11 Vie for 4 At-Large Seats in Claremont City Council Race
Claremont city council candidates for four at-large seats are, top row (left to right): Thomas Burnham, Cindy Densmore, John Hamel and Kyle Messier. Bottom row: Keith Raymond, James Reed, John Simonds and Joel Tremblay. Not pictured are Gary Cloutier, John Kinton and Reginald Johnson. (Courtesy photographs)
The City Council race for four at-large seats on the nine-member council is wide open this year with three incumbents, one of whom was recently appointed, joining a former councilor who resigned in July and seven newcomers on the Nov. 5 ballot. The four top vote-getters among the 11 candidates will win seats on the council.
Claremont — In the Nov. 5 election for two-years terms on the City Council, there are 11 candidates seeking four at-large seats. One issue that most of the candidates mentioned that they want to address is high taxes. The municipal rate is $12.85 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, which is roughly the same it was in 2007 and 2008, though it fell to $11.86 in 2009 and was $11.94 in 2010. The overall rate, including schools and county, has risen from $32.90 in 2007 to $34.37 in 2012. What follows are short profiles of each of the candidates and their positions.
Tremblay, 36, an institutional maintenance mechanic with the state of Vermont, said he will bring a “fresh perspective and positive attitude” to the council. High taxes, dilapidated and abandoned buildings, infrastructure improvements and the need for more industry are issues Tremblay would focus on if elected. “When we find a way to clean up the city and make it more presentable to expanding industry, they will be more willing to invest in the city,” said Tremblay, who applied for one of the two council vacancies in August. “If we can make the city more attractive to industry, and more businesses move to Claremont, this will help stabilize the tax base.”
Tremblay said he would have backed the city’s new community center because of the age and condition of the old facilities. It is a “gem” for the city that has brought compliments from residents and those in other towns, he said, adding there is no money now to fix the outdoor pool but the city could revisit the issue if a surplus is created.
Generally speaking, Tremblay supports the direction of the city, noting the proposed hot water district that has been presented to the council by a private investor is appealing. However, voters tell him they are worried about high taxes and the need for road repairs. “I feel the best way to help both issues is to expand the economic base in the city and find a way to bring in more businesses and industry,” Tremblay said. “I feel I have the attitude and ability to help drive the city in a positive direction. I am willing to take on any challenge and I feel no matter how complicated an issue, there is a solution.”
Densmore, 61, a self-described “stay-at-home housewife,” sees the need for dramatic change in the direction of the city. She cites high taxes, the need for more voter input on decisions and more jobs and businesses in the city as key issues. “There is nothing the present administration is doing that I should support,” Densmore said. “I did not (support) the new community center. Taxes going up again; too much money is being spent.”
Densmore, a volunteer reader at Bluff Elementary School, said she thinks the city is on the wrong path. “Something has to change, and quickly,” she said, adding that she supports the ballot question to form a charter commission.
Residents moving, houses for sale, overspending, empty buildings like the former Rite Aid and Lowe’s, are signs of this need for change, Densmore said. “They are not making this city a place to raise a family or buy a house. The voters are not happy. You can only step on their toes so long and they will fight back.”
Messier, 57, a three-term council incumbent, is a dental hygienist at the Community Dental Care in Claremont and has served as chairwoman of Main Street Claremont and as a police commissioner. “Our biggest challenge remains that of growing the city’s industrial and commercial tax base in order to lower the tax burden of our residential property owners,” Messier said.
She has heard several issues from voters. “The topics discussed are consistent and that is why I have personally chosen to focus my efforts on economic development to lower our taxes, neighborhood stabilization, lowering our welfare budget and developing a better collaboration with the schools in my next term in office,” Messier said. She points to recent council achievements including the switch to a fiscal year budget that saved $125,000, a five-year capital improvement plan, clean audits of the city’s finances the last several years and reconstruction of Drapers Corner intersection.
Messier has recommended the city look at the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program and its grant opportunities. “I will be aggressive in ensuring that the administration follow up with applying for federal grants to help remove blighted properties and rehabilitate the buildings that can be saved,” she said.
