March 4 Town Election – Selectboard 2-year seat: Joel Klein

Selectboard offers new opportunity for TV producer

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Joel Klein chose Williston when he decided to move away from Los Angeles. Now he hopes Williston chooses him.

Klein, a television producer by trade, is vying for a two-year term on the Selectboard. His opponent is Christopher Roy, a lawyer and native Vermonter with a lengthy record of public service.

Though he has never before held elected office and only moved here about six months ago, Klein said his experience – most notably as executive producer of the hit television show "Fear Factor" – will serve him well on the Selectboard. And because he is a newcomer, Klein said voters need not worry he has an agenda beyond seeking a stronger connection to his new hometown.

"I look at it as a positive because I'm coming in with fresh eyes and open ears," he said. "I'm not bringing any baggage into the situation. I don't have a gripe. I'm not here because there's this one issue and I want to fix it."

Klein talked about his background and views during an interview Monday morning at Bagels Plus. He wore a dark sweater and a perpetually bemused expression, fitting for someone who has spent most of his adult life in the entertainment industry.

As a boy growing up in Jamestown, N.Y., Klein knew before he hit his teens that he wanted to work in television.

He attended community and state college in New York before earning a master's degree in television, radio and film from Syracuse University.

Klein moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and landed a job as a production assistant on "Hollywood Squares." The show had name recognition but the job was less than glamorous: tasks included fixing a toilet and fetching a dog's lunch.

He steadily moved up the ranks, working as a writer, segment producer and finally executive producer. Klein said he has worked on about 85 shows during more than two decades in television, including pilots that never aired.

His recent credits include "Fear Factor," which tested contestants' ability to complete seemingly dangerous or stomach-turning tasks; "Scream Play," where teams reenacted stunts based on scenes from famous movies; and "E! Hollywood Hold'em," which combined poker-playing celebrities with a talk show.

Klein said he recently concluded that he had accomplished his goals in television. And he said he and his wife, Abby, were tired of Los Angeles and wanted a better place to raise their 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.

During their research, Vermont kept appearing on best-places-to-live lists. The couple settled on Williston after looking at other towns in Chittenden County. They bought a home on Turtle Pond Road, in a small subdivision near the village's historic district.

Klein said he and his wife decided they would only move to a blue state. He is a self-described liberal who admires Vermont's civil union law and tradition of independence.

Klein said growth is the most important issue facing the town. He spoke of managing new development to maintain Williston's quality of life and said growth should remain concentrated around Taft Corners.

Those principles are already spelled out in the town's Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinance. But he does propose one change: offer incentives that will draw small businesses to Williston so the town does not become populated solely by big-box stores.

Asked if he would raise taxes or cut services should the board face a budget shortfall, he said the decision would depend on the circumstances. When pressed, he said the town should raise taxes if the alternative is cutting an essential or popular service.

"This is where we live," he said. "I don't think we want to sit there and start lowering our quality of life to save $50. I think ultimately you pay for what you get."

Klein is now teaching a film production class at Burlington College and continues to pitch ideas for television and film. But he pledged to pick only projects that will allow him to work from home and don't require long stays in Los Angeles.

He thinks his television experience, where he had to oversee wildly varying budgets and listen to widely divergent opinions, will help him sort out residents' needs and wants and make sound decisions.

"My job as executive producer was to steer the ship, run the ship, get us to our end goal," Klein said. "It's the same thing I'll bring to the Selectboard. There's a lot of different opinions, but we all want what is best for Williston."


Name: Joel Klein

Address: 194 Turtle Pond Road

Age: 44

Number of years living in Williston: Six months

Employer name and job description: Self-employed. I have worked in television for over 20 years, the last five or six years as an executive producer. I currently am consulting and writing for television and film. I am also teaching Film Production at Burlington College.

Previous experience in elected or appointed positions, or community service: In Los Angeles it was much more difficult to get involved in local politics. I was, however, actively involved with youth sports and was appointed to the boards of various sports organizations.

What is the most important issue facing the town of Williston?   How should the town address this issue?

The single most important issue facing the town of Williston is future growth. We need to encourage growth but also manage that growth so we can keep our small town charm while continuing to grow commercially and residentially. Every issue that arises ultimately relates to the big picture of managing our growth.

The town may face a financial squeeze over the next few years, with falling sales tax revenue and a potential recession reducing available funding for municipal services. If there is a budget crunch, would you cut services, raise property taxes, or do both?

Before I could make the decision to either cut services or raise property taxes I would have to look at the bigger picture of life in Williston. The citizens of Williston expect certain services: police protection, fire protection, road maintenance, parks, hiking trails etc. We rely on these services. We expect a certain quality of life. Raising property taxes would discourage new residents from moving into our town while a cut in services would have a similar effect. So as revenue decreases, we would look at each individual service and weigh the pros and cons of maintaining it. If it's something the citizens feel we can do without, we'll cut it. If it's something we want as residents then we might have to raise taxes to pay for it.

Some residents oppose a proposed landfill in Williston. The landfill would produce revenue for the town but those living nearby fear pollution and falling property values. Do you support or oppose constructing a landfill in Williston? Why?

The proposed landfill on Redmond Road is a very tricky situation. I wasn't a resident of Williston when the initial votes took place to make the agreement with the Solid Waste District, but if I had been, I would have voted against the landfill. The transfer station and proposed landfill would generate a substantial amount of revenue for the town, but at what cost?

I would like to think there are better ways for Williston to generate revenue. With that being said, we have an agreement in place with the Solid Waste District that was voted on by the residents of Williston. Therefore, we need to move forward with that agreement and at same time, work towards a solution that takes into consideration the concerns that have been expressed.

Williston has struggled over the past 20 years to balance commercial and residential growth with a desire to maintain the town's small-town character. Is Williston growing at the right pace? Should the town tighten or loosen existing controls on growth?

Managing Williston's growth is the number one issue we face as a community. The best way to do this is to focus our efforts on the existing growth center at Taft Corners. Traffic is becoming a mess and we have been inundated with big box stores. As a community, we need to start managing the growth and steering it in the direction we want. For example, we need the developers to start paving the grid streets to help reduce traffic congestion. With proper guidelines, we can set building standards that keep the architecture and the development in line with the history and charm of our town. We should also create some incentives to attract local, independent businesses to set up shop, so we're not just known as the "box store community."

Census figures show most people who work in Williston don't live here while most Willistonians commute to other towns. The situation is caused largely by a lack of jobs in town that pay people enough to afford Williston's relatively high cost of housing. How can the town address this disconnect between employment and housing, which leads to traffic congestion and pollution?

I don't see this as an issue we need to focus on if we develop Taft Corners properly. With the right plan and management, we can develop that area so it is inviting to local businesses. This, in turn, would create more jobs and employment opportunities for the residents of Williston.