On the issues: Camden Select Board Candidate Mary Beth Leone Thomas

Wed, 05/24/2023 - 6:30pm

    On June 13, voters in Camden will elect two citizens from a slate of five candidates to serve on the Camden Select Board. There are two open seats this June, both three-year terms. Current board chair Robert Falciani is not running again, but incumbent Alison McKellar is seeking a third term on the board. She is joined by former Camden Select Board member Marc Ratner, who is hoping to return to the board. They are joined by Christopher Nolan, Raymond Andresenand Mary Beth Thomas, all hoping to represent the town.

    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. Here, Mary Beth Leone Thomas discusses her position on various topics.

    Please provide a brief biography of yourself and explain why you decided to seek a seat on the Select Board.

    “Camden’s citizens would benefit from reevaluating their current relationship with abundance.”  

    I have been a year-round resident and homeowner in Camden for 40 years, with the exception of three years (2010-2013), during which I worked as a school Substance Abuse counselor at a military base in Wiesbaden, Germany, under a contract through the Department of Defense. providing counseling for vulnerable youth and their families.  

    I am a retired clinical social worker with additional training in family systems and addictions treatment. 

    I worked for many years in private practice as well as being the Director of Behavioral Health at Seaport Community Health Center in Belfast. I was also the clinical lead for Penobscot Community Health Center and provided supervision to 28 psychotherapists, consulting on difficult cases.

    I was married to James McKenzie “Mac” Thomas, (d. 2018), who was also a social worker, and worked on the Pathways Committee for the town. Mac’s commitment to the Pathways Committee was an inspiration to me. He was willing to put in the hard work involved in grant writing and we have all benefited from his efforts.

    I volunteered to work on the Budget Committee because as a systems person, knowing where the money is allocated and spent defines so much in a community.

    I care about the future of Camden and  I am not only interested in short term goals, but in Camden 50 years from now — and beyond. 

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

    Concern 1:

    The single most compelling reason for my decision to run for the Select Board is connected to ever increasing expenditures that lead to an increase in taxes. Camden is an affluent community. I have seen the house I built for about $200,000 twenty-two years ago increase dramatically in value, along with heightened property taxes that accompany this valuation.

    I want to do something about property taxes in Camden, instead of just shrugging and accepting the inevitable. 

    The town budget is up about 6% from last year. 

    Many towns in Maine are actually choosing not to increase their budgets.  

    I want to be part of a Select Board that is invested in changing the pattern of continual increases. 

    Concern 2: 

    The State of Maine has one of the oldest, whitest populations in the country. I value the benefit of what diversity brings. 

    I have watched the loss of economic and age diversity as Camden becomes a town suited only to wealthy, older residents. It is a sad reality that a new teacher hired to teach at Camden Hills Regional High School could never afford to buy a house in this community on a teachers salary. 

    Continued efforts to provide affordable housing are critical. There is also the very real dynamic of having a significant portion of Camden’s population who are aging and wish to “age in place.”  

    Interesting fact about our demographics: In 2022, Camden had 132 deaths with only 18 births. 

    Regarding aging in place: As a social worker, I can definitely share that the resources needed in terms of home health aids, visiting nurses, CNAs, caseworkers etc. are in short supply. People are not going into these professions. We are going to have to depend on each other to a greater degree to successfully age in place. 

    Development of a community wide “Neighbor to Neighbor” program could provide simple but independent life sustaining support; i.e., a daily check in call, dropping off a bag of groceries, providing a ride to an appointment, etc. 

    Creative solutions will be needed to address this need. Human capital has always been our most valuable resource. 

    Concern 3: 

    How best to employ our town resources to address the risk of harborfront flooding.

    Local discourse has been fixated on the future of the Montgomery Dam, but climate change and the reality of harborfront flooding must take precedence. 

    The question is much larger than the Montgomery Dam. One of the advantages of running for the Select Board has been the opportunity to learn so much about our much loved community. I have carefully listened to several lectures and talks about future flooding and a long term solution that is good for the town and the environment. 

