Originally published in The Weekly Packet, March 23, 2017
Blue Hill candidates face contested races
by Anne Berleant
Come election day, voters will choose between incumbent John Bannister and Ellen Best for an open three-year selectman seat. Rebecca Conable, Amy Houghton and Jonathan Smallidge are running for two open three-year school board seats and, incumbent Scott Miller is uncontested in his bid for another three-year term on the planning board.
The Weekly Packet interviewed selectmen and school board candidates on why they entered the race and issues pertinent to the boards they would serve on.
All five will also participate in a candidates forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters-Downeast and Penobscot Bay Press, on Monday, March 27, at the Blue Hill Public Library, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Selectman candidates are first, followed by school board candidates.
Voting in Blue Hill takes place on Friday, April 7, between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. at town hall.
John Bannister, incumbent, Board of Selectmen
A longtime resident of Blue Hill, and owner of Merrill & Hinckley, Bannister seeks to remain on the board of selectmen “because it’s a never-ending job and the job is not done.” He has served as a selectman for nearly three decades, after seven years on the budget committee. His experience and historical perspective allow him to help stop the board from repeating mistakes. “That’s the benefit of not having term limits, somebody remembers why [something] didn’t work.”
Bannister said the health of the town is “very good, better than those around us.” Its biggest challenge is the ongoing battle—“probably not the right word”—between elected officials and citizens on “whether we want to be a big town or a little town.”
“Big town amenities come with a cost,” he said. “Sometimes selectmen are the only ones who take the long view.”
The role of the selectmen is to bring issues to the town and to educate citizens as to what the issues mean and how they will affect the town, Bannister said. He said he is a “firm believer in the doctrine of unintended consequences. That’s why I speak out…There’s no end of good ideas but not all are workable or practical.”
The current board is “extremely effective,” with he and Jim Schatz on opposite sides of the spectrum, which means they both end up modifying their position on issues.
“There’s a lot of compromise. Nobody ever gets 100 percent [of what they want].”
While selectmen have no authority over economic development issues, citizens asked them to take action when downtown buildings remained empty. Selectmen did contact owners privately to discuss the asking price, Bannister said. “We kind of tried the back, quiet [way].” With the recent sale of key downtown properties, Bannister said, “I like to think that it shows the private sector seems to be solving the problem we seem to be unable to do.”
Selectmen have also reached out to the owner of a property that would provide public shoreline access that Bannister said is more suitable than the town-owned parcel a citizens petition asks funding to develop access to.
The value of a citizens petition, Bannister said, is that people “get to have a discussion at town meeting.”
Finally, holding selectmen’s meetings outside of normal working hours is “a red herring. I don’t see an overwhelming call for it.”
Ellen Best, Board of Selectmen
A resident of Blue Hill for 40 years, Ellen Best is a local attorney who has been chairman of the Blue Hill Heritage Trust board and the Blue Hill Public Library board, and currently chairs the Jonathan Fisher House board.
A candidate in 2013, Best again seeks to serve “because I think it’s time for a change in our town government.
Running her own law firm “has given me a good idea of the town’s economic situation,” she said, while her legal training gives her the ability to look at things from different perspectives, noting, “There’s not just two sides to something but 10 or 20.”
Selectmen are “truly the representatives of the townspeople and receivers, as such, of people’s concerns, good and bad.”
Blue Hill’s biggest challenge is the changing demographics, as more young families move into town, which can lead to divisiveness, she said. “That will be a challenge for the town, if it chooses to take it on.”
Economically, Blue Hill lives “on the back of the summer people. It’s a loaded subject in itself, but an economic truth.”
If the town becomes less desirable “and alive,” the longterm result will be less interest from wealthy summer people to spend time here, which is not good for the town’s economy, she said.
“To the extent that we can find those opportunities to help the downtown, we are helping the town at large,” she said.
Right now, the board of selectmen is more closed than it has been in the past, Best said. “It seems to me—completely an impression—that they feel embattled in some way and the result of that is a closing in. I think that’s a big problem, and I think it’s fixable.”
Best also thinks better attention should be paid “to what we do. The town actually owns a lot of stuff: land, buildings. We haven’t been very stellar in our caring for those.”
Public shore access “is really huge,” Best said. “We need it and selectmen should be pursuing [it]. It’s been a topic for 40 years and nothing’s been acquired purposefully since then. We’ve acquired property [through nonpayment of taxes], then gotten rid of it.”
Best said she believes hiring a town manager would be “more effective and better help us work towards the future.” She also is in favor of holding selectmen’s meetings outside of working hours “at least some of the time.”
Lastly, she would like to see Christmas lights on the roundabout. “I can’t believe [selectmen] wouldn’t let us have [them.] It’s the best-lit place in town; a few Christmas lights isn’t going to be a distraction.”
Rebecca Conable, School Board
A candidate in 2015, Conable was not elected but was appointed in 2016 after a member stepped down. “I am seeking a full term because, at this point, I feel I understand how the board works, and am committed to the school and board,” she said.
