News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, April 18, 2019
Two candidates seek to fill empty selectman’s seat

by Anne Berleant

A new face will fill the three-member board of selectmen after town voting April 19, held at the town office from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

With Rebecca Collison declining to seek reelection, candidates Betsy Armstrong and Ralph Topham seek to serve a three-year term. Both addressed voters at an April 11 Surry Community Improvement Association public meeting and also spoke with The Weekly Packet.

In uncontested races, school board members Pat Jencks seeks a second three-year term and Donald Driscoll a fourth term.

Betsy Armstrong

After 45 years teaching and training blind students on Long Island, New York, and in New York City, Betsy Armstrong first bought property in Surry in 2012 and moved full-time in 2016. A volunteer with the Old School House renovation project and school Backpack Program, and a founding member of the new Age Friendly Surry committee, with its Neighbors Helping Neighbors initiative, she decided to run after being approached by a current selectman.

“With what I’m trying to do with Neighbors Helping Neighbors, I thought it would be a good fit. If you look at a map of Surry, there’s not many of us. It’s like a hand with long fingers.” She cited 10-year-long next-door neighbors who only met recently at a community event. “It’s people not knowing each other.” The town would benefit from “just trying to build a little more on who we are and what we have to offer instead of being a Venn diagram with us in the middle of Blue Hill and Ellsworth.”

A member of the Halcyon Grange in North Blue Hill, Armstrong would also like to see Surry adopt a local food sovereignty ordinance. “There’s only two towns on the entire peninsula that haven’t passed the food sovereignty ordinance and we do have a few small farmers that kind of fly under the radar, and I know that there are some new lobstermen trying to get a foothold [here]. I thought it might benefit them and be a draw for Surry. We have a lot of empty land.”

Ralph Topham

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Kansas since age 2, Ralph Topham began spending summers in Surry in 1991 and settled into a year-round residence after retirement. Topham holds an undergraduate degree in zoology from the University of Texas at Austin, served in the Air Force as a computer operator, environmental lab technician and research project officer, and after earning a master’s degree in education, taught junior and senior high school science for 19 years. He also worked in the Employee Assistance Program at Vanderbilt University.

Topham first began thinking of running for selectman last year. “It was difficult to find people who were willing to serve. I looked at my skills and the various things I’ve done and thought this is something I’m qualified for.”

The town is operating “pretty well indeed, form where I’m standing. The financial [management] is outstanding. You don’t hear a lot about the selectmen, which means they’re doing a good job.”

If elected, Topham seeks to preserve “the environment and ambiance of Surry. At the same time, I‘ve got the interpersonal and management skills to work with a team to be collaborative, work together and get things done as best as possible.”

He noted a changing, older demographic and the 25 percent of students with special education needs. “It’s just [having] an awareness of the different groups of people that make up this town and how we all have to work together to keep the community fair, collaborative, compassionate and respectful of the people and environment.”

He added, “The whole purpose of the selectmen group is to listen to those needs and work to see how and what can be done, if need be.”

Candidate Ralph Topham

Ralph Topham.

Photo by Anne Berleant
Candidate Betsy Armstrong

Betsy Armstrong.

Photo by Anne Berleant