    Climate change is real, and the changing ocean temperatures etc. will cause an increase in flooding. The town experienced a major flooding event in May. This is a snapshot of what is coming. 

    I care about a long term plan that will protect our town, properties, rivers and lakes system. The town of Camden has been proactive in considering these realities and has developed a rational plan. 

    As a longtime resident, I also have a connection to the Montgomery Dam and have viewed it as a local treasure. I am also a realist and realize that change is inevitable regarding this situation.

    Camden has a highly educated community and has sought out appropriate expertise to provide the solution. I trust the plan the Town of Camden has proposed. I recommend that all concerned Camden residents review this plan.

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

    As someone who is on the Budget Committee, I am sad to report that the standard practice is to accept every budget increase suggested with little to no discussion or questioning. 

    I am often the one committee member to vote against every increase. I want to change the conversation surrounding the town budget to focus more on saving money, and not always agreeing to every proposed budget increase.

    The goal should be to keep the budget the same in many areas as possible, and to be fiscally responsible. Real discussion often leads to creative solutions. 

    What is your opinion of the Megunticook River restoration project and what do you envision as the future of the Montgomery Dam? 

    See above, concern 3. 

    How will you vote on the 2023 June Town Warrant Articles 3 and 4, the proposed amendments to the Code for Retail Adult Use and Medical Caregiver Cannabis?

    Mark Benjamin, of Camden, and the owner of Botany, a marijuana/cannabis shop in Rockland, shared that the average age of his customers is 49, “your friends and neighbors.”

    I personally know adults of various ages who use cannabis related products for a variety of reasons: as a sleep aid, treating depression and anxiety, glaucoma, as well as getting high, etc.

    I do not believe in imposing my values on others. I respect that voters will have a choice on this issue that seems to be such a hot topic around town. 

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

    On this journey to explore being on the Select Board, I have learned that many businesses which I didn't even know existed in Camden are functioning successfully — often out of sight due to the remote/online world of communication, which is flourishing here. 

    The Camden Area Business Group represents a deep pool of knowledge on this topic, and I would defer to their expertise.

    According to town demographics, Camden has an educated population and is a place where business growth is not hindered by geographical location. 

    Many choose to live here because of good schools, high quality of life, and a work/life balance that is healthy. Camden has no trouble attracting skilled permanent residents, but we must work harder to provide them with appealing housing and employment opportunities.

    What would you like to see for the future of the Tannery Park on Washington Street? 

    The town of Camden has been discussing what to do with the Tannery Park site most of my life, after the building was torn down and the site partially cleaned up. 

    I believe the town benefits from having a designated space for the Farmer’s Market, which is appreciated by locals and visitors alike.

    One other candidate shared that there is no other playground for pre school children during school hours. Good idea! 

    Having part of the site developed into a park for young children seems practical and needed. Maintaining Tannery Park for the Farmer’s Market, a playground for preschool children and an outdoor gathering space for Art Fairs etc. seems like a great use of this riverside location. 

    Camden has a lack of workforce housing, as articulated by the current Select Board. Do you agree, and if so, what remedies would you suggest?

    We also have limited space for growth. 

    I have considered our high number of older residents, and many single people and two person couples living in houses built for larger families. As a community, we can do a better job of utilizing the housing/town lots we already have. 

    Relaxed zoning has helped, as lots can be subdivided, but the reality is we do not have much space for new development. 

    Can more older couples and single occupants consider converting unused space into apartments? 

    Could we explore funding for low interest loans to assist homeowners with these conversions? 

    Many fear being a landlord with horror stories about unreasonable tenants, etc. I was the owner of a four-unit apartment in Camden for over 20 years. I checked references carefully, rented to responsible tenants, and established a mutually beneficial relationship. 

    I am currently a landlord, with an apartment over my garage. It is a positive experience for both myself and my tenant. 

