Photo: Lawn signs for the candidates for Select Board
The League of Women Voters of Belmont’s annual Candidates’ Night is the opportunity for many residents to get their first – and sometimes, only – look at the town-wide candidates in action. For the most part, the hottest moments in past debates was from the lack of air conditioning in the former Belmont High School auditorium.
Not so the 2022 edition as sparks flew during virtual Q&A on Thursday night, March 24, as the public watched the aspirants for the Select Board – political neophyte Jeff Dean Lasseter and incumbent Roy Epstein – forced home their points in a classic dust-up of ideas and policy differences.
And it was the self-described ”positive force multiplier” Lasseter who made the most noteworthy claims. Backed by the austerity advocacy group Citizens for a Fiscally Responsible Belmont, Lasseter told viewers as a Select Board member he would put a target on the town’s relationship with its workers and their union representatives, contends the schools are over budget by a whopping 17 percent and blasted Belmont’s chief administrative officer as being a “toxic” element in town.
In his opening remarks, Lasseter laid blame for the litany of fIscal issues squarely on the current and past Select Boards, from the ”dire financial straits” he said the town is experiencing and the lack of a plan in place to tackle the town’s “average” $2.3 million “budget deficit” [Editor’s note: Under state law, cities and towns are not allowed to have any shortfalls at the close of the fiscal year.]
“This is simply poor financial management,” he claims. The remedy to all of the town’s problems is anchored in the well-worn catch phrase ”common sense spending.” Lasseter’s one example he provided was a need for a new select board to do ”something” with town employees and their representative unions.
”These things aren’t acceptable the way they are,” said Lasseter, who did not specify the actions he would advocate against the unions and their members. Belmont employs more than 700 full-time employees in public safety, the schools and town services. It also has approximately 600 part-time and seasonal workers.
For his part, one-term incumbent Roy Epstein used his opening statement to tout his achievements during the past three years.
“I’m running for re-election because I love this town because I’ve accomplished a lot in the last three years and because there’s still a lot to do.” He pointed to his work reducing the size of the Beatrice Circle 40B proposal, reconstruct a new Light Board and restart the planning of a new skating rink and led the work on controlling student parking on side streets around the new Belmont High School.
“I’ve always worked hard to be a voice for all of Belmont,” said Epstein. “Having good local government is essential for our quality of life. I offer my judgement, independence, imagination and above all proven experience.”
While Epstein has spent more than a decade in town governance, serving on the Select Board, chair of the Warrant Committee and headed the special group which developed a plan to support installing solar panels on residential property, Lasseter’s local government experience is a blank slate. A Woodland Street resident since 2014, he has not sought to volunteer on the numerous town boards, is not a member or currently running for Town Meeting, and has yet to vote in a town election.
When Epstein highlighted Lasseter’s lack of turning up to the ballot box, the former CIA employee noted his numerous assignments and other government obligations for not visiting the Beech Street Center polling station during town elections (Lasseter has voted in national elections.) Epstein quickly noted that Belmont has ”a system of absentee ballots. That’s all I would say.”
Not that Lasseter has steered clear of politics, lending himself to a campaign video for Caroline Colarusso, the Republican congressional candidate defeated by incumbent US Rep Kathleen Clark in the 2020 general election. He was also seen on Twitter confronting Gov. Charlie Baker over Covid-19 restrictions on businesses as Baker left a visit to Wheelworks in Waverley Square in Aug. 2020. Lasseter is best known for owning and managing Jamaica Jeff’s, a Caribbean-themed restaurant in Belmont Center that closed in early 2022.
When resident Katherine Jewell asked the candidates to prioritize four important issues facing the town – fixing potholes, building a new library, construction of a skating rink and investing in schools – Epstein used the safe out, claiming that ”I support all these things” noting the worthiness of the capital projects will ultimately be decided by the voters in likely debt exclusion votes while schools, budgeted at “$70 million” – the current draft amount for fiscal 2023 is $68.9 million as of February 2022 – and potholes are part of the operating budget and are being funded.
