problem given the climate crisis we are facing. Our City is in the forefront of solarizing public buildings and municipal LED lighting but there is much to be done. Transportation will be a major challenge for all of us in rural Maine.

There has been much discussion recently about smoking and littering in public areas. How would you plan to address those concerns?
While smoking is clearly a health issue, I don’t believe the city should be asked to police smoking on public streets. Providing specific smoking benches might naturally alleviate some of this. I think it is up to all of us to respectfully address inconsiderate behavior such as littering when we face incidents rather than ask the City to police such on our behalf. 

Does Belfast need to adjust zoning to accommodate business growth, housing construction and industry expansion?
We are in the process of renewing our comprehensive plan which will look into major zoning changes based on citizen input which I believe is the foundation of our municipal planning and should be taken seriously. We suffer from a lack of sufficient housing, both for low and moderate residents which is rightly a major focus of Belfast at present. Zoning changes have decreased building lot sizes downtown enabling owners to build or add on efficiency apartments thus helping folks with property taxes. The resulting increase in density is also climate friendly!

Finally I support the current efforts to reuse newly available space for housing construction, making sure the new housing is family friendly with playgrounds and gathering spaces. We have an industrial park with capacity and numerous empty storefronts. I would prioritize use of these spaces before rezoning land for industrial or business expansion. I believe before zoning for business and industry we need to look at exactly what kind of business and industry needs does Belfast have to become a more self sustaining resilient community. Developing local ownership of our local economy is key to retaining money in the community and providing social and job stability.

Should Belfast be more receptive to alternative housing proposals, such as shelters?
Belfast should be open to all housing proposals that meet the needs of her residents and are realistic for our community of 6,500. Shared housing and remodeling large older homes are some of the options to meet needs. I do think the issue of homelessness is a complicated and important one for our community and am glad there is a rebirth of our homeless coalition to assess the causes of the increase in homelessness in our area (again due to increased inequality throughout our society).

We know that in some chronic situations of homelessness providing studio apartments with significant support services is perhaps the most long term cost effective measure, however for a city our size, this is difficult. Perhaps designing such programs with neighboring communities writing shared grants can help attract federal money should such become available.

What is the importance of local government, and how do you see yourself, as a city councilor, in it?
Local government is absolutely key to quality of life as it is the closest to citizens and so most familiar with the needs of the citizens. I am most interested in increasing the level of sincere and transparent engagement between city hall and the residents of Belfast which I think will make for a more realistic understanding of the capacity of each..property tax payers and the service provider.

Local government also provides needed leadership in addressing some issues beyond the scope of the individuals — I am thinking specifically of leadership in area of climate crisis — so back to rebuilding a transportation system ensuring emergency services are in place, our food systems are well protected etc.

How do you see Belfast fitting into the greater regional economy and culture, and how would you develop that?
Regional planning is often the most efficient path for all municipalities so I would very much encourage this route. Attracting funds, as I mentioned, can be easier when joint proposals are submitted. Procurement can be cheaper through regional planning. Transportation inface of climate crisis will need regional planning for both cost, convenience and simply, geographic reasons.

Where are your favorite places to spend time in the Belfast community?
Outside in all seasons — on the trails, by the water. Second favorite is the Abbott Room of our library which offers an endless supply of brain stimulating programs.

What is your position on the proposed Nordic Aquafarms project?
Because of my commitment to reducing our carbon footprint and to the health of our natural resources (water supply and protection) for future generations I believe the Nordic project, as currently proposed is not a good fit for our community. I don’t believe depending on one large corporation to solve our tax problems is either economically sound or realistic and I don’t have the confidence that NAF will provide the number of good jobs to justify the risk to our quality of life.

Having given my position I must add that it is very unlikely any vote regarding NAF’s presence will occur during what would be my term as a City Councilor — it is now up to DEP and the courts to decide its future.

Free space! Anything else you'd like to say to the voters that we haven’t considered?
[Note: The candidate did not submit any comments for this space.]