WILMINGTON — On Tuesday night, Wilmington candidates for the School Committee and the Board of Selectmen participated in debates moderated by Robert Peterson starting at 6 p.m. in the School Committee room at WHS. Questions came from Tom Zappa of the Lowell Sun and Robert Hayes of the Wilmington Apple in addition to questions from this reporter and those submitted to the Town Moderator via email.
The first debate of the night was between the three candidates for the School Committee: Jesse Fennelly, Jay Samaha, and Jo Newhouse. All three are running unopposed for the three open seats. Robert Peterson started this debate stating the rules and instructions: each candidate would give a 1-minute opening statement; they’d each have 1 minute to respond to each question; and they’d finish with a 1-and-a-half-minute closer.
After opening statements, the candidates were asked about the initiative to have earlier start times for younger students and later start times for older students. Samaha and Newhouse were in agreement for the latter idea, but they couldn’t be sure about the former part of the proposal. Fennelly mentioned that he sees the benefits to students and is inclined to support the initiative as a whole.
The candidates went on to agree almost entirely about giving teachers more development time in the first week of school; taking a hard stance against vaping in schools; improving the Wildwood Street School and other elementary schools in town; and rating the work of Dr. Brand so far as great.
On the topic of keeping students in public school as opposed to the Tech, they also agreed upon valuing students’ right to choose to go directly into the workforce and that their real competitors are private schools. They only differed when Samaha suggested that Brand could engage more with the community and that students may be choosing private schools because of a lack of stability in the public school system leadership.
In their closing statements, Fennelly expressed his desire to keep schools growing, innovating, and improving; Samaha offered the strengths he’d be bringing of stability and open-mindedness; and Newhouse shared that she looks forward to continuing to advocate for Wilmington students.
The second debate of the night starred Kevin MacDonald, Daryn Marsh, and JoMarie O’Mahoney, who are all running for a single 1-year term on the Board of Selectmen. O’Mahoney said in her opening statement that she’s dedicated herself to the town in volunteering for 15 years; Marsh mentioned how he’s seen the town become divided; and MacDonald shared his intent to unify the town with honesty and fairness.
As they covered economic development, MacDonald rated the performance of the current Board of Selectmen as weak and focused mostly on the issues of taxes and multi-use development. A strong part for O’Mahoney was when she explained that there’s a delicate balance to be found between overdevelopment and open space and it’s not an either-or issue. Marsh focused on managing progress and working closely with property owners going forward. Marsh and O’Mahoney also expressed support for the North Wilmington substation while MacDonald did not.
A place of shared disagreement was at the suggestion that the first priority for revamping town facilities should be a new senior center, according to the Facilities Master Plan. Marsh wants to focus on new schools and O’Mahoney has ideas of creating a community center that would be useful for seniors and families. MacDonald sees the value of the senior center being a private enterprise.
The three next acknowledged that 362 Middlesex Ave. was not the right location for a detox facility and that a plan to change location could’ve been brought to developers sooner.
Their final question about civility in meetings brought up a tarry between MacDonald, who stands for sharing in public comments as long as necessary as per first amendment rights; and O’Mahoney, who would prefer that folks who want to present new ideas during the public comments section get on the meeting agenda instead.
In the last debate of the night, the six candidates for the two three-year seats open this year on the Board of Selectmen faced off. These were Suzanne Sullivan, Greg Bendel, Kevin Caira, Robert Fasulo, Mark Maselli, and Dan Murphy. Several candidates used their opening statements to reveal how they have seen the recent Board of Selectmen decisions not being for the good of the town, and the two incumbents stood by the work that they’ve done so far on the board.
While Caira and Bendel disagreed to claims from both Fasulo and Sullivan’s opening references to “conflicts of interest” and “back room deals,” Sullivan pointed out how their differing opinions speak volumes to the concern that the residents are not currently being heard. The pair went on to suggest that more committees in town should be voted in instead of receiving appointment from the selectmen. These were both places where the rest of the candidates either did not agree or did not comment.
Five out of the six candidates next agreed that the town does need a detox facility but not at 362 Middlesex Ave., where Maselli suggested giving the abutters something or working out a deal for a new substation in its place. Fasulo included a plan that he had earlier suggested to the board to avoid the lawsuit based on discriminatory comments which the board did not follow. Murphy passed this and almost every question.
On the topic of the economic development committee, Sullivan agreed with Bendel’s opinion that the board member on the committee can serve as their representative. Fasulo suggested that it should include more of the residents and Maselli insisted that no member of the board should serve on this committee. Maselli also stood out as he detailed his son’s struggle with leukemia caused by a chemical spreading on the Olin site and that there should not be any development there again. The rest of the candidates, except Murphy, agreed that the site should be completely cleaned up before a plan to development begins.
More debating occurred around the topic of the free cash account, which Caira explained is being built up in case of economic downturn and Bendel said is ready for being used on a number of proposed projects. Murphy would like to see some of it used on a Boys and Girls Club and Fasulo and Sullivan on capping resident taxes for a year.
The five candidates who answered the question about what new facilities are needed expressed support for the new substation and elementary schools, while some disagreed about a new town hall and senior center.
Towards the end of the debate, Fasulo and Sullivan warned residents that a 40B project is unavoidable while Caira and Bendel stated that in 2020 we’ll need 60 or 70 units to remain above the 10 percent necessary. Finally, Bendel stood out against his competitors in his consideration for changing rezoning votes to a majority instead of the current two-thirds vote while the rest disagreed or declined to comment. They each used their closing statements to ask the town for support in the election on April 27.
The full video of Candidates Night can be found on wctv.org or the WCTV app.