Three candidates are seeking two seats on the town's Board of Selectmen and they gathered Feb. 26 to answer questions from residents.

About two dozen residents attended the candidates' forum at Union Hall and asked questions focused on economic development, town employee management and finances. All three candidates already have served on the board and two are incumbents; each was allowed two minutes for an opening statement.

Meredith Ares served three years as a selectman before she was defeated in her re-election bid in 2016 by Mark Bradstreet. She said the past year has given her time to think about missed opportunities. Calling serving on the board an "extremely instructive experience," Ares begged residents' pardon if she seemed unfocused, noting she returned just that morning from a family function in Switzerland.

Incumbent Richard Desmarais said he's been a selectman for three or four terms but said he "did a lot of thinking yesterday" about where the town is going. He said town finances are an important focus for him, as is economic development.

"Financially, I think the town has done well," he said.

John "Jack" Merrithew also is an incumbent. He said he's served 12 of the past 20 years on the board and hopes to continue to see through plans already in place.

The trio offered a range of answers as to their stances on aligning the municipal and school budget votes. Ares said she thought it was a good idea, because both are budgets. Desmarais noted the town already considered the option and residents have not historically been in favor of combining the votes. He said there are pros and cons to weigh on both sides of the issue. Merrithew said he feels voters should answer that question.

When asked about challenges Searsport might face in the next three years, the candidates erred on the side of optimism with all three citing economic development as an area of focus. Additionally, Desmarais said downtown revitalization and green energy would be a change for good.

"We can't live on fossil fuel forever," he said.

Merrithew said low-impact businesses should be enticed to Searsport to help maintain the town's "small town flavor" and noted the need for a younger workforce as well.

Revitalization downtown — with "more attractive business and more vitality" — must be balanced with respect for existing businesses and the town's way of life, Ares said. She said positive attention and jobs will arrive with the establishment of Maine Ocean School, a marine-oriented magnet school planned for Searsport.

Each candidate spoke favorably about the planned school, though Desmarais said he wished the potential closure of Stockton Elementary School had been delayed so Maine Ocean School might make use of the space. Voters in RSU 20 still have to approve closure of the school and the Board of Directors has noted closing the school would not prevent it from being used for educational purposes.

Merrithew testified in favor of the magnet school bill as it passed through state government, he said, and he is "150 percent behind it." Ares called the school "a wonderful opportunity for children" and said she anticipates Maine Ocean School will be an economic boon to the town.

Mack Point

All three candidates weighed in on Grimmel Industries' annual junkyard permit renewal. The scrap metal company on Mack Point has been controversial, with many residents expressing concern about runoff from stockpiled metal.

"We had no reason not to give them that permit," Merrithew said, adding it is his understanding there have been no violations uncovered at the Searsport site by company, state or local officials. "If there's no problems, we have no reason not to renew."

Ares said she pushed for more stringent monitoring of the business during the initial application process. She said the Department of Environmental Protection failed the town before with inspections of GAC and said the town has latitude to investigate businesses.

"I believe we have an obligation to do that," Ares said.

Desmarais took the opposite stance and said a number of agencies already are providing oversight.

"I do not think the town should be going after a business," he said.

A similar question was asked about enforcement in the case of runoff or spills at Mack Point. Ares again emphasized the importance of monitoring. Desmarais noted companies that self-report "would be fools to look the other way." Merrithew pointed out the properties on Mack Point are privately owned and secured.

"Your Select Board is not a regulatory agency," he said.

Route 1 reconstruction

One resident wondered what board members might do to lessen the adverse impact on businesses when Maine Department of Transportation is rebuilding Route 1. The work is scheduled to begin sometime in 2018 and options being considered include rerouting traffic away from the downtown section.

"It's definitely going to be a challenge," Ares said. " … I don't have a magic bullet for that."

Desmarais said the work is in the hands of DOT and there's not a lot the town can do.

"It's something that has to be done," he said. " … We've got to grin and bear it."

Merrithew noted the board or its members cannot speak for DOT but encouraged residents to attend upcoming public meetings with DOT.

Sears Island

Sears Island development also was a hot topic for residents, with several questions posed regarding educational uses and development of the area. Candidates were taken by surprise when one resident spoke of a proposed education center on Sears Island.

"That's one rumor I haven't heard yet," Merrithew said, adding that, without details of the proposal, it was difficult to take a position. " … But Sears Island is an educational area."

Ares said the area is a wonderful resource for the community and Maine Ocean School students.

