Selectboard race offers stark choice of candidates2/26/09

Two candidates seek two-year seat

Feb. 26, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

It’s hard to imagine two candidates more different than Ted Kenney and Shelley Palmer.


Ted Kenney


Shelley Palmer

Kenney is a defense attorney who speaks passionately about constitutional rights. He describes himself as a moderate Democrat.

Palmer is a heavy equipment operator and a former bail bondsman. He is an unapologetic conservative who has been active in the Republican Party.

The men face off for a two-year term on the Selectboard in Tuesday’s election. It is the only contested race on the ballot, which will include several other candidates running unopposed as well as votes on school and municipal budgets.

Kenney, 44, was born and grew up in Richmond. He graduated from St. Michael’s College and received his law degree from American University in Washington, D.C.

Kenney has been a Williston resident for a decade. He is married to Lucy Miller. The couple has two children and lives on Lawnwood Drive.

Kenney served for about two years on the Williston Planning Commission and was elected to a two-year term on the Williston School Board. He was first elected to the Selectboard in 2005 and re-elected in 2007.

He unsuccessfully ran for Chittenden County state’s attorney in 2006. Kenney was defeated in the Democratic primary by T.J. Donovan, who went on to win the general election.

Palmer, 52, was born in Rochester, N.Y. He attended college in Quebec.

Palmer has worked as a truck driver, a school bus driver and a law enforcement officer. He is currently on a seasonal layoff from Williston-based Engineers Construction Inc.

He and his wife, Dianna, have three children. Palmer has lived in Williston since 1995 and currently resides on North Williston Road.

Palmer served as high bailiff on the Board of Adjustment in Grand Isle County. He was elected to a one-year term as town grand juror in Williston in 2004. He ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the Vermont House of Representatives in 2004 and again last year.

Palmer has served as a county delegate to the state Republican party and was once a delegate at the party’s national convention.

Palmer got into legal trouble while working as a bail bondsman. In 1997, he was convicted of misdemeanor simple assault after he was accused of pointing a gun at a customer who showed up at his house at night, according to court records. He was given a four-to-12 month suspended sentence and was required to perform community service.

Palmer pleaded not guilty to the charge and has continued to maintain his innocence. He has said he had a gun in his hand but never pointed it at the man.

During a debate aired earlier this month on CCTV, cable access Channel 17, Palmer emphasized his differences with Kenney. But at one point, Palmer complained that Kenney was hard to criticize because he was a fiscal conservative. Kenney replied that he was not a conservative but did believe in prudently spending tax money.

In an interview at the Observer’s offices last week, Palmer emphasized his blue-collar credentials, saying it gave him a real-world perspective lacking in someone who makes as much money as a lawyer.

“I’m the new face, the guy who works for a living who can represent the average person,” he said.

Kenney bristled at Palmer’s suggestion that he is out of touch with residents of more modest means. He said he worked while attending college and that he mowed lawns to buy school clothes while growing up in a family of eight children. He worked at a restaurant, a lumber yard and a Mobil gas station.

“I remember sitting in high school with calluses on my hands and dirt from working at the gas station that I couldn’t scrape off,” he said.

The candidates’ political and occupational differences may have little impact on the nonpartisan Selectboard, which in recent years has dealt mainly with the minutiae of municipal government. But their views may shape spending, land-use policy and other issues that impact Williston residents.

Here are excerpts from their interviews:

What is the single most important problem facing the town, and how would you fix it?

Kenney: “The most important issue facing the town is the long-term sustainability of our town budget. The things the town spends money on are very hard to control and all of them seem to be increasing in cost at a rate that is faster than the rate of inflation.”

For example, Kenney cited rising gasoline costs that have driven up the cost of operating snowplows and fueling police cars. He said the town must hold down expenses until the economy improves.

“The Selectboard’s job is to say yes or no to issues, but mostly no. Which is sad. I would love to see a whole bunch of things happening in town if we could afford it.”

Palmer: “I think that facilitating growth is important and I think that keeping costs, i.e. taxes, low or lower is paramount.”

Palmer said with taxpayers’ wages decreasing, even a level-funded budget amounts to an increase in real terms.

“We all love services but I don’t think we can afford what we have.”

If the economy gets worse and the town faces a budget shortfall, what would you cut?

Kenney: “I don’t know. There’s no easy answer.”

He said one place he would reluctantly consider cutting was money in the capital budget set aside for long-term expenditures and replacement of aging equipment.

Palmer: “I’d start across the board.”

He added that “there’s no particular pet peeve” with a specific expenditure, but noted the town library is one of the nicest in Chittenden County and the spacious police station provides “a sunlight-drenched area” where officers can write reports.

Palmer said one way to keep spending in check would be to eliminate health care coverage for employees. He said the town should increase town workers’ pay by 12 percent and then make them buy their own insurance.

Is it a mistake for the town to rely so heavily on sales tax revenue, which has dropped considerably over the past two years? How can the town replace revenue it has lost?

Kenney: “I don’t think it’s a mistake to rely on the sales tax like we’ve been doing. We’ve done a pretty good job of scaling back spending when receipts went lower.”

When the economy improves, Kenney said he would like to see a portion of sales tax revenue put into a rainy day fund or set aside for long-term projects.

“When it starts going back up we should act like the family where one of the parents gets a raise but instead of increasing their standard of living they put the money away into a savings account.”

Palmer: “I think that taking money from people is inherently wrong. Taxes should be a necessity, not a perk, if you will. The implementation of the sales tax reduced Williston’s attractiveness to business.”

“Yes, it’s nice to make someone else pay. It may be popular, but it isn’t right.”

He compared the sales tax to an addictive drug — once the government gets used to having additional revenue, it finds it hard to quit spending. He said if sales tax proceeds continue to decrease, the town needs to learn to live with less and cut spending, not find a way to replace the revenue.

Williston enjoys substantial revenue from hosting the state’s largest commercial base. Yet the town offers no indoor recreational facilities or a community center like neighboring towns. Is it time for Williston to build one of these facilities?

Kenney: “I don’t think it’s time now for the town to increase the debt it services. I don’t think we should be looking for ways to spend additional money when we are not funding the necessary nuts and bolts stuff the town should be doing.”

He gave as examples a new public works facility, which had its funding deleted from this year’s capital budget. Kenney said he might support the idea of building a community center that would also include recreational space when the economy rebounds.

Palmer: “You can’t have a recreational facility without a tax base, so I think you are looking at this upside down. If we could attract more revenue, I think it would be more likely that we could keep up with the Joneses.”

He said Williston has a nicer police station than other communities, for example, but that doesn’t automatically mean other towns should build a new facility.

“When one town has more or less, then other ones think they are entitled. Having a fancier municipal recreational thing is nice, but a lot of this stuff is overkill.”