Russell, Morris vie for Topsham Board of Selectmen
TOPSHAM — Donald Russell and James Morris are running for the Board of Selectmen seat currently held by Michelle Derr, who has chosen not to seek re-election.
Dorothy Gardner, meanwhile, is running unopposed for re-election to the Regional School Unit 75 Board of Directors.
The term of office for both the School Board and Board of Selectmen is three years.
Russell and Morris each have deep ties to Topsham, and both said careful development in the coming years is a significant issue. They also said they have concerns about the budget impact of a potential cut in excise tax revenue, which voters statewide will decide next month.
Morris, 23, has spent his life in Topsham and graduated from St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., where he earned a degree in political science. He said he is running on the basis that everyone should give back to the community, and decided that public service in an elected position would be a good way to make use of his abilities.
Morris ran for a seat on the board late last year after Paul Bennett, who won the position in the November 2008 election, opted not to serve. Morris finished third out of six candidates.
Morris is employed at L.L. Bean, and worked for the mayor of Manchester as an intern while in college.
He serves on the ad-hoc Topsham Government Improvement Committee, which was created following the defeat at the polls of a proposed Town Charter. The committee's goal is to choose aspects of the charter that can most appropriately be applied to Topsham's current form of government.
"We're hoping to be done fairly soon, but it's always an ongoing process," Morris said. "New ideas pop up and other ideas are rejected."
He said the type of development and growth Topsham has seen is a key issue. "I'm all for development, but I think development needs to be done in a responsible manner," Morris said. "We need to make sure that we're not spending too much. ... We need to make sure things are much more streamlined."
Morris noted that Topsham saw significant development in the late 1990s, but that it has led to "more congestion than we had intended. Business is great, it's good to have business, but I feel we need to make sure that we bring in local guys as well."
He said he is also an advocate of open space, and that Topsham should try to preserve its farming history.
"We don't have all that many farms in the town anymore," Morris said, "and I'd just love to see the old farmhouses kept as farms and turned into working farms, rather than developers coming in and putting up cookie-cutter homes on the property."
Morris said he is leaning toward opposing the auto excise tax reduction question, which would cut the tax by an average of 55 percent on vehicles less than 6 years old and exempt hybrid and highly fuel-efficient and alternative-energy vehicles from sales tax and three years of excise tax.
"It's definitely a benefit for the people who own the vehicles that fall under this legislation," Morris said, adding that the tax cut would not benefit enough people.
He also pointed out that "we need to be careful in considering how the town is going to get money for projects in the future with less income coming into the town coffers."
Morris suggested that it might be wise to expand the five-member Board of Selectmen to seven seats, but that "before we'd even do that I almost feel that districting the board would be a better way to improve the Board of Selectmen, simply because if you do that ... you're responsible to a specific area."
He said he thinks everyone on the board "does a great job," but that he has heard complaints that members will pick and choose issues from all over town, rather than being responsible to specific areas with specific needs.
"And I think if we had people responsible to specific areas, we'd see a lot more accountability in the board," Morris said.
Morris, who if elected would be Topsham's youngest selectman, said he represents a new mode of thinking.
"I'm young, obviously, but I feel that ... times have changed," he said. "And I think that I represent a fresh alternative."
Having lived in the same Winter Street house since the age of 6 months, Russell, 72, is a former chairman of the Board of Selectmen who has also served on a variety of other boards: the Planning Board from 2006 to the present, the School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors from 2006 to 2008, the Local Redevelopment Authority for the Topsham Navy Annex from 2005 to 2008, and the Sagadahoc Budget Advisory Committee from 2002 to 2008. He was on the Board of Selectmen from 2002 to 2005.
His town service resume also includes 33 years on the Board of Appeals, which he chaired for 28 years.
Russell is married with two sons and three grandchildren. Now semi-retired, his career has included six years with the U.S. Army, 10 years as field supervisor for the Ralston Purina Co., 20 years as owner and operator of a poultry farm and 37 years as owner and operator of residential rental properties.
"I've served on a continuous basis for 40-plus years in the town, so I have sort of a broad range of knowledge based on what's going on in town and how it's composed and operates," Russell said. "... You draw on all those back experiences and knowledge that you bring with you, and it helps the board. ... It helps to have some back-type of recollection and continuity."
The 2011 closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station, and its impact on housing and the regional and local economy, is an issue that concerns Russell, along with economic and community development.
"There are certain reasons to have development, and there are places where you don't have development; there are good reasons for that," he said. "You have to strike a balance there. And I think we've been very fortunate in town, we've dealt with ordinances ... we've had the basis to stop runaway development, and have it localized in places where we have designed it for, for years and years."
Russell noted that while municipal expenses are always increasing, revenues coming into town and school budgets are declining. "The state, they balance their books as much as they can on the backs of how much they can pass down to the communities, and that is starting to be felt really severely," he said.
Russell said he opposes the excise tax question, in part because not everyone would benefit from the reduction – people with older cars would receive no benefit.
"The lack of excise tax coming into town is going to have a great, great impact on the funding of the road budget," he said, "because we do put that towards the repair ... and the maintenance of the roads."
As a result, the money would come out of road funds, or would have to be tacked onto property taxes, Russell said.
"I don't think it's fair for one neighbor to be getting a reduction in his overall tax package at the expense of his next-door neighbor having to pay it in property taxes," he added.
No matter who is on the Board of Selectmen, Russell said, it will be difficult to address mounting town expenses.
He said another issue that concerns him is a lack of public participation. "We need to certainly involve the citizens and find out what they want," Russell said. "... There have to be ways of getting them involved in what's going on."
He added that "the burden of whether a town really flourishes or works right is on the citizens. You can't do the work for them; they need to be part of the process."
Fairness and civility are among his attributes, Russell said, as well as commitment. He said he has a nearly perfect attendance record on the boards on which he has served.
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.