But at the Belmont League of Women Voter’s annual Candidates Night held at the Chenery Middle School on Monday, March 24., the charges being hurled at the end of the Q&A session between Board of Selectmen candidates Sami Baghdady and Roger Colton did not come from the candidates themselves but from a segment of the audience which felt that Colton was not receiving his full 60 seconds to answer questions and from Baghdady supporters who took that charge as a slight to their man.
While the ever-so-slight uproar was going on in the on the stage, the men – who were quite cordial – seeking to replace the retiring Ralph Jones on the three-member board were quite cordial who did have one common advisory: the stern hand of moderator Anna Whitcomb Knight who kept answers under a strict one-minute limit.
Knight’s proclamation: “Stop please!” at the end of 60 seconds left many of the candidate’s statements hanging out over the audience mid-sentence to the amusement of some attending.
With eight days before the town election on April 1, the question and answer session – there was no chance for the pair to debate issues facing the town – did reveal at times differing approaches each man would bring to the three-year term.
While stating that Belmont is a wonderful place to live, “[it] has many serious problems that need to be fixed,” said Colton, the co-chair of the Energy Committee, in his opening remarks.
The biggest issue facing the town is “we simply must start planning for the long run both by improving the existing ways we do services and finding innovations that save money and improve the quality of services,” Colton said.
Baghdady, who is a current and past chair of the Planning Board, is on the Warrant Committee said that he was “running for selectman to maintain what we love about our town and change what we don’t.”
” … but Belmont also faces challenges. We must find the means to revitalize our [town] squares, repair our streets and sidewalks, renovate our high school and keep Belmont a place where we can all afford to live,” he said.
Both candidates highlighted their skill sets and accomplishments along with practical accomplishments during their tenures on town committees and boards; the reuse of surplus fire houses and promoting affordable housing by Colton and Baghdady including public concerns into the planning decisions of the Cushing Village development and the Wellington Elementary school.
During their 45 minutes on the stage, the candidates agreed on several topics – a reluctance to increase the commercial real estate tax rate as being harmful to small business creation, being supportive of greater “green” initiatives, and finding resources to repair the town’s notoriously poor side streets – including what will likely become the hot button issue later in 2014; the possibility of a Proposition 2 1/2 override to assist in financing the town’s long-term obligations. Baghdady said an override to meet the capital needs facing the town “is on the table with me” while Colton said an override would be “in the tool box” that the selectmen and town must have to resolve the “undeniable fact” of revenue shortfalls to resolve maintenance issues.
Yet there were times when the candidates took diverging directions on topics of general concern among residents.
• Increasing student population: Baghdady would accommodate increases in student population temporarily with modular classrooms but his long-term solution would be increasing the size of a renovated High School to accommodate five rather than four grades – 8th to 12th – with the Chenery Middle School taking in 4th to 8th graders with renovations to two of Belmont’s four elementary schools; the Butler and Burbank, that will house the 600 new students expected in the schools in the coming decade.
Colton said the primer issue to come up with a long-term plan to “bring the town’s financial house in order” that will allow the hiring of teachers and support staff (such as the return of librarians) to fill rooms that are empty due to an insufficient number of teachers.
• Affordable housing: Colton is supportive of using $375,000 in Community Preservation Committee funds to help up to three families whose incomes are below the area’s medium rate to subsidize the purchase of homes in Belmont, noting the effort Belmont had committed to affordable house in the past decade, despite the relatively small number, allowed the town to receive $16 million in state funding for the Trapelo/Belmont Corridor reconstruction.
Baghdady noted that Belmont will need to create 624 units of affordable housing to reach the state’s mandated 10 percent level of moderate housing to be exempt from the state’s 40B requirement allowing developers to construct housing sites that sidestep town zoning restrictions as long as they have a certain number of affordable units set aside. He does not believe the subsidize blueprint is not a wise use of taxpayer’s money. Rather he hopes the state would give Belmont credit for the hundreds of below-market cost apartments in the Waverley Square district towards meeting the state’s affordable housing mandates.
Town Planner: When asked if Belmont should replace Planning and Economic Development Manager Jay Szklut who resigned in 2012, Colton was respective to the proposition noting that the sites of many former businesses have been replaced by financial institutions,
“Belmont is becoming not only a town of homes and potholes, it’s becoming a town of banks,” he said.
Baghdady said as Planning Board chair, he had asked the town’s Community Development Director, Glenn Clancy, and the Planning Coordinator Jeffrey Wheeler, if a planner was required and the answer came back as no.
The New Underwood Pool: Baghdady said while “strongly supporting” an Underwood Pool which is an important community resource. However, he said, the $5.2 million being spent on the pool “is a lot of money” and he has been hearing a lot of questions on the pool’s design, the cost and the required debt. If elected, Baghdady said he would “try to find a way to give residents options when they are asking so many questions on a project like this.”
Saying the options are clearly voting yes or no, Colton is in the affirmative, saying the facility will not simply be a pool “but a community gathering spot … that will be an asset to the town.”