Concerning welfare, Messier wants the city to work more closely with other communities to share the financial burden when residents arrive here because of available services.
She supported the bond for the new community center because residents said in surveys they wanted new facilities, the city received a $3 million donation, interest were low and the construction climate competitive. With 4,100 members, she said, “It is clear that the community center is an asset to the city and will be one more tool in our economic development toolbox going forward.”
Burnham, who resigned suddenly from the council this summer after a nonpublic council session, is hoping voters will look past his still unexplained departure and return him to the council in the Nov. 5 election. The minutes from that meeting remained sealed, which prevents council members from discussing what transpired. In a letter to the Valley News last week, Burnham said he resigned for “personal reasons” and said he did not want to make important decisions about the city while he was “undergoing a lot of stress.”
Burnham, 70, worked for the city’s water department for 10 years and volunteers at Arrowhead Ski area. He said the city has made progress, and to continue that it needs to reduce taxes. “One way that might help to do this would be to sell properties that are vacant such as the industrial parks, lots and city lots if possible,” he said.
He cites the new community center, which he supported as a councilor because residents he spoke with favored it by 2-1 majority, and the switch to a fiscal year as two notable council achievements. “I do support the current administration and the direction in which the city is headed,” Burnham said.
Voters have told him they would like to see a year with no property tax increase and, for his part, he wants city government more responsive to residents’ inquiries and believes the city needs to find new revenue for schools and roads.
“I’ve tried to get a balanced budget (no tax increase) but could not get anyone to go along. I look forward to putting items on the city agenda which will create a better place to live and work and try to lower taxes.”
A former Claremont police officer for 12 years, Simonds, 43, is a chief deputy with the county sheriff. He was appointed to the council in August to fill two vacancies. He said conversations with voters have been about the controversy over the outdoor pool, loss of businesses, crime and drug activity and high taxes.
“It is obvious to me that taxes are a major factor in every business and homeowner’s life for their happiness in Claremont. I believe the council needs to keep these people as a top consideration when making decisions. There is however a cost required to keep the city running and there needs to be a balance struck between the two.”
A lack of businesses and jobs coming to the city, the closure of Lowe’s and Wheelabrator, which employed 25, and a large number of homes for sale are indicative of the challenges facing the city, he said. “I believe advertising is one approach to try and attract businesses.”
A supporter of the city’s current direction, Simonds said he will bring an open mind to the council and listen to all sides of an issue “I believe in doing the best I can to help make decisions that will improve the city but while being conscious about keeping taxes as low as possible. I also believe citizens need to be vocal in how they want to see Claremont move and elected officials should listen when making decisions. “I pledge to the citizens that I will be a voice for them and vote in accordance with what is best for Claremont. I see a lot of potential for this city and want to do my part to keep moving forward.”
Cloutier, 54, a retail associate at a co-op in the Upper Valley, said he would focus on business development. “I would like to see in the city a lot more small business startups and ramp-ups and entrepreneurial activities, especially since these are the engines for the local economy.”
Cloutier, who worked on two Ron Paul campaigns for president, said he opposes the current administration and would not have supported the bond for the new community center. In light of the recession and increase in health insurance tax burdens, Cloutier said, he is “much more willing to show fiscal restraint and be patient, not recklessly speculating on future city revenues.” Among the problems he cites are a lack of citizen participation, no easy access to public information and not much time to voice concerns in public forums. Further, road repairs are needed and the cost of living here is forcing many to try to sell their homes, he said. Cloutier sees an administration out of touch, insulated from the average citizen and the poor. “I’m speaking more here for the dignity of work,” he said, meaning more local jobs and keeping what is earned. Cloutier said he will be a voice for all citizens.
He declined to provide a photograph.
Reed, 32, is the furniture retail manager at Big Lots on Washington Street. “I am a concerned citizen. This is why I am running, for change, to make us, Claremont, a better community. All the puzzle pieces are here, it’s a matter of placing them where they belong to move this city forward for our citizens.”
