September 18, 2014

Selectboard candidates both vow to be voice of independence

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By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Andy Mikell and Kermit LaClair can each claim deep roots in Williston. Mikell grew up in town and moved back in 1987 following graduation from law school, while LaClair has lived in Williston for more than 40 years. Both have witnessed dramatic changes in their hometown, and both are largely pleased with the evolution.

Now they hope to participate directly in Williston’s governance the next three years. Mikell and LaClair are running against each other for an open Selectboard seat on the March 1 ballot.

Mikell, a lawyer, previously served five years on the Williston School Board. A self-described “a middle-of-the-road” Democrat, Mikell was appointed to the Selectboard in October to fill an interim post vacated when Mike Kanfer resigned.

LaClair, the Williston School District’s buildings and grounds supervisor, is the acting town constable, which requires him to serve court papers occasionally. LaClair said he is a Republican.

Mikell said he decided to seek the interim spot on the Selectboard partly because he wanted to better understand town issues. He said his short time on the board has already given him a new perspective.

An example, Mikell said, is the topic of sewer and subdivision regulations. He referred to the board’s recent discussions of proposed changes to the rules as “exciting,” because they could promote affordable housing and guide future development.

From the outset of his interim stint on the Selectboard, Mikell has demonstrated a willingness to speak forcefully on topics — sometimes against the tide of the rest of the board.

For instance, Mikell made a vigorous argument in January against a proposal to remove $27,000 from the municipal budget for the demolition of the Workers in Wood building in the village. Mikell said town residents had already decided years ago that the building should be razed, and he said the board was trying to “artificially” reduce the budget to make it more appealing to voters. Mikell was on the losing end of a 4-1 vote, with the majority deciding to keep the building. LaClair believes the building should be used instead of demolished.

“Because all of this stuff is new to me, I tend to ask a lot of questions and maybe look at the issues a little differently,” Mikell said. “There were a lot of 4-1 and 3-2 votes on the School Board when I was there. That might make me a bit of a wild card, but mostly I think I’m just doing a different analysis of some things.”

LaClair promises to be similarly opinionated. He said he believes the current Selectboard has largely done a good job of overseeing the town’s services and keeping spending subdued, but he said he has disagreed with several of the board’s decisions in recent years.

For instance, LaClair said he was prompted to run for the Selectboard in part because of the board’s approval — before Mikell was appointed — of interim regulations for the town’s Agricultural-Rural District. LaClair, who lives on farmland off Vermont Route 2A in the district, worries that the existing regulations and proposed permanent rules will severely limit the ability of landowners to build on their property.

“We’re getting out of control on the controls,” LaClair said. “We shouldn’t take away people’s rights.”

LaClair also said the Selectboard made a mistake last month when it voted 5-0 to approve providing $147,300 in funding to help the Chittenden Country Transportation Authority continue a bus line that travels through town. Mikell was among the board members who voted for the funding.

LaClair said too few Williston residents use the bus lines to justify the cost.

LaClair said he wants to add some diversity to the Selectboard. He said he is not referring to political diversity, though, if elected, he would be the only Republican on the board. He said he instead means a diversity of work experience.

He said he spent years constructing roads and buildings in the U.S. Air Force. LaClair said that experience would benefit the board and give it a different perspective as it considers development issues.

Both candidates pointed to the continuing discussion and study of the Circumferential Highway, a portion of which would run through Williston, as a topic of critical importance to the town.

Mikell said he believes the Selectboard should stay attuned to the Circ’s environmental impact study review process and contribute to the public discussion of the project when appropriate. He said he has an open mind about what the ultimate solution should be.

LaClair, meanwhile, simply believes the Circ should be built as soon as possible. In fact, he said the Circ should have been built 20 years ago. He said an alternative proposal recently floated by a coalition of environmental groups that would include installing a series of roundabouts along Route 2A is not a practical solution.

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