A former landscape architect from Fort Lauderdale, with an undergraduate degree in food science from Cornell University, Conable moved to Blue Hill seven years ago with her family, and runs Misty Morning Farm with her husband, raising food for Tree of Life food pantry. She serves on the food pantry’s board, as well. She has two children enrolled at BHCS.
She is current president of Blue Hill Educational Enrichment Monies (BEEM), is active in the PTF, and runs Cub Scout Pack #97.
“For me, [serving on the board] feels like a natural extension of other things I do at the school,” Conable said. “I care deeply about public education and am deeply concerned over possible actions that could call our system into question. It’s a time to stay involved and focused. I think the future of public education in this country is really up for grabs.”
Conable supports the $1.5 million bond request to voters towards funding a renovation project.
“From everything I see, the board and school are very conscious of the balancing act between fiscal responsibility to the town and their role to safeguard the programs and services in the school.”
Conable said she paid attention to the school budget since she had children in the school.
“It’s about balance. It’s really a tricky thing to do,” she said. While the town is responsible for educating all children of a huge range, only “a slim part of the budget is not controlled by state mandate.”
And, when high school enrollment goes up, the only place the school can cut is the instructional budget for the consolidated school, she said.
“The school’s job is to teach students to their fullest potential” and then send them on to all places students go,” she said.
Conable is satisfied with the public notice given for board meetings in the school newsletter, school marquee, and notices for budget meetings in the newspaper.
“I think the school board, like every group I’ve been involved with in town, has problems shouting over the noise.”
Amy Houghton, School Board
Houghton, a Castine native who moved her family to Blue Hill five years ago in part so her son could attend Blue Hill Consolidated School, seeks election to the board as a first-time candidate. She holds a bachelor’s degree in child development from the University of Maine at Orono and an associate degree in radiology from Eastern Maine Community College. She worked at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital for 12 years, managing the radiology department for four. In 2015, she was appointed to the state Radiologic Technology Board of Examiners, creating policy for practice and overseeing technologists.
“I have experience with large budgets and making fiscally difficult decisions around what is needed versus what funds are available,” she said, while the fact that she hasn’t previously served would give the board “a brand new perspective.”
Houghton also served on the Castine Community Child Development Center board. She is currently a part-time coordinator for local nonprofit Community Compass.
Houghton said the board should be proactive rather than reactive, when it’s able to forecast what lies ahead. BHCS student population is increasing even though it’s declining across Maine. “People relocate to Blue Hill based on BHCS’s reputation.”
She is basically in favor of the school renovation bond request.
“A public school building needs to serve all children, be safe and [up to] code…but I feel it needs more public explanation and vetting to the taxpayer to give details on what the money will be spent on.”
The board’s most important job is to look out for students’ best interests, while being accountable for the performance of the school and being fiscally responsible, Houghton said, not to be involved in daily operation of the school. Also, giving advance notice of meetings and making agendas public beforehand is important for transparency to taxpayers, she said.
“I feel I [would be] able to be a good liaison between community members and the rest of the board,” she said.
An increased awareness of the demands of BHCS’ special education resources “will be important” moving forward, she said. “The needs that economically disadvantaged children bring to the classroom are complex, and the trend continues for more children to be diagnosed on the autism spectrum.”
“There is only one way to ensure that Blue Hill’s future is stable and bright and this is by making sure the highest quality education is provided to the children of our community,” she said.
Jonathan Smallidge, School Board
A former nine-year member who stepped down four years ago, Smallidge seeks to return to the school board.
“I think it’s important to be involved in the community,” he said. “Since stepping off the board, I’ve missed it.”
A self-employed contractor with one child at BHCS, one at GSA and one at University of Maine at Orono, Smallidge was raised on Mount Desert Island, attended University of Southern Maine and Boston University, and then started a family in California. When they moved back to Maine, they chose Blue Hill.
Smallidge and his wife also oversee the Booster Group for Blue Hill Baseball, and he served on the Coastal Little League Board of Directors for four years.
His qualifications to serve include being fair, and liking to listen, he said.
“I like to hear what people have to say and then try to act on it as much as possible, if it’s valid.”
His previous board experience is also “a big one,” he said. “I know the process. It took me at least the first year [to learn] how the board worked, the school, the department of education…There’s quite a break-in period. I’ll be ahead of the curve on that one.”
Also, being in the building trade “could be beneficial” during the renovation process, whether it’s an expanded project if the bond request passes or a smaller one based on funding already in place.
Keeping Blue Hill affordable is a “huge priority,” Smallidge said. “I’ve always been sensitive to the fact hat we have to keep the budget in reason,” he said. “It’s a dicey line to walk.”
But trying to always keep the annual school budget increase down to 2 or 3 percent “has come back to bite us” with deferred maintenance on the building. “If we had had more funds to spend, we could have kept up with it.”
Smallidge said it is “imperative” that the board and BHCS work with the local high schools. “I don’t get the feeling collaboration is there and seen as being needed as much as it should be.” Blue Hill should also investigate collaborating with other area elementary schools, not just Union 93, he said. “I see our role as being collaborators and partners, being resources for each other.
“I’m a huge believer in education, public education. An informed public and educated public is the key to democracy.”