On June 14, voters in Camden will elect two candidates to serve on the Camden Select Board.
There are two open seats this June, one is a three-year term, the other a two-year term.
Thomas Hedstrom is running against incumbent Marc Ratner for the three-year seat. Robert Lawson is running against Stephanie French for the two-year seat.
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, Candidate Robert Lawson discusses his position on various topics.
Please provide a brief biography of yourself and explain why you decided to seek a seat on the Select Board.
I have lived in Camden for nearly 18 years, having moved my family from California with the goal of raising our son in a community where people look out for one another and friendships are determined not by how you treat your possessions, but by how you treat others. At the time, I worked for a small family-owned company that required me to travel extensively throughout the U.S. and abroad.
One day, one of those once-in-a-lifetime job opportunities came along and I grabbed hold – another remarkable family-owned company. However, it required we move back to California. The move back was a good move. When comparing our home in California to Camden, it clearly showed us how remarkable our Camden community truly is. We came back to visit Camden every year we were gone. Five years later, we had an opportunity to move back, and we took it. And I still work for the same company as Vice President of Marketing.
I served on the MSAD 28 and CSD school boards for nearly five years, three of those as chair for the CSD.
I genuinely enjoyed the experience and considered serving again when we moved back. However, like many, work and family tend to take priority and fill our days. And while work will always be there, I feel a need to be back, serving the community.
I feel the Select Board is fostering a reputation of “talking at our community” and not “listening to our community.” I would also like to use my experience serving on both School Boards as an opportunity to serve in another role in our community. With that experience, I would like to serve as a bridge to town leadership and the school district to gain understanding of the needs for both.
What are the three most pressing issues facing Camden today, and how would you like to see them resolved?
- Absentee Homeownership (the rental market)
Beginning to monitor the number rental properties is a first step to understand its local impact
- Montgomery Dam / Megunticook River Restoration
Noted in my response below. Let’s understand the data and ensure the community has a voice in understanding the data before it goes to the ballot box
- Reliable High-Speed Internet
- I am a long-time remote worker – long before the pandemic, long before Zoom was a thing. Having a strong high-speed internet infrastructure could open the possibilities of remote work that will encourage families to live in Camden year-round
How will you protect the Camden taxpayer as you govern a municipal budget, and juggle various interests that request municipal funding throughout the year?
When I served on the school board, the school administration did a great job of detailing the needs of each district – providing the pros of supporting that line item and the cons of not supporting it. No school board I was a member of was a pushover on the budget and believe that still to be true today. Absolutely critical when that budget represents over 60% of very homeowner’s property taxes – which includes a significant amount of debt being carried to support taxpayer funded infrastructure.
How important are municipal volunteer committees to a town’s governance?
Extremely important. It is one of the many threads that make up the fabric of our community. Three key elements should be in place for municipal volunteer committees to be successful.
- Clear guardrails in place so committee is highly focused
- Clear objective – why are we doing this?
- Subject Matter Experts to help guide the committee toward achieving a successful outcome
How do you see Camden positioned in the larger regional Midcoast economy?
We moved to Camden 18 years ago because it provided the best environment/community we could find to raise our family. I feel that still holds true today. But the world has changed a lot, particularly in the last three years. The pace of life continues to creep up a little faster each year yet, many are now looking for a better work-life balance. Being known as a destination families can thrive in because we have infrastructure in place to support the reality of remote work, helps us maintain that tight community where you recognize and get to know people when you’re at the post office or the bank. There aren’t many places left like Camden and being able to maintain that “specialness” has a value all on its own.
What is your opinion on the current impasse between Camden and Rockport over Rockport’s use of the Camden sewer system and Camden’s demand for payment from Rockport?
I view Camden and Rockport as two highly interconnected communities that should support each other. I would seek to find common ground on the wastewater treatment issue. I believe two people, one from the Camden Select board and one form the Rockport select board step through where the differences are and find common ground that repairs the relationship. It sounds simple – but it’s hard work.
What is your opinion of the Megunticook River restoration project and goals?
