To elect and serve: The short, agreeable road to City Hall

Vyto Starinskas / Rutland Herald photo

In a city so notorious for its potholes, you’d think the road to the Board of Aldermen would be a little bumpier. Yet, again this year, the contest, while robust in number, was lacking in excitement.

Now, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That, for the most part, our local politics have been able to hold negativity at bay is something we should be proud of. Certainly, outside the rail, rancor and vitriol rear their heads on occasion — all towns have their naysayers — but the board, at least through the last several terms has managed to work together with respect if not always accord.

But come on; it’s campaign season. Where’s the fire? Where’s the feistiness?

After two forums and scores of column inches in the Herald, we’ve learned that these nine candidates are earnest in their concern for the city despite having varying approaches to how the board and the city should operate, and not much else.

I’m not saying I want to see the candidates resort to the ugly mudslinging that has sullied our national political campaigns, but a livelier discussion of the issues where candidates strive to differentiate themselves from each other would benefit voters.

In recent years, candidates have approached their campaigns differently. Time was a couple dozen signs and a familiar name was all that was required. In a recent column, I noted the increased use of social media. In the last two cycles, we’ve seen a few Facebook groups and pages, as well as Websites, but none of it amounted to much of a shift in how local campaigning works.

Candidate forums, PEGTV’s video profiles and Herald coverage (including letters to the editor) are still the best ways for a new candidate to get known.

But is that enough? Some candidates think so. Indeed, of the eight candidates running (Alderman Christopher Robinson is running unopposed for a one-year seat), only Chris Siliski is in full-on campaign mode. Incumbents David Allaire, Sharon Davis and William Notte have signs placed around the city, but understandably do not feel the need to do much more. They are all known quantities that are more or less regarded favorably by voters.

Of the non-incumbents, some have signs out and some don’t. For all I know, they could be going door-to-door and relying on word of mouth. But they are doing little to introduce themselves to the city at large.

Following the Creative Economy’s candidate forum on Feb. 22 (of which I was a co-organizer), Alderman Notte commented on how the process has changed over the past few cycles — for the good. He enjoys forums (this year there were two), and would welcome more. Notte thinks the increased public attention will bring out better candidates. With more time in the spotlight, you have to do you homework and know the issues or else your lack of knowledge will become apparent quickly.

This year, I have followed the campaigns closely, though, in an unofficial capacity. My colleagueGordon Dritschilo has the privilege of being the Herald’s City Hall reporter; a job he undertakes with the zeal of a high school civics teacher. (I highly recommend his blog, Writing on the Hall, which is informative and, at times, pretty darn funny.)

For my part, I’ve attended the two candidates’ forums, and provided the all-important live-tweet reports for all of Rutland’s eight Twitter users. The forums were a mixed bag. For the incumbents, this venue is old hat by now. It’s more of a chance to get to know newcomers Gary Donahue, Francis Patrick Lebo, John Mattison as well as to see how midterm appointee Siliski performs in his first official campaign.

Also on the dais for these forums was perennial candidate Daniel White, a candidate who’s run so many times, he deserves a seat just for the effort.

Content-wise, the forums were fairly vanilla: economic development, the future of recreation, infrastructure, blighted properties, pension funds. For the most part, the candidates hit the right notes, and, despite minor differences, there were no moments that could be called heated.

Still, there were some fun moments during the two forums, some of which seemed to be tailored for my 140-character medium. One such moment was Davis’ naming of the newly created committee to address blighted city properties. In the first, forum she called it the Blighted Committee, a name both Gordon and myself hoped would stick. By the second forum, she had modified it to the Blighted Property Steering Committee, which is more accurate but decidedly less fun.

I had trouble picking my favorite candidate performance during the forums. It’s three-way tie between Gary Donahue and Aldermen Robinson and Notte — all for very different reasons.

Donahue is hard not to like. Even when he came up short on questions — more than once he plainly replied, “I don’t know,” about a particular issue — he redeemed himself by asserting that just because he does not know something today doesn’t mean he won’t know it tomorrow, adding that he is an inquisitive, “non-dogmatic” person who likes to understand an issue before rushing to a decision. While his laidback attitude bristled some voters in the room — when asked what he brought to the board, he jokingly said “nothing,” before citing the above qualities — I found his irreverence and earnestness appealing.

Notte takes the cake for being the ever-thoughtful politician who never punts on an answer. That’s not to say other candidates were deliberately deflective; it’s just that Notte consistently provided nuance and detail in his answers. (Notte also gets the prize for tweeting at me during the first forum to express his disappointment that I had not tweeted anything about how great his shirt/tie combo were.)

Robinson, too brought clarity on issues, and made a strong showing despite technically not even needing to be there. Running unopposed, he could have skipped the forums altogether. Instead he participated, albeit with a bit of a laidback swagger and sense of humor. During the rapid fire round of the first forum, which asked the ever-divisive question “Mounties or Raiders?,” the Chicago-born transplant Robinson responded, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” It could have been a gaffe, but his deadpan delivery got laughs.

Another unintentional bit of humor came during the second forum when Lebo, by all indicators a fairly religious man, answered a question about lowering taxes by quipping that we will be talking about taxes until the Lord sets foot back on earth. From any other candidate, I might have taken it as rhetorical, but I’m pretty sure he meant it.

Nonetheless, it got a chuckle out of the crowd and brought some levity to the otherwise dull and repetitive series of reponses. (Later that evening, Notte followed up with a tweet reading, “For the record, after the Rapture, I’ll still be here to govern.” In Notte we trust.)

So while this year may not have been a political thrill ride, we are seeing some positives. More people are getting involved, and with more attention being paid to them, we are challenging these candidates to bring their best.

Indeed, questions during the second forum prompted the incumbents to comment positively on how the dynamics of the board have changed over the last several years. Youth and experience were touted as the most noticeable changes; as was a lack of female board members, which incumbents — especially, Alderwoman Davis — hoped would change in coming years.


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