    There is no easy answer to the housing crisis in Midcoast Maine. I am concerned that Camden is becoming a town exclusively for the wealthy, which is not how varied and vibrant communities are sustained.

    We should explore every option for increased affordable housing options. 

    Camden has been governed by a five-member select board for decades (it once was a three-person board) but in recent years has informally discussed moving to a city council form of government. What is your opinion on having a select board vs. a council form of government? 

    I do not see a need for change. I believe we have a functional and engaged Select Board who are adept at involving the town residents in important decisions that should be decided by a vote when needed. 

    I am most concerned with honoring and protecting the democratic process. 

    In 2013, Camden voters approved a $2 million bond to complement a $4.5 million private fundraising effort to fund a redevelopment project at the Camden Snow Bowl, including the construction of a new lodge. To date, a new lodge has not been constructed. Should a new lodge be built? 

    I view the Snow Bowl as a unique and wonderful local recreational spot that my entire family has enjoyed.  All three of my adult children learned to ski at the Snow Bowl. 

    To have access to an affordable town owned ski resort is a treasure. 

    The town of Camden and the greater Midcoast area all benefit from the presence of the Snow Bowl. Sometimes the Snow Bowl operates in the black, and sometimes in the red. The voters approved a $2 million dollar bond in 2013 for improvements needed. Private fundraising efforts should always be encouraged. A new lodge appears to be needed. The voters have expressed their support. I believe it should be honored. 

    Where is your favorite place in Camden?

    For many years, we had a boat in Camden Harbor and we have wonderful memories of exploring the many islands of Penobscot Bay. 

    My top pick would be Camden Harbor, followed by the Mount View Cemetery.  My husband, Mac Thomas, is buried there and I visit his gravesite where I also see my name engraved, with my birthdate, waiting for the date of my death.  

    A powerful reminder to live life in the present moment.

    Closing statements:

    As I have shared, I am committed to stopping the pattern of ever increasing budgets. 

    After the school budget, the most expensive line item is the Camden Police Department.  I have researched carefully and been in contact with towns that have adapted the use of a Public Safety Department. 

    Public Safety officers are dual trained/certified in law enforcement and fire safety, eliminating the need for separate police and fire departments (EMS). 

    I would propose we slowly evolve into this model over the next 15-20 years. At a Select Board meeting I attended, Camden Police Chief, Randy Gagne, shared that Camden has essentially a 0% crime rate. 

    We are fortunate to live in such a safe community. 

    In the State of Maine, there is a shortage of candidates for law enforcement positions. 

    We need to intentionally attract local young people to consider a career in public service. We can offer complete scholarships for these areas of study to those who commit to four years of service, post graduation. 

    The five cities of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where I went to high school, have had a unified Department of Public Safety for over 40 years. I spoke recently to a Public Safety Officer  working in the City of Grosse Pointe. 

    Michigan is having the same problem as Maine finding new recruits to work in law enforcement.

    To paraphrase his words:

    “What our department did was innovative and it worked. I was working as an insurance adjuster, and pretty miserable in that job. I had always wanted to be a police officer. My family encouraged me to go for it. 

    “This city would put you on salary and pay for your law enforcement and fire safety training until you graduated. 

    “I really like my job and find it very meaningful. We are also paid better because we are trained to be both law enforcement and fire safety.

    “I can be riding in a patrol car, be called to a fire, and our fire gear is always in the trunk so we can respond instantly.”  

    Slowly transitioning to a Department of Public Safety is a practical and effective model that should be seriously considered. Innovation and change should not be feared or automatically discounted.

    I would appreciate the opportunity to be a member of the Camden Select Board. I will be available to meet with any Camden residents Saturday morning May 27, June 3, and June 10 from 10 to 11 a.m., to answer any questions you may have or share your suggestions and/or vision for Camden. I will be at the Bagel Cafe, just outside the door in the hall where the overflow tables are located. I would be delighted to meet with you.

    Don’t forget to vote on June 13.