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Big-picture problems or day-to-day details: Town government priorities shape Hartford Selectboard race

  • Hartford Selectboard candidates up for election on March 2, 2021, are, top row from left: Jeff Arnold, Dennis Brown, Lannie Collins, Julia Dalphin, Rachel Edens, Dan Fraser and Tony Gove. Bottom row from left: John Hall, Michael Hoyt, Wayne Kendall, Sandra Mariotti, Brett Mayfield, Remington Nevin and Ally Tufenkjian. (Courtesy and Valley News photographs)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/20/2021 9:44:08 PM
Modified: 2/20/2021 10:19:46 PM

HARTFORD — Pushing for change on big-picture social issues? Or narrowing in on the nitty-gritty, such as road repairs?

When Hartford voters cast their ballots this Town Meeting season, they will be deciding between two broad visions for what should drive town governance, embodied in a divide among the 14 candidates running for five open Selectboard seats.

For some candidates, the vision is focused on tackling large-scale systemic issues that nevertheless directly impact their neighbors, such as the availability of affordable housing, addressing implicit biases and making Hartford a more welcoming place.

Others are prioritizing nuts and bolts: repairing roads and completing infrastructure projects, such as building a new town pool or reopening a shortcut to downtown White River Junction to two-way traffic.

Ally Tufenkjian, a 27-year-old White River Junction resident running for one of the seats, falls in the former category. Tackling issues like racism, the town’s ability to respond to mental health crises and housing inequality “will impact how we’ll thrive in the immediate and distant future,” she said.

“It’s no secret that downtown White River Junction is gentrifying, and with gentrification comes displacement and pushing marginalized people out and away,” Tufenkjian said via email. “In an ideal world, we find the balance between necessary growth that feeds our economy while also providing all people with the support and resources needed to thrive here.”

Meanwhile, Lannie Collins, 55, a veteran, former volunteer with the Hartford Fire Department and Quechee-area resident who is running for a two-year seat on the board, said he believes the town has drifted away from “having a base of taking care of our infrastructure within Hartford,” adding that he would like to bring that issue back to the forefront.

“We in Hartford seem to have forgotten that we have issues that have been neglected, either to not having the money and kicking the can down the road or simply ignoring the problem because the Selectboard has felt that there were more pressing issues to deal with,” said Collins.

Though the social and structural issues are not mutually exclusive, they reveal a divide that has been growing in the town of Hartford in recent years.

Tufenkjian wrote that she is running in a slate along with Julia Dalphin, John Hall, and current Selectboard members Rachel Edens and Dan Fraser, the board chair.

They represent more of a progressive faction, as did outgoing Selectboard member Simon Dennis and former board member Alicia Barrow, whose seat is open after she stepped down recently, citing “blatant bigotry” in town. Selectboard member Emma Behrens, who was appointed last year, is not running.

Collins said he is not part of any formal slate, but some of the other candidates are also longtime Hartford residents who say they want to focus on infrastructure upgrades and repairs.

In a late January Facebook post, former Selectboard member Mike Morris identified a group of candidates he called “Hartford Strong” as Sandra Mariotti, Tony Gove, Wayne Kendall, Dennis Brown and Collins, saying that combined, those candidates have “over 200 years living in Hartford.”

Hartford’s divide

The pull between the two approaches to local politics has been evident in issues like the much-debated Welcoming Hartford Ordinance, which prohibits Hartford police and other town officials from sharing a person’s citizenship information with U.S. immigration authorities.

Other social debates have revolved around whether to establish a wellness coordinator position to respond to mental health crises and how to address the issue of homelessness in the community.

Even as the board and residents grappled with those larger social questions, other residents pressed to repair and reopen a link to Fairview Terrace, which connects a residential neighborhood to downtown White River Junction, to two-way traffic; and whether to move forward with a $3.2 million Sherman Manning Pool project that voters approved at Town Meeting last year.

Some candidates like Quechee resident Remington Nevin, 46, an Army veteran and epidemiologist who runs a local consulting practice for veterans, say the divide comes down to an issue of political partisanship.

He said via email that “progressive partisan causes” are important on the state and federal level, but contrary to the ideals of “traditional Vermont town government.”