While saying ”I support the schools 100 percent,” Lasseter said while “we budgeted [schools] for … 70 [million dollars],” ”it only really costs 59 to 60 [million dollars]” to run the district. Lasseter did not detail the 17 percent gap between his vision of the schools budget and that vetted by the school district and warrant committee or if he would challenge the school budget at the upcoming annual Town Meeting in June.
“[W]e need to be realistic, on how much money we have and then what we can spend,” said Lasseter.
Lasseter also said the current skating rink and library structures simply “need improvements” despite lengthy studies demonstrating both facilities have passed their useful lives especially the library. Rather than rely on the existing multi-year reports for both projects, Lasseter suggested going back to square one where ”we need a plan a, b and c and we need to pick the most viable plan with the resources we have available.”
The most contentious question was from an “anonymous” resident directed at Belmont’s Town Administrator, Patrice Garvin, alleging ”the salaries and financial benefits some town employees receive … are considered excessively generous by many citizens.”
Epstein said Garvin – who has been in her position since 2018 – “does an excellent job,” emphasizing that past Select Boards and the town’s Human Resources Department have conducted extensive salary benchmarking with relative-sized communities and discovered Garvin is paid slightly below where the “market is.”
“We’ve had this discussion over and over again but people insist on attacking our town administrator,” said Epstein, noting top male town officials are not held to the same scrutiny. “It seems bizarrely aggressive and misogynistic and I reiterate my support,” for Garvin, he said.
But Lasseter alleged that “there’s a toxic relationship that exists between our administrator and many of our public servants that are here to protect us and these things need to be fixed. That’s just the reality.”
The allegation of a toxic relationship is referenced in a recent letter to the Select Board targeting Garvin with unsubstantiated wrongdoing presented by John Sullivan, president of the Belmont Education Association, whose union is in increasingly contentious contract talks with the Belmont School Committee and town officials who are creating the fiscal year 2023 budget. [Editor’s note: The Belmontonian has decided not to publish the letter as it contains possible elements of libel.]
Saying Lasseter was “clearly referring to the letter,” Epstein said his challenger was repeating “innuendo that is unfounded, malicious and is bound up intimately with ongoing contractual negotiations.” Lasseter quickly doubled down on his assertion the letter was asking for “fairness and respect in dealing in a professional manner.” “These things are uncomfortable but they need to be discussed,” he said, stating he had read the letter.
Lasseter also questioned Garvin’s salary. ”I like, most Belmont citizens, find these things out after the fact,” wondering why salary decisions by the Select Board “is never put to a vote in the town.” [Editor’s note: Garvin’s salary was approved by the Select Board in open session.]
“The money belongs to the town and we should have a say in it. It shouldn’t just be administered by leadership and then told us how we have to spend it,” he claimed.
Wrapping up, Lasseter reiterated his past claims that by voting for Epstein “the same financial mess that we’re in or likelihood of severe could happen sooner than later.” He also highlighted the town not having to accept “toxic relationships,” homeowners forced to sell homes due to high tax bills and . While saying he wants to put the town on a strong financial footing via common sense spending, Lasseter referenced a misleading assumption advanced by several CFRB members at public meetings that the Belmont Middle and High School building project is $17 million over budget.
“We have to do things better,” said Lasseter.
In a rebuttal to his opponents assertions, Epstein said the public sees “how complex the Select Board really is” and it will take more than “silver bullets” to resolve the issues facing the town. Epstein accused Lasseter of budgetary magical thinking, pointing to his opponent’s contention that current town financial challenges will be solved “with funds waiting for us on Beacon Hill.”
“Anyone with experience knows better,” he said. “We have to work on real solutions” based on research, listening to the public and reliable facts.
“Alleging that the middle and high school is $17 million over budget is not a fact, at all,” Epstein said.
“I urge you to consider that experience counts,” he said.