The question was the first Desmarais heard of a proposal as well, he said, but he praised those who have been advocating for Sears Island. He noted it would be important to nail down a financial source before construction of an education center could begin and said starting small is OK.

Regarding additional development of Sears Island, all three seemed to agree minimum development on the 600 conserved acres would be ideal. Ares said the area is well-used currently with the trails in place, but said she was happy to learn handicapped access is being created as well.

"I think its development should be handled very carefully," she cautioned.

Desmarais said he would be in favor of additional educational opportunities, trails and campsites. Merrithew said the other 300 acres slated for commercial development should welcome businesses that "could go out there without harm to the environment." He said he does not want to see any construction on the 600-acre area that is in conservation, not even a visitor's center.

Development in general also was discussed. Desmarais focused on windmill assembly as a low-impact business and praised part-time Economic Development Director Dean Bennett for his efforts on behalf of the town.

Merrithew emphasized the need for "development of all types." He said he would like to see downtown storefronts full and light industrial businesses established in town.

Ares said appropriate placement of businesses is key, along with giving primary consideration to existing businesses. She said the town should look to Switzerland for inspiration, where there is substantial industry but also significant tourism.

Dredging

Dredging Searsport Harbor has been a contentious issue for several years. Desmarais said dredging needs to be done and changes to the plan could result in land disposal of dredged materials rather than ocean disposal.

"This is not the animal it appeared to be," he said, adding dredging will not begin for at least another year.

Merrithew compared dredging the harbor to highway maintenance.

"Our harbor is part of our maritime transportation system," he said.

Merrithew verified disposal on land is being considered and pointed to a disposal site near the town transfer station.

Ares applauded the two for publicly stating the changes.

"I just learned a lot," she said. "But that's the outcome I'd like to see."

Taxes

Gov. Paul LePage has proposed eliminating the state income tax and one resident wanted to know where the candidates stand on that proposal and its effect on property taxes. Merrithew said he feels the state is trying to push the tax burden to municipalities. Ares said she is opposed to eliminating income tax because it is the fairest tax. Sales and property taxes are the most damaging to the poor and elderly, she said.

Desmarais said, "It takes money to run a town, it's a matter of which pocket you take it out of." He said he supports raising the sales tax.

Town policies, employee rights

Questions regarding town policies, employee discipline and rights were skirted to some extent.

"We're on the edge of executive session stuff and I don't want to cross a line," Desmarais said.

Merrithew said personnel policies are being gone over by the town manager.

"I trust his good judgment," he said.

Ares said the policies in place when she was a member of the board seemed adequate.

Another question asked if the candidates support the Constitution and Bill of Rights and if municipal employees give up those rights.

Ares drew a laugh when she said she hasn't seen anything in the Constitution she disapproves of.

"Obviously there's something going on I don't know about," she said.

Desmarais said employees work for the boss and there are set rules to follow.

"If you don't like the rules, you should look for another job," he said. "But I think (the question) is taking it farther from what's happening in Searsport."

Merrithew said he took an oath at 18 years old to support and defend the Constitution and has not wavered.

Public safety

The last few questions were directed at specific candidates. One asked if Ares intended to "get rid" of public safety services including the fire department and ambulance service. Ares said a rumor was started to that effect last year and said the rumor is not true.

She said it is her personal opinion that the police department is "out of proportion to the size of the town" and uses too many resources but said, "Searsport has a wonderful resource" in its volunteer firefighters and ambulance crews.

Accomplishments

Desmarais and Merrithew were asked to share their accomplishments as selectmen. Desmarais said he is proudest of the efforts to secure a grant for military surplus vehicles. He said he'd like to see more town vehicles painted in the same scheme for a more professional appearance.

Merrithew said the most recent has been his busiest term, with Maine Ocean School, the maritime heritage weekend and his own presentation to the historical society.

"If I am re-elected, I plan to be equally as busy," he said.

The two incumbents also weighed in on concerns that a town flag and song may have taken precedence over larger issues.

"Without a doubt (there are larger issues)," Merrithew said. " … But it is equally important to promote our town any way we can."

Desmarais agreed and said different members of the board have different strengths and interests.

Each of the three was allowed closing remarks, as well.

Ares singled out the need for diversity on the board. "I think it's very important for everybody to be represented," she said. "I care very deeply about this community and have not always agreed with other members of the board."

Desmarais continued his thoughts on the military surplus grants and touted the benefits of establishing a tax increment financing district.

Merrithew said there are a lot of plans on the table he'd like to see through. "It's been an honor and a privilege to represent my neighbors," he said. "There's a lot of satisfaction in serving."