“Our voters know there is no progressive way to fix a pothole in West Hartford, or repair a bridge in Quechee. There is no progressive way to fight a fire in Hartford, or provide emergency medical services to an ill or injured resident in Wilder,” Nevin wrote. “There is the right way — the traditional Vermont way — and the wrong way. And for too long, the Selectboard has been choosing the wrong way.”

Kendall, 52, a contractor from White River Junction, said he wants the Selectboard to “work for the townspeople” rather than for a “personal agenda.”

“As a small town, we can’t fix the world, we can’t fix the state of Vermont,” Kendall said. “We have to fix the problems in town.”

The 53-year-old Mariotti has also questioned how the board works for the residents of Hartford. Mariotti, a former Selectboard member and nurse care manager at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said it’s important for the board to not “micromanage or take control over town employee responsibilities.”

“I want to make certain that we respect and keep things that make us who we are as a town, our foundation, while we move forward to make Hartford interesting and welcoming to people from different backgrounds and experiences,” Mariotti said via email.

Members of the more progressive slate of candidates hold fast to the belief that Hartford needs to continue confronting systemic issues like racism and wealth inequality.

“This country and each of its small towns cannot survive thinking they can remain rooted in the past. Our past consists of systemic racism, patriarchy, and a society that was specifically geared to embrace white men,” Dalphin, 53, of Quechee, wrote. Dalphin, who works as director of quality and safety at Norris Cotton Cancer Center, said the town and country “needs to shift and embrace the entire spectrum of people alive. We need to recognize that change is truly the only constant.”

Edens, 41, of White River Junction, said in her experience, the idea of a “traditional Hartford” represents a “return to racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, willing ignoring of poverty and the unhoused and generally an exclusion of the ‘other.’ ”

“My policy standpoint is one of equity, justice, education and uplift for those who need it most,” she wrote.

A desire to be united

As the divide has grown in Hartford, so have the tense public comment sessions at Selectboard meetings, which have included hours of debate over things like the legality of the Welcoming Hartford Ordinance or the drawbacks of moving ahead with the pool plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In many cases, the discussion has spilled out online, with residents frequently writing Facebook posts in Hartford-focused social media forums about everything from creating a sidewalk on Sykes Mountain Avenue to the availability of homeless shelters in Hartford.

Despite the occasionally heated debates, many of the candidates for Selectboard say they’re striving for a more united town.

“The local scene seems to mirror the national scene — there are and will always be people at both ends of the political spectrum,” Fraser, the board chair and part-owner of Dan & Whit’s in Norwich, said in an email last week. “What people do not realize is when we actually listen to each other, respect each other, we can find common ground.”

Brown, 60, a longtime Selectboard member who stepped down last spring citing issues of transparency on the board, said in an email that he considers himself “somewhere in the middle of left and right.”

“My hopes would be to have less of the ‘us vs. them mentality.’ My main hope is to see our Selectboard stay focused on town business,” Brown wrote.

Others, like Jeff Arnold, 67, of Wilder, who manages a daycare center with his wife, straddle the line that separates the two sides. Arnold, a former School Board member who is on the ballot for two different seats, wrote that he supports the Welcoming Ordinance, the implementation of a wellness coordinator and supports the idea of board members doing a “self study” of their own innate biases and privileges.

But he said he also supports solving questions of parking downtown, resolving the Fairview Terrace issue and helping the replacement of the Sherman Manning Pool project move forward smoothly.

Similarly, Town Health Officer Brett Mayfield said he plans to “listen to old and new ideas that move Hartford forward” if elected, and cited infrastructure, supporting local businesses and affordable housing as issues that he would focus on.

Mike Hoyt, 44, a human resources consultant at Dartmouth College and West Hartford resident, said he believes that the “divide between ‘new’ and ‘old’ Hartford” is somewhat overblown.

“In the end, we are all residents of Hartford and want to do what’s best for the town,” Hoyt said, adding that if elected, he plans to be open to all opinions. “I hope that by listening and being transparent I can bridge the divides in Hartford.”

Hall and Gove did not respond to interview requests. Hall, former chairman of the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion, said in a letter published in the Valley News Wednesday that he wants to strive “for building a fair, equitable and transparent local government.”

Gove said in a Facebook post on his candidate page that he is an Army veteran who will bring teamwork skills, honesty and compassion to the job, adding, “I want everyone to feel they are being heard.”

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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