Reed said the city needs to listen more and the council to start working “to make this community prosper.”
“The people place us there to be their voice for them. Together is where we will make Claremont once again a great place to be on the map.”
Reed said he is not certain how he would have voted on the bond for the new community center without complete information but is glad that the people are enjoying it. He also said he supports efforts to reopen the outdoor pool, if it is possible. “I am hearing concerns from citizens and local businesses. We the people and community have been forgotten. The little people, we need to have our voices heard as well. It comes back to us. We place this into the hands of the City Council to be that voice and they have fallen short of that responsibility.
“Now is the time for change and to hold people accountable for their actions or lack of, and help Claremont.”
Raymond has owned and operated Claremont Glassworks for nearly 40 years. He has been on the council since 2001, is a member of the Claremont Development Authority, was a call firefighter for 14 years and recently helped rewrite city zoning law. “The No. 1 major obstacle that we face as councilors is our taxes, or as most of our citizens say, is our tax rate,” he said.
Raymond said expanding the tax base is the most effective way to lower the tax rate as the city has produced lean, responsible budgets. “As a councilor I would continue to ask our city manager to work with our economic development department and the state of New Hampshire to find ways to bring business and industry to the city of Claremont.”
He is “proud” to have voted for the new community center, calling it one of the council’s “biggest accomplishments” but on the down side he cited the absence of contracts with some city unions as a negative. “I feel it hurts the city when our city employees go years without raises.”
Raymond said the switch to a fiscal year budget, reconstruction of Drapers Corner and plans for the intersection of North and Main streets are other recent council accomplishments.
On welfare, he said he hopes the city can receive money from surrounding communities whose residents arrive here because of available services. “I would like to see the city get out of the real estate business. The city owns far too many empty lots that should be turned over to a firm that can market them appropriately.”
High taxes. For Hamel, that is where the city’s problems lie. “They always agree with the city manager and vice versa,” Hamel said of the council. “Taxes are way too high and the city manager and council don’t do anything to help. “They need to work together and hash things out and come up with ideas to help the taxpayers in Claremont.”
As an example, Hamel said, he would have opposed the new community center because there are too many things left unfinished. “Not right now,” he said about the center, which opened in March. “Get other things done first, like the roads, before starting new projects.”
The council passed a $5.7 million bond in September 2011 for the $10 million center. It also received a $3 million donation and most of the land from Claremont Savings Bank.
Hamel, 70, worked for Joy Manufacturing and Sturm, Ruger. This is his first run for public office. He applied for the council vacancies following the resignation of Burnham and Andy Austin.Hamel said he has spoken to voters and hears over and over again that taxes need to come down. “That is the big issue. I know and I understand.”
Kinton, 50, agrees with those who say taxes are at the heart of Claremont’s problems. “I know too many people who have lost their homes because of property taxes,” said Kinton. “We need to get businesses here in town.”
Kinton said he also would like to see the city eliminate the position of city manager, though he noted it is not because he opposes the current manager, Guy Santagate. “We don’t need a city manager. We are not a city. We just need a mayor.”
Kinton, who said he is on disability, had a restraining order placed against him by the courts on Sept. 11 after a relative alleged to police that Kinton had threatened her. The restraining order remains in effect for at least a year.
Kinton had applied for one of the seats to replace Burnham and Austin, who also resigned, but withdrew his name before the council selected Carolyn Towle and Simonds in August. Kinton did not provide a photograph.
The 11th at-large candidate, Reginald Johnson, did not respond to repeated telephone messages left for him.
In other City Council races, Mayor James Neilsen, Assistant Mayor Vic Bergeron, Ward I councilor Carolyn Towle and Ward II candidate Charlene Lovett are running uncontested. Chris Irish held the fourth at-large seat but he recently resigned because a family member had applied for a city job.
Ward III incumbent Nick Koloski is facing a challenge from Brent Ferland and Walter White.
Patrick O’Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.