Several years ago, I was honored when the School Superintendent, by direction from the MSAD 28 School Board, asked me to chair a committee to explore the repurposing of the MET building (now Rose Hall). For many in the community, it was an emotional topic. The building represented one of many threads making up the fabric of our community. The superintendent convened a group consisting of community members, former school administrators, current and former school board members, as well as subject-matter-experts to help provide understanding around building structure, mechanics and other technical areas about which the typical lay-person may not have knowledge.
I went into the process skeptical the building should be preserved. I knew from serving on the school board, some of the challenges with the building. However, I wanted “data” to be my guide, and not make a decision based just on my “feelings” about the building. In roughly 90-days, I was convinced based on the “data” learned through the process of working on this committee, keeping the building as a part of the community through renovation was the best recommendation we could make to the school board. Ultimately, community members of the town would have the final say – we as taxpayers would have to foot the bill if we agreed with the recommendation.
I share this story because I feel this may be a part that’s missing regarding the work needed to gain greater understanding and move toward resolution with Montgomery Dam. The dam is another thread that makes up the fabric of our community. Understandably, many community members have strong feelings about the need to remove the dam, and others for keeping it in place. Consideration has to be made regarding the impact of either decision, to the community today, but also future generations. And, community members should be allowed a seat at the table, maintaining an open mind and contribute to making a recommendation to the Select Board based on the data and the best interests of the community. Like the recommendation for the former MET building, community members would have the final say through the ballot box.
I view two areas of concern supporting the removal of Montgomery Dam. The first is the concern around flooding in the AE Zones.
The Interfluve Report doesn’t appear to me to conclusively state the dams are or would be the cause of flooding in the AE Zone from the Main Street bridge back to the Mill. Flooding in Harbor Park and the Public Landing appear to be more directly tied to rising sea levels than Montgomery Dam.
The second concern is the desire to remove Montgomery Dam to restore Megunticook River as a vibrant ecosystem supporting freshwater spawning from alewives, salmon and other fish species that balance the presence of those types of fish. I enjoy flyfishing… very much. I can walk to Megnunticook River from my house and enjoy a few hours with my fly rod “on the river.” However, how do we balance this noble cause of restoration, that impacts other dams up the river, with the importance of maintaining the thread of our community that is Montgomery Dam?
I am in the camp of another Select Board member who stated in a recent meeting, “I don’t have enough information to form an opinion.” Let facts be our guide – even the unpopular facts – and allow community members and subject-matter-experts a seat at the table to collectively learn from each other and provide a recommendation.
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?
I agree there is a lack of workforce housing in Camden. Housing and home prices in general are experiencing a remarkable phenomenon dictated by current market forces. It isn’t just a Camden phenomenon, but a national phenomenon. And, it has been slowly occurring right before our eyes, particularly with the buying of homes by absentee homeowners who are using their properties as investment rental properties. If we are to consider affordable housing, what are the guardrails we should set for this objective to make this reasonable and equitable for all – knowing supply and demand are the key drivers here? I don’t believe there is a simple solution and the current environment makes it even more challenging.
What would you like to see for the future of the Tannery Park on Washington Street.
I think some of the previously submitted ideas had merit. I would like to see the Farmer’s Market have a more permanent footprint there as well as a park. I also believe there are good examples of mixed-use space throughout New England that could be replicated on a small scale for the Tannery property, involving some retail and housing.
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 having a select board vs. a council form of government?
I support maintaining a Select Board form of town government. A City Council form of government, while still elected, are paid to run the town. I think this loses a core benefit the select board offers – community members who actually work in the community, like their constituents. Additionally, city council’s will make key decisions, whereas the select board moves those decisions to the voters to decide.
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?
Yes. A very clear understanding for its purpose and how it can be monetized through every season should be the foundation of moving forward.
Where is your favorite place in Camden?
“Where the mountains meet the sea.” The great thing about Camden is its diversity. It’s hard for me to say there is a favorite place because Camden has so much to offer. The harbor, naturally, is a great draw. My wife and I usually take a walk each Saturday that starts at the harbor and wraps around the neighborhoods on Chestnut Street. There is the occasional drive on Beaucaire around Megunticook Lake for a different vibe. Or up Mount Battie to soak in the incredible view. I think my favorite place in Camden, is Camden.